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Mudville: February 23, 2024 5:16 am PDT

Fielding Dreams

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Baseball scouts have finally made it to Cooperstown. They can thank filmmakers Jim Gilmore and Tracy Halcomb.

On Thursday, January 18th, a new documentary on the value of scouts in the game called “Fielding Dreams’’ will premiere at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

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The film, four years in the making, is a celebration of baseball scouts, the most underappreciated people in the game today. If you are in the area, get yourself to the Hall of Fame for this event that starts at 2 p.m. Anyone with a ticket to the Hall that day can attend, the best deal in town.

What a wonderful way to bring sunshine and warm baseball thoughts to a winter’s day. Both Gilmore and Halcomb are college professors so this film is a deep study on scouting with so many revealing interviews, culled from 60 hours of footage.

Having been around baseball scouts for decades and seeing the devotion to their work, their love for the game and their self-sacrifice, in a time when many scouts have been pushed aside in so many organizations or fired, I asked Gilmore what was the biggest thing he learned about scouts from this project.

Gilmore and Halcomb put in scouts-like attention to detail to the film, and Gilmore, who has directed 21 films, told BallNine: “First off, I was never that guy who was all into baseball statistics, that was my brother and other people in my family, so for me, it started out as much more of a culturally interesting thing, like how do these people do what they do and live? And I guess what amazes me now is how anybody can be a baseball scout and have anything like a normal life or a family life. Because following them around, and watching them, when I used to do broadcast TV work, I thought I was exhausted, and I had to stop doing that when I had kids; that’s when I started becoming a college professor. And I look at these people and I’m just like, ‘I can’t imagine.’

“So the No. 1 thing for me was just I had assumed there was a lot of travel, a lot of life on the road but the absolute degree of it, the amount of it, and the fact that a scout will go and spend one hour at one game just to get this one little thing they want and then travel 200 miles for 45 minutes at another game to see batting practice of this one person and then go another 100 miles to watch 55 minutes of this one thing, that just astounded me,’’. Gilmore said. “It always seemed to me that they got there, did a game a day maybe, and not four and five and sometimes six games a day.’’

He was enlightened too in another way by the life of scouts, traveling to Florida, Michigan, Texas, Indiana, Georgia and Puerto Rico to watch them work and to interview them.

“I guess I expected them to be cocky and arrogant, thinking football, baseball coach types, and they are nothing like that,’’ Gilmore said. “They are the nicest people I have ever met in my life, getting paid the least amount of anybody in baseball, with the least amount of job security and every single one of them adores this game, and you just sit there and go, being what you are being paid, it seems so unfair at times.’’

Baseball fans, baseball owners and baseball front offices need to see this film because the humanity of the scouts comes through in Gilmore and Halcomb’s intimate work and I believe that is partly because of the way this film was made in a small-market fashion.

“This was a two-person production team working on a shoe-string budget,’’ explained Gilmore, the executive producer of Acadia Pictures, Inc. “As college professors we funded it with Faculty Development Grants and our own out-of-pocket funds. Tracy served as producer, sound recordist and sound mixer, and I served as the director, editor and cinematographer.’’

They began filming in 2019 and then had to go through the shutdown of 2020 but still found a way to find scouts at games during the Covid stoppage.

One of the things that I like best in the film is that five of the scouts they extensively interviewed were from the Texas Rangers – and the Rangers under Chris Young and Bruce Bochy still believe in the value of scouts, and the value of human judgement that goes along with true scouting.

The film culminates with the Rangers winning the World Series.

So, while many words in the film are spoken from scouts, the ultimate end result is that a scout-based organization won the World Series in 2023.

Words became success. The baseball gods spoke through a World Series victory for the Rangers.

“We got lucky,’’ Gilmore said, sounding much like a humble scout. “The Rangers made it all the way to the World Series… and then won… giving us an especially nice ending to the film.’’

At that point in the film you could see the pride in the eyes of those scouts.

The film is narrated by ex-Met Jerry Blevins, a relief pitcher I covered and in my dealings with him through the years, I always thought Jerry had the best interests of The Team in mind in his daily approach to his job. Blevins lived the baseball life and his narration skills were terrific.

“If you love baseball, then you need to hear the story of the men and women who make it happen… It’s a lot more than Moneyball,’’ Blevins says in the film.

So much of what is said is quote-worthy about the game.

I love what Dayton Moore, former Royals GM and current senior advisor of baseball operations for the Rangers, says about the impact of scouts. “Every major league player, every minor league player’s career began because of the vision of a scout.’’

Just think about that for a second. It’s true. A scout had to believe in a player. He’s not looking at numbers from the past, he has to have the vision to see success in the future.

As a side note, I was fortunate to be interviewed for the film as and I point out, “scouts are the backbone of the game in every way.’’

One of the great historical baseball voices in the film is that of John Odell, who served as Curator of History and Research for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for 24 years. Sadly, he passed away in July but his impact on the film is substantial, including these words: “The scouts are unsung, they are under appreciated, they’re under recognized and they are absolutely essential.’’

Absolutely essential.

There are no scouts in the Hall of Fame, that is, just being recognized as scouts.

Executive Pat Gillick, who was a GM for 27 years, was inducted into the Hall in 2011 and I was there for his induction. He began his career as a scout. In the film, Gillick notes, “I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for the people in scouting and player development, those are the people that deserve all the credit.’’

This entire project was born out of a family conversation. Gilmore’s cousin Brian Williams is a scout with the Rangers, a northeast regional crosschecker. During family gatherings Williams would tell some “amazing stories of baseball,’’ Gilmore said. One day five years ago Gilmore joked that he would pick up his camera and start filming Williams.

And with that, Fielding Dreams was born.

HOF Retired GM Pat Gillick (now Special Assistant to the Philadelphia Phillies) scouts a winter workout at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. in January, 2020.

“Everybody that caught the baseball passion, the bug, at a young age and kind of pursued it,’’ Williams says of scouting, “and that’s what makes it easy to get up and get on an airplane at 4 in the morning and do it again the next day and do it again the next day sometimes.’’

There are plenty of scouting scenes in the film with radar guns at the ready, notes being taken. iPhones recording at-bats and laptops at the ready.

There is a feel to scouting and not everyone has it. Scouts need to use their head, their eyes and their heart. They look for how much fun a player has playing and how he handles himself, especially in times when things don’t go his way. Odell highlights the history of scouting through vintage pictures in a Ken Burns way and Blevins asks: “Who are these people who devote their lives almost entirely behind the scenes to the game of baseball and what led them here?’’

Great question. You have to watch the film to get the answers, but I can tell you this, the answer is not found in an algorithm.

One of the scouts interviewed, with her passion for the game bursting through in every sentence of her southern accent, is Christie Wood of the MLB Scouting Bureau. She found her way into the business by shooting video.

“I cover the East Coast for Major League Baseball,’’ Wood said, “and I refer to myself as a video scout. My reports are with video. When I first started it was VHS tapes, now there is an MLB site called Clips. I love that my work goes out to everybody. I feel I help the players get seen more. The first time I saw Justin Verlander he was like 93-94, but I knew Justin Verlander could do more. So I went and saw him again and he threw better. I was happy when that film went out to everybody.’’

The Padres refused to draft Justin Verlander in the 2004 draft though, ownership did not want to spend the money to sign him, and they paid a much different price in taking Matt Bush with the first pick while the Tigers were thrilled to land their ace at No.2.

The scouts deeply care about the players they scout.

Brian Bridges scouts from his golf cart at the 2023 World Wooden Bat Championship in Jupiter, Fla.

For area scouts and pro scouts, part of the education is keeping your ears open and learning as you go. Scout Ken Madeja said some of the best advice he ever got was when he broke into the business at the age of 25 and a legendary scout named Eddie Katalinas, who signed Al Kaline and helped build the World Champion 1968 Tigers, told him this great advice, “Hey Ken, you are not going to know s— for the first five years.’’

Much different times now.

Former Yankees, Expos and Reds GM Murray Cook says he used to get an amazing amount of letters from “doctors, lawyers, people making a lot of money, asking ‘How do I get into baseball?’’’

Dennis Gilbert, former agent and currently an advisor with the White Sox, put it best, “Baseball isn’t just a business, it is not a sport only, it’s a way of life.’’

Rangers senior director of amateur scouting Kip Fagg points out that to succeed in scouting, whether it’s pro or area scout, “You have to be a self-starter in this business.’’

Brian Bridges was a national cross-checker with the San Francisco Giants when he was interviewed for the film and since that interview has been named Royals director of amateur scouting. I love what he said about the job: “I always considered myself a gunslinger,’’ Bridges says as he sits in a dugout. “There’s a feeling that you get when you see a player that you really like… Makeup is who this player is and his overall love for the game, almost to the point to a fault, that he can’t live without the game.’’

Hooked on a feeling, you could say. Bridges was scouting director for the Braves from 2015-18, leading the drafts that produced such talent as Austin Riley.

Texas Rangers scouts celebrate the ALDS game in 2023.

The film digs into the archives too as historian John Odell relates the story of “the edge’’ that Kirk Gibson had when he homered off Dennis Eckersley to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. I was at that game in the Dodger Stadium press box and Gibson, essentially swinging on one leg, was sitting on a breaking ball because Dodgers scout Mel Didier stressed in his advance report that Eck would throw the slider on 3-2 and that’s exactly what happened.

“If you know what the pattern is you can pick the lock,’’ is how Odell put it.

Didier also was known for looking in a positive light at players, saying, “You look for what a young man can do. Anybody can find things he can’t do.’’

I’ve been told that the Rangers benefitted in this World Series because their scouts picked a lock on Diamondbacks closer Paul Sewald, he was tipping his pitches. Advance scouting can make a huge difference for teams but many teams do not do advance scouting the way they once did because of cutbacks and the over-reliance on analytics.

Pat Gillick said he has always been a “tool guy’’ when evaluating position players. When it comes to pitchers, though, he said, “I’ve been a delivery guy as long as you can go back. I don’t think you can be successful as a pitcher if you can’t repeat your delivery. I’m more on delivery than on arm strength. If you have a good delivery you can learn how to pitch, you can learn how to move the ball around, if you don’t have a good delivery, then you can’t get in sync.’’

Wise words. Here is hoping scouts remain forever in the game in a big way and here is something that baseball and fans really need to understand about scouts.

“Moving forward, the game is only going to survive by the players and the guys out watching the game,’’ says Brian Bridges, the Royals scouting director. “A scout’s job is not just to watch the players that fit into the profile of being professional baseball players, but we also play a big role in giving back to the game, calling college buddies and telling them about this guy we had seen, really trying to grow the game.’’

That is so true. And every day the scouts survive, one way or another, they continue Fielding Dreams.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

Comments
  • Lee Geanuleas

    An excellent article that shines a light on one of the game’s unlit corners. Thank you!

    January 14, 2024
  • Bruce Markusen

    A good article. Just wanted to point out that the Thursday (January 18th) screening of the film at the Hall of Fame will start at 1 pm Eastern Time.

    January 16, 2024
    • Shawn Pender

      Thank you so much for this piece and your work to identify Fielding Dreams. I so look forward to seeing it. As a baseball lifer myself, now 40 years as a player, coach, scout and front office person, there really is nothing more valuable than the ability to scout. So much of what I have learned about the game is from these amazing men. You are correct in my opinion saying that nobody in the game loves baseball more than scouts. I would also add minor league staff as well.

      My late father always said I was the luckiest man in the world because I never worked a day in my life. The reason was simple, I never felt like anything I have done in the game is a job. It’s a blessing to be a part of professional baseball. Scouts and player development folks do it because they love the game, they love the kids and the joy it brings them to be a small part of it all. So glad that others will hear some of these great tales. Best of luck and thank you so much again.

      January 18, 2024
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