Wherever the road takes him: The life of a major league area scout

From the July 5 issue of the Charlotte Sun

You can view PDFs of the following story here:

Front: 2013-07-05 ENC SP 01  After the jump: 2013-07-05 ENC SP 06

By GREG ZECK
Sports Writer

About once every minute, baseball scout Thomas Peters can see the odometer on his 2013 Honda go up by one. In an almost maniacal way, the steady ascension is less of a way to measure distance and more of a way to track time.

In a given 12-month span, Peters estimates that car will put on about 30,000 miles as he travels across Florida.

Peters is all alone in the cabin of the mid-sized sedan he uses for work. Because he’s on the road so much, he’s often relegated to visiting the fast-food restaurants, of which he’s becoming a connoisseur.

“Those new flatbread chicken things, those are really good,” he said. “Thank goodness for those.”

He often thinks about his family, but the mind can’t help but wander at times. Peters has seen probably enough treads that would fill a tire store many times over and too many disabled cars to count.

But Peters can’t afford to be one of those cars because it’s his job to scour the state in search of the next major league baseball players.

“Hopefully the thing runs for 200,000 miles like they say it does,” he said with a cautious laugh.

“It’s something you definitely think about.”

* * *

Thomas Peters is a psuedonym, not the scout’s real name. He requested anonymity and he prefers not to reveal what team he works for because tipping your hand in any aspect of baseball can put the rest of the field at an advantage.

He does say he was once a minor league player, like many of his contemporaries, and that he averages about three drafted players from his area each year. When his path to the majors was out of reach he was offered a job in professional baseball as a scout.

“I was lucky enough to get a job when I was still playing,” he said. “I wanted to stay in the game. I wasn’t crazy about the player development side, coaching — with long bus rides and getting into cities at three in the morning staying at bad hotels — I wasn’t interested in that anymore.”

He’s willing to make long drives now because of his love for baseball. Becoming a scout allowed him to remain close to the game. For the most part, Peters is rather easygoing; he tries not to stress about what is not under his control but makes sure his opinion is heard by his superiors. As long as he turns in an accurate report, he’s happy.

The job of finding future major-leaguers, the biggest appeal of the position, is still plenty demanding. He estimates that for about 80-90 days — or roughly one quarter of the year — he’s staying the night in a hotel. Based out of the Tampa Bay area because of its centrality to the rest of the state, Peters is an area scout for Florida, one of the hotbeds of talent for the sport. In last month’s MLB draft, 143 players from Florida were selected. While other area scouts might have multiple states — Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, for instance — the talent is so concentrated in this region, with the opportunity to play year round, that every day is important.

So he’ll get in that Honda after working out or spending time on the computer and head down to Fort Myers or Naples or Orlando — wherever the road takes him — and watch the players, see how they progress, see if they have any chance at playing in front of many more thousands of people critiquing them.

There he’ll fill out more reports to send back, detailing the “tools” of the players he sees with a summation of what the player is now and how he projects.

Any video he takes may be uploaded online, and he may meet with a player’s family to get a better feel for his off-field personality and figure out his signability. Many high school players, if not drafted high enough, elect to go to college in an effort to boost their draft stock.

Those reports and data are as much a reflection of him as they are the players they’re about. The details included in them and how accurate they are judge Peters’ worth; a correct report may not only ensure the team drafts the right payer but that it avoids drafting the wrong one.

“It’s just the luck of the draw,” he said, adding that it’s impossible to tell where top talent comes from.

* * *

This year’s crop of Floridians, like the rest of the class from across the country, could be summed up in one word.

“Frustrating,” he said. “The whole state was frustrating this year for a lot of people. There was a lot of players I really wanted to like, but they made it hard to like them throughout the year because the performance level was down just as a whole.”

The routine, day in and out, makes it hard for Peters to cook for himself. It’s one of the hardest parts of his job.

“When you’re home is when you really have got to eat healthy,” he said. “Ballpark food can be the demise of you, and on the road, there’s not many healthy options out there. I told myself when I got into scouting I wasn’t going to get a typical scout body, and it’s definitely something you have to work on to maintain.”

As the approach of constructing a major league team has evolved into a more analytic and information-filled sport, scouting for it has evolved as well. Some parts of it are easier, others much more difficult.

Baseball showcases often bring all the best players to one central location for scouts, also allowing for players to compare themselves against each other.

“All of these kids are at these things,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you still have to evaluate them correctly. There could be 15 teams that watch a kid and 15 might like him, and 15 might not.”

Going along with that, though, the opportunities to find a diamond in the rough are fewer and far between. Most of the players serious about playing professional ball will compete in the showcases, and unless there is another player worth watching, it may be considered a waste to even see the hidden talent play.

Arguably the game’s best player since he entered the league in 2001, Albert Pujols fell into that category. Growing up in suburban Kansas City after moving from the Dominican Republic, Pujols was considered by scouts a pudgy shortstop who didn’t have significant power to be converted into a corner infielder.

Only a handful of teams looked at Pujols, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 13th round of the 1999 first-year player draft. After just one year in the minors, Pujols made the big league club at 21 and has more than 2,300 hits, including 484 homers. He also won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011.

But that challenge of finding the next Pujols, Ryne Sandberg (20th round), Mike Piazza (62nd round) or Mark Buehrle (38th round) is what excites and drives Peters, like Captain Ahab and his great white whale.

“How you find those guys is work, and having good contacts helps,” he said. “People tell me, ‘Hey, I think I’ve got a guy here no one knows about,’ and that’s the fun part — trying to find that diamond in the rough.”

Peters also admits that each year he falls in love with certain players — all scouts do. But that doesn’t mean the regional and national cross-checkers do as well.

Essentially, Peters is a salesman for his higher ups. He’ll write about players who have good “wheels” (speed) or “plus” pitches, and then it’s up to a regional cross-checker, who in this case works across the Southeast, to confirm or deny Peters’ report.

If the player performs well under the new set of eyes, the report likely would go to the national cross-checker who does the same. But mostly he only sees the cream of the crop-type players. If the player doesn’t show the same swing or delivery that impressed the area scout to the cross checker, his draft prospects look grim.

“They get a better feel for where the player fits in the draft because they’ve scout from across the country,” he said.

* * *

Whether it’s a down year for draft talent or the field is loaded, the role of the area scout in the three-day period — more so the later two days — remains the same: send text after text and push for the higher ups to select the players you like, that you scouted.

Especially the later rounds of the draft, the regional cross-checkers, who in turn rely on area scouts, are at their most important, but the pleads of the scouts they oversee all too often go unheard.

“Every year it happens,” he said. “It’s one of the frustrating parts … But there’s 30 teams, so your chance of getting a guy are not good. It happens every year to area scouts — guys you fall in love with that someone else takes.”

Maybe, just maybe, if the team had listened, this player would have shown them what they can do, and scouts like Peters could take the credit and add to their resume of players they signed, but he understands when it doesn’t pan out.

“All area scouts work hard, and we all want players that we like,” he said. “They guys in the draft room take the best players, so it’s not necessarily the value or worth of an area scout.

When a player is not only selected but turns out to be a great player, the stresses of the job are all worthwhile.

“When you scout these guys, you follow them like it’s your own kid,” he said. “Your name is attached to them, and you want these guys to do good. That’s how you make a name for yourself in this profession.”

And when the draft is over, though there’s not much time, Peters gets to take a breath.

But like man to the sea, Peters is drawn back to the game for more scouting. The crack of the bat holds a calming charm to it much like the water rushing to the sand while the green fields seems as endless as the ocean. Peters comes back to the game because it’s natural to him, and its difficulties are a test of love.

“I enjoy the challenge of it, and it’s not easy,” he said, repeating he’s incredibly blessed to have a job in baseball.
The stress of the long days, he said, are still well worth it. Peters gets to still be involved in the game he loves and to more importantly, be with his family.

“You want to see your kids grow up as much as you can,” he said. “In this industry, you understand you’re going to be away from home no matter what side of the game you’re on. If you have a wife that understands that, it’s a million times better.”

Maybe one day, there could be another Peters close to home worth scouting.

Email: gzeck@sun-herald.com

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