You’ll often hear the Major League Baseball season referred to as a marathon; it’s a drama that begins in February with the first long tosses of Spring Training and draws to a close amid confetti and hysteria when one team is left standing as World Series Champions. For this author, we’ve reached a checkpoint along my own marathon route: Big League Life, my third book, is available today wherever books are sold.
Big League Life is the story of the men and women at work and play inside pro ball. While a work of fiction, it is the manifestation of years of exhaustive research, in-depth interviews, and conversations with dozens of people who call the “big league life” their life. My aim? Present a fictional world with characters so authentic, so believable, that the reader comes away from the experience learning about the real thing. The manuscript for Big League Life emerged from the Story Development Factory in my brain, but my hope is that the journey through a professional baseball season, told through the stories of the people living it everyday, rings true. These are not the Bryce Harper and Aaron Nola-led Philadelphia Phillies, but in many ways, the people associated with this fictional version of the Phillies should feel quite familiar to anyone who has spent time in the game.
I’m pleased to share with you, here on launch day, a brief excerpt pulled from the pages of Big League Life. In this chapter, readers join scouting director Marcus Cooper on assignment somewhere along the edges of amateur baseball. I spent quite a bit of time with scouts while researching characters for this book; for more insight into the experience of the pro baseball scout, be sure to check out my earlier post, a Q&A with longtime Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds scout Jim Thrift.
Excerpt taken from Chapter Six: Life on the Road
Marcus Cooper was a long way from home.
Somewhere along the dusty border of the continental U.S. and Mexico, somewhere between the tumbleweeds of South Texas and the middle of nowhere, Cooper sat in the sun behind a rusted backstop and watched a couple dozen kids play baseball.
It was more complex than that, of course. As he settled into the veritable broiler where he would bake for the next two to three hours, Cooper kept his eyes trained on one or two of those Texas boys playing catch and running drills. Sammy Pinto, a 17-year-old first baseman and a recommendation from one of his trusted area scouts, took a few tosses from his third baseman and rifled the ball around the infield during warm-ups. Built like a fire hydrant, the senior was destined for… something. At this stage, in this place, it was hard to say for sure where his path would lead. But that was the challenge for guys like Cooper: find a guy with ability and project his development as best you can. After watching the young man play in this sleepy town for the past few days, Cooper had seen enough in Pinto to keep him on the board: maybe a late pick, maybe somewhere after the twentieth round. If he was still available after twenty rounds, Cooper imagined it might be worth sticking a guy like Pinto in rookie ball to see if he had what it takes.
A few feet away from Pinto stood Ronald Jasper, a lanky left-handed pitcher still growing into his body. He stood well over six feet, maybe closer to six-and-a-half feet tall. Jasper would be celebrating his eighteenth birthday in a few days, but aside from his height, you wouldn’t have known it by looking at him. Clean-shaven with big brown eyes, he had an aloof, childlike demeanor that made him appear more than a couple years younger. That youthful disposition distracted from the anxiety Jasper kept just below the surface; the inner critic who was sometimes his own worst enemy. Pinto was a good old boy who forgot his at-bats the moment he left the batter’s box, and seldom dwelled on what the future might hold. Jasper, on the other hand, was quite the opposite.
Growing up just outside of El Paso, Texas, Jasper had moved with his family to this one-horse town in Jeff Davis County a few years back and watched his big league dream die along with the move. For as long as he could remember, he wanted to play baseball. In El Paso, playing in one of the state’s premier baseball programs, someone might take notice of the towering left-hander lighting up the radar gun and whirling around the mound with a wiry, deceptive delivery. He was all arms and legs and it worked. No one would find him here, he feared. And for the most part, he was right.
Cooper had heard about Jasper’s exploits the way many scouts find out about small town stars who might project as raw, but moldable — and draft-able — talent: He watched a lot of baseball games. This visit, coming at the tail end of his latest tour through West and South Texas, was his first opportunity to see Jasper take the mound in a full year. Of course, even this encounter hadn’t been a certainty. With so many ball games on his schedule — so many towns to visit, so many players to analyze — lining up his visit with starts by the pitchers he intended to study came with a higher degree of difficulty. When he knew the coaches well, and through the years he had gotten to know his fair share, sometimes he’d place a few calls to announce his arrival quietly to those he trusted. He never wanted the young athletes to know ahead of time that their next games might be played under the watchful eye of a Major League scout. After all, if he wanted an honest performance out of his targets, it was best to let the kids play ball rather than try to put on a show. On game day, it wouldn’t take long for most of the boys to figure out that the old man with a notepad and radar gun might be a scout. If he had his druthers, however, he preferred to keep his presence discreet. That was especially true of Jasper, a young man who spun himself up to such a degree each time he pitched that knowledge of Cooper’s presence might have been his undoing.
On this day in April, the stars aligned. Cooper, whose presence remained unannounced, would have a bird’s eye view of the young man who was the talk of a town that nobody talked about. And, as it would turn out, his impressions of the stocky first baseman would improve, too.
“Hey, Coop. Whaddya say?” Cooper looked up to find Finn Breslin, an area supervisor for the Minnesota Twins, shuffling toward him along the bleacher bench one step up from where he sat. “Phillies bringing out the big guns for these boys, eh?”
“I try to make the rounds, Finn. How else am I going to run into you these days?” Cooper reached for a handshake and smiled. “It’s good to see you — you coming or going?”
“It’s a new day and a new trip.” Breslin took a seat just behind Cooper’s shoulder and applied a healthy amount of sunscreen beneath the bill of his hat and on his exposed neck. In these parts, even in April, there was no such thing as too much sunscreen. “I’ll be on the road for the next three weeks.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way, Finn. I don’t know what to do with myself in the office,” Cooper replied. As the Phillies scouting director, he could pick and choose his trips. Forty years in the game provided slightly more schedule flexibility than he had enjoyed as a pup just starting out. Still, he preferred baking in the sun while watching a few long shots play ball over sitting in the office any day of the week.
Cooper and Breslin stood out among the fans that made up the small South Texas crowd. Amid cheers and chants from the family and friends that joined the two old scouts on the creaky bleacher bench, murmurs bubbled up from time to time as fans guessed who they might represent and more importantly, who they were watching. In this small town, on this rutted baseball diamond, it wasn’t hard to figure out the second part based on performance alone. Pinto hit a couple of Little League home runs — that is, the inside-the-park variety where the ball rolls into the distance forever, unobstructed because of the field’s lack of an outfield fence. He also showed surprising efficiency at first base, moving from side to side with the kind of grace one can only discover on trips such as this. While Cooper jotted down a few notes about Pinto’s movement to the ball and above-average instincts, a wry smile creased his lips. In an era of scouting that involved more data scientists and statistical analysis than ever before, this game showed the value of having scouts deployed in the field. Baseball analytics hadn’t quite figured out the perfect formula to quantify instincts yet.
“That boy right there’s got some ability,” Breslin had commented after one of Pinto’s big flies. “I don’t see a big leaguer, but he can swing the stick.”
The star of the show, of course, was Jasper. A bundle of nerves since tipping 90 miles per hour with his first pitch, his constant movement and chaotic delivery couldn’t distract from the fact that somewhere beneath the mayhem, somewhere beneath the tangle of arms and legs, was a damn fine pitcher. Even when he realized that he was pitching for an audience of scouts, it didn’t detract from his performance. After a six-inning outing of shutout ball and a pile of strikeouts, Jasper exited the game in line for a win and visited quietly with his parents along the first base line. Cooper imagined that with proper coaching, maybe the young man could keep his mechanics in check. And if he did that, who knows how far he could go with that electric left arm? That’s the big question every scout faces, however. Who knows? In baseball, there are few sure things and for as good as Jasper appeared to be, he was the furthest thing from it. Even with two scouts in attendance, even with Cooper and Breslin both watching the same talent, there were no guarantees either would wind up recommending the tall lefty to their respective organizations. Both scouts saw talent, but there was talent on the diamond in every high school game. During the season, even with his reduced schedule, Cooper would watch thousands of high schoolers play baseball across the U.S. Jasper was far from a finished product and far from the top of the list. What Jasper didn’t know was that if he wasn’t at the top, he was also nowhere near the bottom.
After the game, Cooper and Breslin shook hands and headed toward the parking lot. Cooper would head to the airport and back to Philadelphia while Breslin continued his journey of small-town baseball fields across Texas and into Oklahoma. Both men left with strong impressions of Ronald Jasper. As a bonus for Cooper, Sammy Pinto had opened his eyes as well. Neither scout compared notes, though it was safe to assume that Jasper’s name would be on both of their lists during the upcoming draft after the more celebrated amateur standouts fell off the board. No one would mistake Jasper for an early pick — too raw, too much uncontrolled body movement. Even after just a couple encounters, Cooper recognized that the kid might also be too much of an over-thinker to make it in pro ball. But in the twelfth round? Thirteenth? Why not take a flier on a talent with a few flaws? Some flaws can be corrected. Others may not matter at all. Cooper figured that while no one would say two words about the kid on draft day, he might be the kind of player everyone in Philadelphia would be talking about six years down the road. All part of a day’s work for Marcus Cooper and his scouts. Wherever Jasper ended up, selected by Philadelphia or another team, Cooper would make a note to check back a few years down the road to see if his hunch proved correct.