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Nightengale: Can Baseball Keep ‘Can’t-Miss’ Kids in the Game?

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January 14, 2017; Tempe, AZ, USA; High school pitcher Hunter Greene during the USA Baseball sponsored Dream Series at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

They are traveling in from everywhere, Brooklyn to Jackson Miss., to Lake Oswego, Ore., to Chicago.

There will be 60 kids as young as 15 years old showing up in Arizona, and about a thousand adults as old as 90 arriving in Los Angeles.

It’s the most beautiful couple of days in baseball’s off-season calendar: Martin Luther King weekend.

This is when the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation will be hosting its 15th annual banquet in Beverly Hills, Calif., to benefit the beleaguered scouting community, and Major League Baseball and USA Baseball stage the second “Dream Series’’ in Tempe where young minority pitchers and catchers will be trained by major-league stars, and showcased in roles that they’ve typically been ignored in baseball.

It’s symbolic these two events are on the same weekend.

There were 51 professional and amateur scouts fired in the last four months, with most still unemployed, and applying for financial assistance to pay medical bills and mortgages.

The Dream Series was created to help reverse the scarcity of African-Americans in the game, comprising just 7.1% of last year’s opening-day rosters. It was the lowest percentage since 1958, with only 13 pitchers on rosters and not a single African-American catcher.

“It’s absolutely mind-boggling,’’ said Boston Red Sox special assistant Gary Hughes, who scouted and signed the game’s last everyday African-American catcher, Charles Johnson, who retired in 2005. “It makes no sense at all.’’

Said De Jon Watson, Washington Nationals special assistant: “You barely see a black pitcher in the minors, and if you see a catcher, it’s like a pink elephant on the field. Like, “Where did he come from?’

“We’re missing out on these kids, and losing these kids once they leave Little League and travel ball.

“And with the fewer scouts around, we’re getting guys who have never played an adult game of catch doing evaluations.’’

Scouts are being replaced by analysts and algorithms, which have their limitations. What computer would have recommended Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers to be converted from a catcher to perhaps the greatest closer in the game? Or for Dave Stewart to be moved from catcher to the pitcher’s mound where he became a four-time 20-game winner? Or Trevor Hoffman to switch from shortstop to the brink of the Hall of Fame as a closer.

“You can have all of the analytics and sabermetrics, and all you want,’’ said Stewart, former GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks, “but scouting in my opinion is the backbone of all organizations. What’s impressive about scouts is they visualize, see in their eyes the intangibles that you cannot just get through numbers on a piece of paper.’’

Yet, scouts are being laid off at an alarming rate, with the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation assisting more scouts than ever, recently coming to the aid of 64-year-old Marty Scott, who was fired by the Miami Marlins recovering from cancer surgery.

The Houston Astros, who just won the World Series, terminated nine scouts since the end of September. Veteran scouts, like former Cubs GM Ed Lynch and former Cincinnati Reds GM Wayne Krivsky, remain unemployed.

“I remember back in the day when I played, you saw scouts all of the time coming to your high school and college games,’’ says Lenny Webster, one of the last African-American catchers, who retired in 2000. “These days, you hard ever see the scouts come to high school games. They’re just not around. And a lot of our kids are being missed.

“I always preach that the best way to the big leagues is to be a pitcher or catcher, but you don’t see any black kids in those positions. It’s sad to see what’s going on.’’

Derrick Mitchell, the youngest member of the Dream Series whose high-school class doesn’t graduate until 2022, had a grandfather, Leon Brown, who played for the New York Mets in 1976. Yet, Mitchell, who attends Chandler Preparatory Academy in Tempe, says he has never had an African-American teammate in his life.

“These kids come here and they get their drive and determination,’’ Webster said, “because they’re seeing kids and coaches that look just like them. They see a LaTroy Hawkins or a Dave Stewart. They see a Charles Johnson. It makes them believe they have a chance.

“I’ve got a kid I’ve been training since he was 7, Andreus Lewis, and when he sees that there are other black catchers, it gives him hope and inspiration that he can make it one day, too.’’

Still, to actually make it, they need to be seen.

“What’s so troubling is that there are so many scouts being let go,’’ said Chicago White Sox special assistant Dave Yoakum, who’ll receive the George Genovese Lifetime Achievement award this weekend, “we are missing kids. There were a lot of area scouts that would get to know these guys when they’re young, and know their families. That makeup and familiarity would give you a lot of information to tell you how the guy will turn out. I don’t see how analytics can cover that loss of information.’’

This is why the “Dream Series’’ has become so vital, opening the doors for those who may never otherwise be seen, with scouts invited to watch the 60 kids who have the potential to be professional ballplayers, with 32 already committing to colleges.

“It’s a true celebration of MLK weekend,’’ says Del Matthews, MLB’s senior director of baseball. “We had one kid last year, Aaron Eden, who thought he was just coming to a showcase camp last year. He showed up, saw all of the players and coaches, and thought, “Wow, they look just like me.’

“Some of these players will never play pro ball, some will stop playing after college, but our goal is to just help get them that opportunity to play pro ball in positions that are so vital to the game.

“When you look back, two of the greatest Negro League players were (catcher) Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. Now, you just don’t see those (African-American) kids playing those positions.’’

Hopefully, this weekend can make a difference.

“We need to make sure these kids aren’t forgotten,’’ Stewart said. “Really, more than ever.’’

By Bob Nightengale

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook

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