Kansas City Royals’ legendary scout Art Stewart tells all
07/11/2014 11:06 AM
07/12/2014 7:04 PM
I don’t remember the first time I met Art Stewart, but I can say with complete certainty that he made me smile.
Art has that effect on people. Always has. That’s a small part of why Hall of Famer George Sisler tried to sign him to the Dodgers out of high school, why the Yankees hired him as a scout more than 60 years ago, and why the Royals made him the first scout to be inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2008.
The first time I wrote about Art was around that induction. That was an emotional time for Art. Donna, his wife and road companion of 47 years, knew he had been selected, but cancer took her before the ceremony. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone talk about a spouse the way Art talked about Donna. The sincerity, the depth. The comfort, the respect.
One other thing that struck me from writing that first story about Art. He told me about his first big league game, at Chicago’s old Comiskey Park in 1939. He told me about Bob Feller throwing fastballs “so hard they looked like aspirin tablets” and about the lineups for both teams and all the straw hats that came flying out of the grandstands when the White Sox won in the 11th.
I remember listening to the tape of that conversation, double-checking his memory of the players and what happened against the official record. He remembered every detail, nearly 70 years later.
Stewart is now 87 and lives in Lee’s Summit. When he asked me to help him with “The Art of Scouting,” about his 70 years in Major League Baseball, I didn’t look at it as a project as much as an opportunity. I knew there would be more stories, more jokes, more tears and more smiles. I wasn’t disappointed.
As excerpted from “The Art of Scouting” by Art Stewart with Sam Mellinger (Ascend Books, $24.95)
You’re on the road constantly, and especially when you’re looking at the amateur players it’s a lot of small towns and long drives on the highway. You get to know where the rest stops are between Eau Claire, Wisc., and Rockford, Ill. You start to feel like a truck driver at times, knowing exactly when the signal from the rock station in Carbondale fades into the country station in Peoria.
It’s a hamburger and hot dog menu most of the time. You spend as much time in your car as you do watching players, and even when you get to the game the chances of you actually signing the player you went to see are small — and the chances of that player making an impact in the big leagues is even smaller.
You’ll have your heart broken by a player far more often than you’ll be proven right. How many other jobs can you fail around 90 percent of the time and have it considered a success?
This whole thing is so unpredictable, and your job is to predict it. You have to look at a boy who’s 17 years old and bet a lot of your owner’s money on what he will look like at 22 and 25 and 30.
You have to decide whether he’ll learn to hit the kinds of exploding fastballs he’s only seen on TV, and then whether he can adjust off that fastball to hit a good slider. You have to decide whether he has it in his gut to work, to believe through the failure, and to stay strong when he’s away from home and his girlfriend and he’s making peanuts on the buses in the minor leagues.
You have to decide how this young man will adjust from sleepy crowds in small towns in the Carolina League to sellout crowds at Tiger Stadium when Justin Verlander is throwing 99 mph in the ninth inning. You have to decide whether he can handle the attention of professional baseball, and not just the media, but the way friends and family might ask for favors and all the temptations of being a ballplayer on the road. The next talented player to be sidetracked by too many women on the road won’t be the first, and he won’t be the last.
Nobody can know any of these things for sure, of course. That’s why the failure rate is so high.
All you can do is gather your information, see the player as often as possible, and believe what you see, trust what your brain tells you and listen to what your heart says.
And when you see a boy you really like, and you’re able to convince your bosses to sign or draft him, and then you get the chance to get to know him better and watch him develop through the minor leagues and all the way to the big leagues … when it happens like that, it makes every miss on every player worth it.
Really, in baseball, there is just no feeling like that for a scout. Signing an overlooked player and watching him turn into a big league star — like Bret Saberhagen in the 19th round out of Reseda, Calif., or Salvador Perez for $50,000 out of Venezuela — it’s the same feeling a player has hitting the game-winning home run or striking out the last batter with the bases loaded in a one-run game.
That’s why we do this. That’s why we put so much into this.
And if you can understand that feeling, and value it, then this scouting life is for you.
This is back when the Royals were still training in Baseball City. I’m the scouting director then, and Allard Baird, who later became our general manager, wants to go see a young high school phenom named Alex Rodriguez in Miami. Rodriguez was playing a night game, and it’s quite a drive from Baseball City to Miami, so we’re trying to make up some time.
Now, if you’ve ever driven through Florida you know about the section of I-75 they call Alligator Alley. If you don’t, well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. There are gators all over that part of the state, in the waterways by the road. Sometimes, you have to slow down and stop right there on the highway because there’s a gator going across.
The other thing about Alligator Alley is there’s no gas stations for about an 80, 90 mile stretch there across the state. Or at least there weren’t at the time. So the last stop before we hit that stretch, there’s this Cuban place that Allard always liked to stop at for coffee. We grab some coffee and we’re on the road, about halfway across the state, and a light comes on.
“Oh my gosh, Art,” he says. “I forgot to fill the tank up. We’re on empty.”
Of all the places to run out of gas, Alligator Alley would not be your first choice. So now we’re starting to get panicked, because there’s no way we have enough gas to make it the rest of the way across. A mile goes by, two miles, five miles, and there’s just nothing. The gauge is below empty now, we don’t know how much further we can go, and we see a little driveway off the road.
We pull in, because this is our only hope. It’s a sugar cane farm. Surely this man has some gas cans for his tractor and things. We pull up in front of the house and knock on the door. An older gentleman answers, and he apologizes, but he doesn’t have any gas in the barn.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Allard tells me.
Then the farmer speaks up.
“Hold right here,” he says. “I might be able to do something.”
I’ll never forget what happened next the rest of my days. He pulls his tractor up next to our car, puts one end of the hose into the gas tank on the tractor — and the other end in his mouth. He’s going to siphon gas from his tractor to our car.
I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. This man is sucking gasoline out of one tank, and putting it in another tank — and doing it for strangers.
It looked like he’d done it before, because after a minute or two he’s finished. He takes the hose out of his mouth and smiles at us.
“I think you have enough gas to get to the next stop,” he says.
And we made it to Miami in time to see the game.
Muzzy Jackson had just joined the Royals as an assistant in player development. He’s a great guy, and would later become Allard’s top assistant. But at the time, he was trying as many different spots of baseball operations as he could, trying to find what suited him best.
He knew that Brian Murphy and I always left the spring training complex after workouts to see amateur talent in the area, had heard some of the hype around Alex Rodriguez and found out Rodriguez’s team was playing in Hernando that night. That’s maybe a 60 or 70 mile drive from our complex, so Muzzy asks if he can tag along.
“I want to get some knowledge on scouting,” he says.
Sure, let’s do it. It’s me, Muzzy and Murphy, another longtime scout who has been so productive for us. Murph is driving, and he’s really blazing down Interstate 4 and soon enough we see the red lights flashing behind us.
He pulls over to the side of the road. It’s the same conversation you probably have with the cop whenever you get pulled over, and it feels like Murph is about to get a ticket. The cop is a younger guy, probably in his 30s, so I try to talk a little bit.
“We’re baseball scouts for the Royals,” I say. “Just headed to Hernando to see one of the best high school players in the state.”
I can tell that got the guy’s interest.
We start talking about the Royals, and Bo Jackson, and George Brett, and I can tell the cop is starting to weaken a little bit. So I get an idea, and I’m trying to be undercover about it but I think we all know what’s going on.
“Are you a baseball fan?” I say. “Spring training’s going on, and if you want to see some games, give us your name and we’ll make sure you have nice seats.”
The cop kind of nods, and he turns to Murph.
“You’ll get to the game on time,” he says. “Just slow down.”
We get to the game — on time; the cop was right — and Rodriguez is out there taking BP and the ball is shooting off his bat. It’s line drive power to all fields, solid all across the diamond. In the warmups, nobody’s killing themselves out there, but you can tell the arm is there. You can tell he’s loose, good feet, very impressive.
Then the game starts, and it’s something else. His first time up he lines a double off the right center wall. Then later, he bunts — bunts! — and beats it down to first base. Already, we’ve seen that he can run, we’ve seen the line drive off the wall, the great bat speed, a lot of tools.
I mean, this was a game that my Aunt Nellie could’ve scouted.
Alex is out in the field, and he’s making all the plays. Goes into the hole to gun a guy out, comes in on a ball and makes the bare-handed catch and throw, dives on one up the middle. He even got the play in the hole where the shortstop has to jump up in the air — the play that Derek Jeter has since made famous — and gets the guy at first.
The game’s tied, so we go into extras and Rodriguez hits a bomb right out of the stadium. Dead center field. Wins the game.
There’s a bunch of scouts there — Rodriguez ended up being No. 1 on our board, and everyone else’s, too — and we’re sort of shaking our heads at each other. We all know we’ve seen something special. We pack up our stuff, head out to the parking lot, and Muzzy climbs in the back seat.
“Jeez,” he says. “This scouting stuff is easy.”
His first trip ended up being one of the greatest amateur talents in recent baseball history, putting on one of the great displays of ability you’d ever see.
I’ve been in the game more than 60 years, and I’ve only seen two prospects who even come close. When Paul Molitor was a shortstop in college for Minnesota, he basically swept Texas by himself in a three-game weekend series. He did everything then. Even stole home to win one game. And Barry Larkin made some spectacular plays in the field as a shortstop at Michigan when I saw him, and went 8-for-10 in a doubleheader sweep of Ohio State. Those are the only displays I can think of that even come close.
And Muzzy saw it on his first trip.
So we’re headed out from watching Rodriguez, going back to Baseball City, and we’re about halfway there. We’re around Clermont, Fla., and Murph must be speeding again because we get pulled over. Again.
The guy comes up, and it’s the same conversation. This guy’s older than the one who pulled us over on the way up, but, what the heck, I think, I’ll start the baseball thing again.
“Hi officer, we’re just some scouts on our way back from seeing Alex Rodriguez, one of the best prospects in the country.”
This stops him. It’s always a good sign when they stop.
“Where was the game?”
“Hernando,” I say. “Right near the Ted Williams museum.”
That got him going.
“Williams was a hell of a player,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say. “I was lucky enough to see him in person.”
That was it. That’s when we had him. We start talking a little more about baseball, and about the Royals, and he lets us go.
In one day, we got out of two speeding tickets and saw one of the great amateur prospects of all-time.
I don’t know if I should say this in a book like this, but the great game has gotten me out of more than a few speeding tickets. The key to it is conversation. I always use baseball, because it’s sort of a universal language.
I’m not saying it always works. I’ve paid a few speeding tickets. But I’ve gotten out of more than I’ve paid, and it’s all because of baseball.
In some ways, it goes back to what Ewing Kauffman told all of us scouts. You have to be a good salesman. You have to be able to talk, and be ready for any situation, never flustered, and think on your feet.
So, yeah. I guess I sell baseball a little bit there.
I can’t promise it’ll work for you, of course. But it does for me.
The press conference after we signed Bo Jackson was one of the great thrills I’ve ever had in scouting. This is June 21, 1986. Bo hasn’t played a baseball game in three months. Actually, I don’t think he’s picked up a bat in three months.
But the media attention on this thing was so big we couldn’t do it in a normal press room. We had to move it to that big banquet room we used to have down the left field line. The day of the press conference, John (Schuerholz, general manager) made sure Kenny (Gonzales, a scout) could be there.
There’s a home game that night, but the press is much more interested in Bo. It was like a World Series. You had reporters from Canada, Puerto Rico, all over North America. There are cameras everywhere, and I’m glad, because here’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in scouting.
They have this little reception line for Bo and his mother (Florence Bond). Mr. and Mrs. Kauffman are there, Mr. and Mrs. Fogelman (team co-owners). Everyone is there. I told you that Florence was a bigger lady, but Kenny’s a big guy himself. Six-foot-1 or so, more than 200 pounds, and you have to picture this. We’re all shaking hands with the owners when Bo’s mom walks in, sees Kenny, comes out of the line and right there in front of ownership gives him this big hug, lifting Kenny clear off the floor and kissing him right there on the cheek.
She’s so happy to see Kenny, and thanks him for everything that he’s done. As a scout, you couldn’t create a more perfect scene.
Mr. K looks at Fogelman.
“I realize what scouting’s all about now,” he says.
I can’t tell you the feeling that gives you when ownership recognizes scouting like that. It was as nice as seeing Bo play for the first time.
The press conference goes smoothly, but one thing we didn’t talk about beforehand was what would happen immediately after. I told you Bo hadn’t played in a few months, so we had in mind that he’d take some time to get in shape and work his way back into it.
But at the end of the press conference, one of the writers asks Bo what he’s going to do now.
“Well,” Bo says, “I’m going to go take batting practice.”
Our mouths drop. This is our major draft pick. We don’t want him to look bad in front of all these reporters. We didn’t even want him to work out until the next day, but after he said that in front of all these reporters, what could we do?
Bo gets a uniform, and grabs a bat, and bunts a couple to get ready. Now, you know the crown scoreboard at our ballpark. It’s a new scoreboard, but it’s in the same place as the one we had back in ’86, and with the first swing he’s taken in months, boom, Bo hits the base of that damn scoreboard.
Avron Fogelman was an avid collector. He spent $10,000 for a Christy Mathewson ball. He had this big collection, and he’s standing next to George Toma, our groundskeeper at the time, and he says, “George, have somebody get that ball!”
Well, no sooner had those words left his mouth than Bo hits another one, right off the scoreboard again, only a bit higher.
“George!” Avron shouts. “Get that one for Mr. Kauffman!”
I never saw anything like this. Bo is making Royals Stadium look like a sand box. He’s hitting balls all over the place. One went over the waterfalls in right field, opposite field for Bo. George Brett, Frank White, they’re all just sitting down on the field, watching the thing like kids.
That was the day that Buck O’Neil said those famous words about the ball hitting Bo’s bat.
“I’ve only heard that sound three times. Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, and now Bo Jackson.”
Have you heard the story of how we almost signed Mariano Rivera? I haven’t told anybody this until now.
We were this close. To this day, I still know in my heart that we should’ve had Rivera before the Yankees.
This goes back to the late ’80s, and we had Herb Raybourn working for us. Herb was one of the best scouts in Latin America. Connections everywhere. He was supervising the Dominican, Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua and Colombia.
Every time you’d talk to Herb, he’d tell you about some guy he had “hidden in the bush.” That was his term. Hidden in the bush. And he wasn’t just talking, Herb really did have players all over the place.
Well, one year, he tells me he has a couple in the bush in Panama. This is around September or October, but the kids aren’t eligible to sign yet. They can’t sign until after the first of the year.
“I’ve got them,” Herb says. “Nobody knows about them.”
Now it’s time for contracts after the season’s over, and we always had a pretty standard raise. It was nice, but nothing that was going to make you rich. Herb has a little hang-up with his. The Yankees liked the work he was doing for us, and they were offering Herb a $5,000 raise. Herb says he doesn’t want to leave, but we all understand that a raise is a raise.
“I don’t know if I can get that approved,” Schuerholz says.
John tried, but it didn’t happen. The money just wasn’t there, so we lost Herb to the Yankees.
You know who those two guys in the bush were?
One was Rivera, who will breeze into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The other was Ramiro Mendoza, who was a pretty decent relief pitcher for many years with the Yankees.
I asked Mariano about that story, after he was with the Yankees and had become a star. He remembered it well.
“Herb was like a father to me,” Mariano says.
I don’t think anybody knows that story.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to email@example.com or follow on Twitter, @mellinger.
“The Art of Scouting” is available at Amazon.com, ascendbooks.com and locally at Kansas Sampler, Rally House, gift shops at Kauffman Stadium and Barnes & Noble.
On Sept. 18 at the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, 4801 Main St., there will be a fireside chat with Art Stewart and co-author Sam Mellinger as well as guests from the Kansas City Royals. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the program will begin at 6:30 pm. RSVP by calling 816-701-3698.