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The only thing that keeps this organization from being recognized as one of the finest in baseball is wins and losses at the major league level.
-- Chuck LaMar
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There are few jobs in baseball less glamorous and more taxing than that of the area scout. These road warriors cover wide swaths of territory in pursuit of baseball talent. Their cars become their homes on their long, lonely drives down drab highways, burger wrappers and soda cups strewn all over the passenger seat. The area scout dreams of uncovering that hidden gem, the player other teams miss who goes on to stardom. The area scout isn't the person who makes the final decision on whether or not to draft a player. He doesn't even have a direct line to the scouting director, much less a team's general manager. For every player an area scout touts, a cross-checker -- itself a pretty thankless, often lonely job -- must travel to see that player perform, then report back to his bosses. Area scouts do gain credit if the team drafts and signs the player. But until that moment, the scout can only hope that someone will listen to him.
Fernando Arango understood the drawbacks of his job. Arango covered five states in his role as area scout for the Devil Rays: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. His region was nowhere near the baseball hotbeds of California, Florida, and Texas. But the relative lack of talent in his area could also mean fewer eyes on some intriguing players, thus causing a few to slip under the radar. One spring Arango drove to the tiny town of Republic, Missouri, to catch a high school tournament. One player stood out. This one kid, a burly third baseman, just a junior, was smacking line drives all over the park. Arango introduced himself, and the two hit it off. Both scout and player were students of the game, happy to talk about the finer points long after others would tune out. Arango saw a rare mix of natural ability and baseball intelligence in the third baseman. He got the player's contact information and promised to keep in touch.
The following year, Arango's prospect accelerated his education. A strong student with an affinity for math, he earned all his high school credits by January 1999, then transferred to Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City. Arango went back to see the young man play. This time there would be no covert operation. Several major league scouts and representatives, including former Kansas City Royals manager John Wathan, also showed up to see various players. The high school third baseman, now playing as an oversized shortstop, launched two long home runs over the fence in left-center, into a thicket of trees.
"The ball sounded like a cannon went off," Arango recalled. "It wasn't even fair for him to use an aluminum bat."
No way we'll get this guy, Arango thought to himself. Still, when he met with his cross-checker, Stan Meek, as well as scouting director Dan Jennings, Arango filed a glowing report on the player. Meek had gone to see the young man in action, but wasn't nearly as impressed as Arango.
"He was this paunchy, thick-bodied kid," Jennings recalled. "Stan said to me, 'I saw this kid strike out two or three times, I don't know what position he'd play, I can't do anything with him. I can't write him up.' "
Undaunted, Arango told his bosses, "All I want to say about this guy is that someday he'll hit 40 home runs in the big leagues." Jennings wasn't ready to dismiss Arango's report or his ranking of the top prospect in Arango's five-state area. So he sent in R.J. Harrison, a national cross-checker (who would take over, years later, as scouting director). Harrison's verdict: "I can't do anything with this guy."
Even after two emphatically negative reports, Jennings wanted to give Arango's find one last shot. The Devil Rays invited him to a pre-draft workout. No other team extended an invite. Not even the Royals, who played twenty minutes away.
Arango met his young protégé over Grand Slam breakfasts at a Denny's. The more they talked, the more Arango loved the smarts and grounded approach that went with the kid's talent. A huge contingent was waiting when Arango arrived at Tropicana Field. Jennings and Meek were there, along with fifteen other talent evaluators, Chuck LaMar, even Vince Naimoli. They watched a big group of draft hopefuls take their turns. Finally, the Missouri kid got his chance.
|Albert Pujols was the NL Rookie of the Year only two years after being drafted in the 13th round.|
What happened next depends on who's telling the story. Arango claims his prospect looked like Lou Gehrig. Jennings saw no such thing.
Arango observed a 60-yard dash in 7.1 seconds, a good time for a player that size. The Devil Rays tried him at his college position of shortstop, where Arango says he handled an array of sharply hit grounders and showed good instincts for a big man. Jennings looked at the player's body, then suggested maybe he should catch. He'd never caught before and was worried he'd make a bad impression. Arango told him to relax, put on the equipment, and humor everyone for a few minutes. His first throw to second base came in a flash: 1.89 seconds. That time was phenomenal for a high school catcher and solid for a college catcher; several big league catchers show similar times. Only this player had never caught at any level. Then he got in the batter's box and started roping line drives all over the park. Growing up, his dad had taught him to hit the ball with authority to right-center. Do that consistently, his father told him, and he could one day hit .300 in the big leagues. Jennings wasn't impressed. "Where's the power?" he muttered. Arango got the message. "They'd like you to hit it a little farther," he told his pupil. On the very next pitch, the kid crushed the ball off the top of the left-field foul pole. Arango smiled. He was going to get his man. Jennings said he and the other scouts in attendance -- all except Arango -- remained concerned about the kid's thick build. They also focused on the negatives rather than the positives as Arango and Jennings both fell into a bit of confirmation bias. Jennings didn't like the player going down on one knee more than once to field grounders at short. He was also concerned about the player's performance at catcher: messy footwork and iffy throwing mechanics, despite a few good throws. At bat, he worried about the player's approach more than the results. "He's sitting very deep on his back leg, uppercut swing, back shoulder dipping pretty good," Jennings said.
"We go back upstairs, and I pose the question to the room," Jennings recounted. " 'This kid Fernando's got on his list, you see anything different today than what we've seen before?' Nope, no one saw anything. We left the workout with the same identical issues that caused us not to have him high on our board."
When draft day arrived, Arango waited. And waited. The Devil Rays weren't going to take his guy in the first round, he knew. But after the third, fourth, and fifth rounds passed, with the kid still undrafted, he started to wonder if his prediction of forty-home-run seasons had simply been forgotten. The D-Rays weren't the only team passing. On and on the draft went, and still no news. There were a bunch of reasons for the snub. The Devil Rays went after Florida players aggressively, giving them preference over other prospects -- and Florida-raised veteran free agents priority over non- Floridians -- in a constant quest for local identity and support. It was a shortsighted practice that never paid tangible dividends and often hurt the team. They still worried about the player's build, as Jennings had earlier, and wondered what position he would play. This was especially odd, since the player didn't get much chance to try out at third base, his natural position, or first, where Arango thought he could also fare well. Many skeptics also wondered about his age: he was born in the Dominican Republic, didn't move to the United States until high school, and always looked old for the age he was supposed to be. Meanwhile, the player's agent was new to the gig, and that uncertainty raised fears that just signing the guy could become dicey, even in the later rounds. Besides, the Devil Rays had their targeted names up on the draft board, and the draft was flying by. Jennings wasn't ignoring Arango's projection per se. There was just so much other stuff going on that they didn't give it much thought. By the time you get past the tenth round, most players have no shot of ever sniffing the big leagues, let alone becoming productive regulars, let alone becoming the kind of superstar Arango envisioned. No big deal.
With the first pick of the thirteenth round, the Devil Rays selected Jason Pruett, a left-handed pitcher out of a Texas community college. Seventeen picks later, the Cardinals threw their own dart. With the 402nd overall pick in the 1999 draft, St. Louis grabbed the player Arango had wanted all along. A pudgy kid from Missouri named Albert Pujols.
Arango was crushed. He quit his job and went to work at a sports agency. It didn't take long for the Devil Rays to realize their mistake. The player who once carried the weight of his abuela's rice and beans carved his body into granite. Pujols crushed the ball the minute he got to the minor leagues. He continued to mash in spring training of 2001, impressing St. Louis brass so profoundly that the Cardinals tossed him into their opening day lineup, despite Pujols having played only three games above A-ball to that point. He hit .329 that year with 37 homers, a .403 on-base percentage, and a .610 slugging percentage, one of the greatest performances by any rookie in major league history.
Arango never forgot his initial scouting report, and neither did Pujols. Late in Pujols's third season, he reached 39 home runs.Arango called Pujols with a message: he and his wife had a bottle of champagne chilling that they would open as soon as Pujols cracked number 40. The next day Pujols called back. Arango already knew what he was going to say.
"I got forty," Albert Pujols told one of the few scouts who had believed in him, "and forty-one too. You can go ahead and call the Devil Rays now."
To be fair, twenty-eight other teams missed on Pujols too. But the D-Rays' whiff on the greatest player of the past decade epitomized the team's early struggles in building a productive farm system. Tampa Bay would eventually become known as a scouting and player development powerhouse, one built partly on high draft picks, but also on a smarter approach than the competition. That reputation would take a while to bloom, though. Before that, the D-Rays were a team that struggled to build the talent pipeline it needed to win at the major league level. Those failures were the results of poor choices, cheapskate spending habits, and in the case of the thirteenth-round pick turned future Hall of Famer, plain old bad luck. That and failing to listen to baseball's equivalent of a foot soldier -- the overworked, underpaid, underappreciated area scout.