Baseball Men - The Scout

Baseball Men - The Scout

Our "Baseball Men" interview series continues with Paul Snyder, member of the Braves Hall of Fame.

It is said that, in war, the generals get the fancy biographies and the foot soldiers get the heavy lifting. It's sort of like that in baseball.

 

Inevitably, it's the front-line guys who wind up with most of the attention. Star sluggers and power pitchers become nationally famous multi-millionaires. Pennant-winning managers can become household names. The moves of front office gurus like Brian Cashman and Theo Epstein attract daily media headlines and commentaries. Nowadays, even broadcasters and player agents give out autographs and do the rounds in glitzy speaking circuits.

 

For the foot soldiers in baseball, the scouting staffs, it's a whole different story. Oh, insiders might sing the occasional rhapsody about the organization men who scout, draft, sign, and develop young ball players, but that's about it. Only the most devoted fans know their favorite team's scouting director or head of Minor League development. As for the unheralded many who trek out to school yards and sandlots throughout the United States and the world, well, . . . they're unheralded. Scouts may be the foundation for the game's talent renewal, but fame and fortune have never been a part of the job description.

 

If there ever comes a day when premiere talent evaluators do get their due, much less their deserved places in the Hall of Fame, there's one individual who might be in line for a whole lot of accolades. That would be one Paul Snyder of the Braves.

 

Snyder's tenure with the organization began when he signed on as an 18-year old first base prospect in 1957. A standout Minor Leaguer, Snyder was hampered by injuries before retiring as an active player in 1963. After several seasons as a manager in the Minors, Snyder took successive jobs as a Scout, Assistant Minor League Administrator, and Director of Scouting and Player Development. Since his 1999 retirement from day-to-day work, he's kept active as Special Assistant to Braves General Manager John Schuerholz and Scouting Director Dayton Moore.

 

By all accounts, Paul Snyder has been the singular architect of the Braves player development system over the years and decades. And just how important has that been to the team?

 

Very.

 

The Braves' ongoing, unbroken string of 14 straight National League East titles since 1991 might provide a strong hint that something is going very right, but even a glance at the players behind that success trace back to the team's farm system. It turns out that Braves have been one of the most consistent regular season winners in Major League history because they've had one of the most consistent new talent pipelines in history - from 1991 to 2004, no less than 13 home-grown Braves garnered Rookie of the Year votes. Multiple prospects ended up as stars (David Justice, Tom Glavine, Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Jermaine Dye, Javy Lopez) during that run, while even more made All-Star appearances (the honor roll includes guys like Jeff Blauser, Steve Avery, Rafael Furcal, Ryan Klesko, Marcus Giles, Mark Wohlers, and Mike Stanton).

 

The 2005 season might have been the ultimate testament to the Braves' unsurpassed scouting and player development system. A ballclub that was barely over .500 after 65 games, with injuries to Chipper Jones and three starting pitchers, nonetheless managed to win yet another NL East title after the mid-summer arrival of Jeff Francoeur and more than a dozen other kid contributors. Once again, Atlanta reloaded on talent. Once again, Atlanta won.

 

It's a spectacular record of achievement, one perhaps unmatched in baseball's long history. The Braves evidently think so; in a nearly unprecedented move, those who know Snyder best inducted the super-scout into the team Hall of Fame back in July.

 

Many of Paul Snyder's friends have said he is one of the most optimistic, kind-hearted men to be found anywhere else. Based on our long conversation, I wouldn't be inclined to argue. On August 29th, the ultimate in veteran baseball sages reflected on some of the lessons in a life in the game.

 

 

When did you first get interested in baseball?

 

It was something that started for me in the backyard of my grandparents' house, back when I was three or four years old, somewhere in there. My family was living with them at the time, and I remember my uncle and neighbors pitching to me while I swung a toy bat.

 

It's something that I always wanted to do for later in life. I went to school on a football scholarship, but I always loved baseball.

 

When did you first start thinking of yourself as a potential Major Leaguer?

 

I had to be talked into it! 

 

I'd been playing semipro ball against former Minor Leaguers since I was 15 years old, playing for $50, $60, $70 per game. A fellow named Sterling Arnold had been away during that time, playing in the Cardinals organization for about three or four years, but he came back to see me in York County, Pennsylvania by the time I was 21, 22. Sterling was the one who kept after me, ‘You've got to get out of here; you've got to get out of here'.

 

I owe it all to him. Matter of fact, I called him just before my Braves Hall of Fame induction. He's 85, 86 now, I guess. I said, ‘You've done it again'. He said, ‘What did I do?'. I told Sterling about the honor and he said, ‘You must have fooled a heck of a lot of people after you left here'. (laughs)

 

I owe it all to him - I almost became a plumber, my dad's profession. But Sterling Arnold convinced me to try baseball first.

 

Well, you went on to have a very good Minor League career, but you never did make it to the Majors. Why did you decide to retire as an active ballplayer?

 

I didn't realize the end was near. [In 1963] I was in the Texas League, coming off a year with .312, 18 home runs, 113 RBI's. I was playing in Denver for Jack Tighe.

 

So Jack pulls me to the side and says, ‘It's time you start your managing career'. He saw me get a little red and told me to take a shower; that he'd meet me and buy me something to eat after the game. So we ate and he was honest with me, he broke it down. I had only one tool - all I could do was swing the bat.

 

Minor League managers have always had a difficult job, particularly in those days. Why did you decide to stay on in the game rather than go back home?

 

In the fall of '59 and early '60, I was laying in a hospital in Milwaukee, recovering from spinal fusion procedure. Things looked pretty dire, I guess, so [then-Braves Assistant Scouting Director] Roland Hemond asked me if I wanted to stay in the game after I retired. I said, ‘I haven't really thought about it, but I'm sure I would; ‘cause I know nothing else'.

 

Mr. Hemond, of course, became a legendary talent evaluator in his own right, in his future career as GM of the White Sox and Orioles.

 

I've tried to model a lot of my actions after Mr. Hemond, a humanitarian who showed so much caring for all of us. [One-time Braves Minor League manager] Harry Minor taught me to how to treat young men and expect players to conduct themselves as gentlemen. And Jack Tighe, of course, taught me what honesty meant in this business.

 

After you retired, you did become a Minor League manager for a couple of years. How did that help you in your future career?

 

I got released, but I never had chance to cry over it - I signed the release papers, then turned around and signed my managing papers.

 

I was so lucky. It's the best way to learn the scouts and prospects. Every scout should manage and every manager should scout. I've head from managers 100 times - ‘Who the heck recommended this guy?' If they were out in the field scouting, they'd know who recommended that guy and would see that they probably would have recommended him, too.

 

As a scouting director, you were in charge of hiring. How did go about finding some of your future scouts?

 

That was my job. When I'd go out to check on a player, I tried to get the player done as fast as I could and then look around to see who was still working. Just in case I needed a scout in that territory - Who's the guy who's working the game for all 27 outs? If we saw an evaluator on the other side of the fence, someone who could make a difference for the Braves in a key region, his ballclub had to be careful, because we were likely to make him an offer.

 

Does a scout really need a background as a former player?

 

By and large, many of them have college degrees, but playing on a professional level is no longer a necessity. We're hiring a number of people who have never played, who just know how to evaluate players. They're just baseball men to me.

 

I mean, [General Manager] John [Schuerholz] never played professionally, and his understanding is phenomenal.

 

For all that though, scouts tackle an inherently tough job. Every one of them face  constant travel, often from one small town to the next, and long hours.

 

We ask so much of them - many of them, they're probably going 11 months a year. It takes a special kind of person, an immensely dedicated person. When Bill Clark was setting up our international program, he might have been home three weekends out of the year. He was a warrior, a warrior.

 

They're not doing it for the money; they're doing it because they love the game. You'll never see a scout retire as a millionaire. But, while they're working at a ballpark, you'll see a lot of happy scouts.

 

Well, in reading coverage of the team, a respect for the scouts' role seems to be a hallmark of the Braves organization.

 

You have to depend on scouts. The evaluators are the first line of a baseball organization, the ones who get star players into an organization in the first place. And I know [Braves manager] Bobby [Cox] and John [Schuerholz] approach our scouts like they're long-lost brothers. They always make our scouts feel welcomed and needed.

 

God knows John's been on this side of the game, that he's walked in our shoes. He knows what we go through because he's been through it himself.

 

It's a philosophy that's not necessarily shared by every team. As you know, several teams have cut back on field evaluators, based on the belief that better statistical analysis can be more objective and efficient.

 

I've seen young GM's today get rid of all their older scouts and I have no idea why they would do that. You have to depend on experience, too. Veteran scouts have personal information and relationships money can't buy.

 

I heard, one time, a guy say, ‘You've got to fire one or two of your guys every year, just to keep the rest of them on their toes'. That's kind of an odd statement. Why did you hire them in the first place?

 

Do high school and college coaches tend to provide much help in the evaluation process?

 

There are a handful of coaches around the country where I can truthfully say have been as upright and honest as the day is long. They've never tried to soft-sell me or peddle one of their ball players. But, otherwise. . . (chuckles) I'll decide on a kid's playing ability. One thing, Peter - you can't kid a kidder.

 

One of the amazing things about baseball talent is the fact that different, great scouts can see different things in different ballgames. Someone might see a young player when he's especially hot while another scout may see the same ball player when he's in a slump. How have you settled those kinds of differences?

 

As for disagreements, they happen, but when you get in that room for draft day, all our people have to be on the same page. We can't sit there arguing over one particular prospect for half a day. 

 

Some years ago, we had a very good cross-checking scout come in to see a young fellow who turned out to be an outstanding Major League pitcher. Our guy just didn't see it, though. He told me, ‘Damn, Paul, I saw what I saw'. Well, we had three other scouts over three ball games, covering the kid, and they saw what they saw, too. I made him go back to take another look, and he saw what the rest of us had seen.

 

At the end of the day, it's always ‘we'. I can't do anything by myself in baseball. But you and I can do something together.

 

I guess scouts have to have pretty thick skin when their own skills are being evaluated, then.

 

You have to trust your scouts; otherwise you shouldn't have them on the team in the first place. But, yeah, everyone has to speak his piece before the draft.

 

When we're grilling a scout, all we're doing is finding out how sold he is on his top players. He's facing a scouting director, an assistant scouting director, four national cross-checkers, and the old man here, and we're grilling him. We want to be sure we've got the right guy.

 

(chuckles) It's one of the few cases where you can call a guy a blind S.O.B. and half an hour later, you're going to lunch with him.

 

Have you ever been on the other end of that examination?

 

Many, many times.

 

One time I, remember, I made a mistake on a pitcher - I put $1 million on him and went $130,000 over budget. The young man did make it to the big leagues, but he was never the player I thought he was going to be. I had come back and face the music and I was nervous as a hooker in church. [Team President] Stan Kasten said, ‘Evidently, you thought he was worth it'. I said, ‘I sure did'. He said, ‘I hope it works' and that was it. 

 

Getting back to the scouting process for a second. One thing that's a bit unusual about your approach is that you don't necessarily use radar guns to evaluate young pitchers.

 

Yeah.

 

Can you explain why?

 

Probably 50% of my thought process came from the Braves former cross-checker, Bill White, who was taught by Bobby Mattick. I was taught to study what the pitcher does with the 3-4-5 hitters, that the rest was simple. Bill always said, ‘You don't need that radar gun'. Why should you worry too much about how fast a teenager might be throwing? The objective is for him to get the batters out.

 

I wonder how you can account for something you hear a lot about in the game - intangibles. How can you get a sense of a player's ability or willingness to put up with the stresses in the game?

 

The more you can get to know a player over the years, the better.

 

A player will communicate something without saying anything, Peter. If this is your profession, you can notice things without saying a word being spoken, I mean just through body language and so forth. You can tell is someone is negative or positive in his approach to the game and to life in general.

 

For a number of years, I've said it - leave the bats and the balls in the clubhouse for all those pre-draft workouts. We've already seen them play.  If we just walk around and talk to them, we'll know more about the players at the end of that day.

 

Along those lines, how important is character, a young prospect's value decisions off the field?

 

It means so much. The personal gets awfully, awfully heavy.

 

I tell you, we lose so many talented players from bad girlfriends, bad wives, bad habits, drugs, alcohol; all the ills of modern life. We definitely lose more players from those things than from a lack of physical ability.

 

Put it this way - have you ever had a player who's had bad off-field habits, but still managed to become a Major Leaguer through his sheer athleticism on the field?

 

(laughs). Oh, no. If a young man has bad off-field habits, he'll be a Minor Leaguer, and he won't be a Minor Leaguer for long. You have to ask, ‘Would you want your daughter to date him?' That answer tells you a lot.

 

On the other side, are there any players who stand out in your mind for the fact that their good character and habits allowed them to overachieve on the Major League level?

 

I have to go back to Mark Lemke, who was drafted in the 27th round [in 1983]. We thought he was going to be a backup middle infielder. Boy, did he surprise us. He just didn't know how to give in.

 

In the Minor Leagues, Bobby Dews, who's now our bullpen coach, would do drills and drills for guys like Glenn Hubbard because he knew the young man could take the extra work. Later, in Macon, as a manager, Glenn put in the extra work to develop Marcus Giles.

 

Do any players stand out for the fact that you might have underestimated them?

 

Oh, I forget them. Because I want to forget them! (laughs) Oh, but I tell you who doesn't forget ‘em - the General Manager! He's got ‘em all down. But he might have missed a few when he was a scouting director, too, so we're even!

 

Seriously, though, [veteran General Manager] Paul Richards once told me - when you miss one, just get it out of your mind. I've just tried to take the best information at a given time and go from there.

 

After you evaluate your prospects, how do you decide on their signing bonus offers?

 

You always have to put a value on the player's worth, one way or the other. When we evaluate a player, we have to put a figure in our final report. We draw a conclusion based on the framework from a scout and four national cross-checkers and I think we come up with signing bonus figures that are very, very fair.

 

That doesn't necessarily mean that signing them is an easy process, though.

 

(sighs) Oh boy, Peter.

 

I don't resent the players for holding out for the millions of dollars. If someone had that kind of money in front of you or me, we'd take it. Careers might only last a year or two.

 

What I say to them is this - ‘Is this the last big contract you're ever going to sign? If it is, I don't know if you're for the Atlanta Braves'. My thinking is - If a kid's afraid that a signing bonus is all he's ever going to get, because he'll never make it to the Majors, well, we really don't need that guy. He's scared, he doesn't trust himself. We think more of him than he thinks of himself.

 

How closely do your scouts work with Minor League development staff?

 

By and large, our scouts know what our top-notch Minor League instructors can do - that kind of cooperation is another benefit of low turnover, by the way. Those instructors have made us scouts look so good, it's unbelievable.

 

I heard, one time, ‘How do the Braves keep coming up with a pitcher every time they need one?' Well, have you ever been down to [AAA] Richmond to see the color of Bill Fischer's hair, the hair he has left? Or Bruce Dal Canton down in [A-level] Myrtle Beach? Have you ever seen these people? They're as gray as gray can be.

 

That's one of those things - you can have young Minor League managers, you can have young coaches, but you better have a senior pitching coach. Somebody who's already had his day in the sun, who's worried about getting the kids their day in the sun. The good people in our organization, their focus isn't on their own future, but on the future of baseball.

 

They're lifers.

 

Oh, you said it. What does Bill Fischer need? He doesn't need the money. He loves the game and he loves teaching.

 

Speaking of teaching - have the Braves tried to teach all-around athletes how to become baseball players?

 

We've tried, but we've never been successful. In 1981, for instance, I said, ‘OK, fellas, give me the best athlete in your area, someone we can convert into a player'. We put $50,000 into a number one pick.

 

So we take Jay Roberts, this guy who was an all-state running back, who was an all-state linebacker, who was an all-state basketball player, who had set a state record for the javelin and the 440-yard dash. He hadn't played high school baseball, but he was a stud - 6'3", 190 lbs.

 

He never got out of A ball. Roberts simply could not accept baseball failure, the fact that he was going to fail for most of the time no matter what.

 

I've always marveled in the sacrifices ball players have to go through to reach the Majors - even the most talented young ball players have to develop in the Minors for years on end.

 

It's a sacrifice, it's a sacrifice, though the reward is special for that lucky 10, 11 percent who make it. There's nothing glorious about life in the Minor Leagues. I know from having played for six years myself.

 

Another unique feature about baseball - scouts seem to go out of their way to explain just how tough it is.

 

That's exactly right. Exactly right. I remember meeting with [Braves Assistant General Manager] Dayton Moore and [then prospect] Jeff Francoeur, and we did not glorify it one bit, just so Jeff would know what he was getting into.

 

You've got to be as honest as the day is long. That's one thing I pride myself in - I don't think I've ever had a player who can say I lied to him. If you're lying to a kid about his chances, you're just asking for trouble.

 

At the same time, you have to be a bit sneaky, too. If outsiders find out how eager you might be to sign a particular kid, that can only make it more difficult to draft or sign him.

 

(laughs) You've probably heard that story about me crawling under the bleachers to watch Javy Lopez, just so no one would know I was there.

 

Yeah, we try to hide what we're doing sometimes. We might lay off until the last week or ten days of the season or really early in the season, maybe tracking an individual through associate scouts and so forth. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

 

It's often said that few, if any, real prospects quit on their own terms. In almost every case, teams have to tear the uniform off a player's back.

 

You have to look at yourself honestly. I want them to give their fullest effort, so there are no doubts. I know I said I'd give the game five years, tops. Well, I missed. Here's another 43 years on top of it!

 

Even so, the overwhelming majority of your drafted picks will never make it to the Majors, no matter how much they sacrifice and work.

 

Oh, my wife could always tell the night before I would have to release someone, because I'd toss and turn all night long.

 

I've been around this game almost 50 years now, and I don't care if I make it to 100 years, I'll never get over it. It's someone's dream, it might have been as big as the dream I had back in my day. It might die hard for them, the way it was hard for me.

 

I've sat there and I've cried with them, Peter. I've cried with them.

 

At the same time, you also have a chance to see kids fulfill their dreams - those you first saw as a raw 16, 17-year-old kids can transform themselves into a productive Major Leaguers.

 

Oh, on those days - I'll never get over the goose pimples, I'll never get over them. Those are very, very happy occasions.

 

I don't doubt that's true. You may be the one scout who's been most familiar with that feeling over the years.

 

I think that's one of the things that struck me hardest when this [induction into the Braves Hall of Fame] was announced, the people who have called me and things they all said about the impact I've had on their lives. The number that have thanked me - I could get a little weepy on you, just thinking about that. The number that thanked me. Some of the gracious people in the baseball world.

 

Well, I never did anything for them, or anyone else, what they wouldn't have done for me.

 

With the benefit of good health, do you see a time where you'll leave baseball behind?

 

Oh, boy, I better not say anything - my wife's in earshot. (laughs)

 

I've had the right wife. I was in the Minors when I met Petie. I didn't want to tell her she was wrong, but she thought she was marrying a world-famous baseball player. (laughs) At my [Braves Hall of Fame] ceremony, I had to thank my wife and my son and his family and my daughter and her family, for letting me run around the country like a crazy little boy, watching ball games.

 

To answer your question - I hope not. Everyone's been so good to me. I hope I'll always be doing something in this great game.

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