MAJOR LEAGUE TRYOUT
Is there a little boy (or little girl) who has ever thrown a baseball who hasn’t dreamed of the day the scouts come to watch him, if only for a moment? During the countless childhood hours I spent throwing a ball against a wall, I imagined performing in front of clipboard-carrying men in numerous ways. The dream sometimes evolved into making diving catches in front of thousands, or signing autographs for long lines of adoring fans. Occasionally, the dream involved hitting the World Series-winning home run. But first, always, the sense of being discovered by scouts, the sensation of BEING the diamond in the rough.
Even as a ten-year-old, I never seriously envisioned myself a professional baseball player. Still, my imagination had to chew on SOMETHING while I threw the ball against the wall, over and over and over. Eventually, thanks to my solitary practice, I developed an extraordinary level of control. As a high school senior, I pitched 45 innings and walked only one batter. But the ability to “control” my pitches constituted my only big league ”tool” — there are at least four others I didn’t have – a pitcher who excels beyond high school must throw with velocity, movement, deceptiveness, command of several different pitches, such as a fastball, curve, and slider, AND control. Against accomplished hitters, to have control without the other attributes is called a batting practice machine.
By age sixteen, my imagination was even less likely to take major league flights of fancy. I fully accepted my status as a solid shortstop and pitcher for a weak high school that rarely produced a college player, let alone a professional. Over summers, I played for a team in West Philadelphia sponsored by the American Legion a step or two more accomplished than my high school team, but still a bottom feeder in the ocean of baseball talent.
Despite my sense of reality, my heart fluttered when my summer coach, a man whose only memorable trait was to sport a perennially open fly, called me aside after a game to ask me to attend a special practice the next afternoon. He said, affecting nonchalance: “The Dodgers will be there.”
“What Dodgers?” I asked, as though there were numerous kinds.
“The Los Angeles Dodgers, their local scout,” he said, a broad smile melting his cool.
My eyes widened with excitement and disbelief, until he added: “You’ll cover shortstop for Jeff Leonard’s tryout.”
“What about ME?” I said.
“Well, he won’t be there for you, of course” he said. “He’s looking at Jeff.”
I let out a deep breath. NOW, I understood. My face red with embarrassment, I felt like an idiot for reacting like the scout was coming to evaluate me. Fortunately, in his own excitement, the coach hadn’t focused on my naïve reaction. He’d already moved on to boast to several nearby adults: “Hey, I got the Dodgers coming out tomorrow.”
Jeff Leonard was notionally a teammate of mine. But I’m certain he’d never bothered to learn my name. He never came to practices and rarely attended games. His appearances were like events after which you said: “Did that really happen?” When he came, he stood or sat by himself, aloof, until it was his turn to bat. On defense, he covered center field with silent efficiency. I’m not certain Jeff was arrogant or unfriendly; maybe he was just shy. But he certainly appeared unapproachable. As a seventeen-year-old, he carried himself like a world-weary adult, a man among boys.
Jeff, we were repeatedly told by our coach, was a superstar, a special talent. He attempted to salve hurt feelings by players displaced by Jeff’s appearances with an insider’s tone of voice, generally along the lines of: “Listen fellas, we’re lucky to have Jeff whenever we do. He splits his time between several teams and some are way above our level. He also has individual workouts for the benefit of professional scouts.”
Our collective sense of jealousy was mostly, but not entirely, satisfied with a sense of awe.
When I arrived at the field that humid summer afternoon in 1972, I was surprised to see only three other teammates besides Jeff. I was instructed to stand at shortstop, the others were placed deep in left and center fields, and our catcher took his spot behind home plate. An otherwise nondescript middle-aged man explained he would pitch to Jeff, but his striking blue Dodger cap captivated my 16-year-old eyes like the world’s largest sapphire.
Our coach and a man I assumed was Jeff’s dad stood next to the batting cage along with two strangers who also wore Dodger caps. They held the clipboards I’d always imagined and one held a stopwatch on a string around his neck. Jeff stood next to the batting cage, solemn as always, apparently unfazed by proximity to gatekeepers to the Pantheon of baseball greatness.
I knew Jeff starred at football as well as baseball in high school. His chiseled physique was unlike the skinny frames of the rest of us. Yet, his statistics when he played for our team were mediocre.
“What makes Jeff so special?” asked a teammate whose position in the lineup disappeared whenever Jeff appeared.
“Jeff,” the coach explained, “can run like the wind, can throw twice as far as you can, and when his bat makes contact, the ball takes off like it was launched by a bazooka.”
“Is it fair that he doesn’t come to practice?” asked the kid.
“This is baseball,” said the coach. “It ain’t democracy.”
I happened to know that Jeff’s bat didn’t make contact all that often. I’m sure his batting average was lower than mine. But scouts, I knew, looked for those elusive “tools,” the ones I lacked. A smooth swing, like a pitcher’s control, could be developed, but power, running speed, height and strength – those qualities derived more from nature than nurture. Even when Jeff sauntered on and off the field like he was bored, and slouched on the bench like he hadn’t slept in days, there was nothing sluggish about his swing.
Thwack, thwack, thwack went the baseballs as Jeff pounded the easy pitches over my head. He didn’t hit any ground balls to shortstop but I received the returned balls from the outfield and, in turn, tossed them to the scout. I tried to make eye contact with him. Nothing doing. I tried to scoop the throws from the outfield with such style that the other two Dodger scouts couldn’t help but notice. Nothing doing.
After about fifteen minutes, the scout told Jeff to rest for a moment and told my other teammates they could come in while he conferred with his assistants. After a moment, he said to me: “You stay at shortstop. We’re gonna have Jeff run down some fly balls and then hit you as the cutoff man.” (For the uninitiated, this means Jeff would show off his power and accuracy by throwing to me after his catches at full speed.) Jeff jogged past me to the outfield with his glove and one of the other men brandished a bat with practiced expertise. “Be ready, little man,” I think Jeff whispered to me as he passed. But like everything else about Jeff, I wondered: “Did he really say that?” The scout proceeded to launch balls to Jeff while I relished the renewed chance to become noticed.
I had to admire Jeff’s smoothness in tracking down the fly balls. Up, back, to the side, he made everything look easy. His throws seemed life threatening to me; never had he or any of our other outfielders put as much power and accuracy into their cutoff throws. “Jeff DOES care about this tryout,” I said to myself, as another ball crashed into my glove and burrowed down to my palm, now numb from repeated blows.
“Wow, that’s incredible,” exclaimed the scout after one particular laser-like throw battered my hand.
I wanted to take off my glove and count my fingers but I didn’t want the scout to think I couldn’t handle such throws routinely. Fortunately, just as I reached the breaking point of my pain threshold, the scout motioned Jeff to come in, and said to me: “Okay, kid, that’s enough. Thanks. We’re just gonna check Jeff’s speed.”
My efforts in front of the Dodgers were at an end. All three Dodger scouts gathered at first base and timed Jeff’s speed around the bases. My teammates and I watched from the bleachers as a new, deeply motivated Jeff appeared before us. We’d heard about his abilities, but in front of these men, he appeared to have been struck with a lightning bolt of professionalism. His hitting had impressed me; his throws had blasted me; but his running was beyond anything I’d ever seen close-up, in person.
My tryout experience was over. Personally, it was anti-climactic. But I read in the local paper the next day that Jeff had signed a contract and even received a bonus. He left West Philadelphia for California to play in the Dodgers’ minor league system. I didn’t think I’d ever hear more of Jeff Leonard since most high school age signees never make the major leagues. Approximately five years later, however, Jeff debuted in the big leagues with the Dodgers and proceeded to have a long and successful career, chiefly with the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants. It was marked by a peculiar string of run-ins with teammates, management and opponents alike. According to my Google research, Jeff chose the nickname “Penitentiary Face” for himself! Still, Jeff Leonard had admirers. For a time, he became a team captain. And in what can only be called “major league irony,” he now works in public relations for the Giants. Who woulda thought?