The scouts sat shoulder to shoulder in Dennis Gilbert’s family room in Calabasas, Calif., on Sunday, grouped tighter than if they’d been watching a flame-throwing phenom from behind home plate. Beers in hand and plates of short ribs balanced on their thighs, the scouts hailed from more than 20 major league teams. But this wasn’t about competing for a prospect, it was an annual gathering of a close-knit fraternity, the culmination of a celebration of the most underappreciated segment of the baseball family.
A roast of Phillies top scout Charley Kerfeld capped the afternoon at the home of Gilbert, a White Sox executive and former agent who founded the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation eight years ago. Kerfeld’s longtime mentor, Pat Gillick, as well as rival scouts that included Jim Fregosi, Dave Yoakum, Ken Bracey and Roland Hemond delivered good-natured barbs. Nolan Ryan, Kerfeld’s Astros teammate in the 1980s, roasted him via video on Gilbert’s big screen.
Kerfeld gamely absorbed the blows and, given the last word, warmly acknowledged his brethren scouts and expressed what they’d all been feeling in the days since learning of the horrific shooting in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8.
“The toughest part of the job is being away from home, away from families and loved ones for weeks on end,” he said.
Gilbert’s living room went silent. And everyone likely thought for a moment of scout John Green, and of his 9-year-old daughter, Christina-Taylor Green, who was among those slain during the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. John Green lives in Phoenix but is the Dodgers director of East Coast scouting. He spends more than half his nights on the road. At his daughter’s funeral he mentioned how much he cherished returning from long scouting trips, and the many scouts paying their respects winced.
All those nights alone in hotel rooms, missing their kids’ back-to-school nights, dance recitals and Little League tryouts. Major league ballplayers, of course, face the same challenges. But their time away is mitigated by multi-million dollar salaries, charter flights and top-end hotels. A scout might earn $50,000 a year, flies coach and stays at hotels with names like Fairfield and TownPlace.
The nightmare John Green and his family are going through is the worst-case scenario. But every scout has a hole in his heart that Marriott points can’t fill.
“Wives and families sacrifice for what we’ve made our profession,” said Paul Snyder, a legendary Atlanta Braves scout and one of those honored Saturday night. “You miss out on a lot.”
The foundation’s primary purpose is to raise money for retired scouts and their widows who have health problems and financial difficulties. Scouts don’t get pensions and most don’t have health insurance when they retire. Job security is tenuous because often when a general manager is replaced, his scouts are ushered out the door with him.
“These are guys in their 50s and 60s, and what do you do?” Gilbert said. “They can’t get another scouting job and aren’t qualified to do much else. Scouting is like being a king. It trains you for nothing else.”
The annual dinner, which draws about 1,250 paid attendees and includes silent and public memorabilia auctions, has raised more than $3 million, according to Gilbert, and cash goes to “seven or eight” scouts a year. Most funding recipients prefer to be anonymous but most are experiencing ordeals a lot like that of Tom Romenesco, who was laid off by the Astros at age 61 and three years later faced out-of-pocket medical bills of $80,000 associated with his wife's massive stroke.
"Some of the scouts are reluctant to come to us," Gilbert said. "We've had to approach them knowing they were in financial straits. We’ve paid for hospice. Every case is so sad."
The fundraising dinner, held Saturday night, was upbeat. Laughs were provided by Bob Uecker and Tommy Lasorda. Actor James Caan and director Rob Reiner presented awards and seemed thrilled being in the company of baseball A-listers for an evening. Tom Seaver, Robin Yount and Brooks Robinson were presented awards, and wine from Seaver’s Napa Valley vineyard was on every table.
The final award was titled “Legends of Scouting,” and had seven recipients: Bob Harrison, Fred Uhlman, Grover Jones, Pat Daugherty, Gail Henley, Lou Fitzgerald and Bracey. They had more than 300 combined years of scouting experience and untold millions of frequent flier miles. They’d signed numerous youngsters who eventually became major league stars.
They stood in a row behind the dais, holding their awards and listening to the audience applaud, seven aging men who’d given their lives to mining the country for baseball talent. In a profession that too often forgets its elder statesmen, they were grateful to be the fortunate ones, and they ambled off the stage and back to their tables, where their wives, children and grandchildren awaited with hugs.