Scouting For The Next Major Leaguer

Thursday, July 2nd 2009, 4:06 pm
By: News On 6

By Kyle Dierking,

Along a two lane road, miles away from tall buildings and traffic, the search begins.

"Sometimes you have to go into the woods to find them," Ty Nichols says, smiling.

Driving down a gravel-filled road somewhere between Stillwater and tiny Glencoe is one of the many paths he takes. It could be a highway in Oklahoma or any of the other five states he scours for baseball talent.

"It's the thrill of finding a prospect," Nichols says. "If you're lucky enough to get him drafted and as a baseball player they mature throughout the minor leagues and they get to the big leagues, it's a lot of satisfaction."

Right now, the major leagues feel impossibly distant on a trek to a high school summer league game. But that is Nichols job, to identify and project amateur talent as an area scout for the Toronto Blue Jays organization.

"It's a marathon," he says for the first of many times today.

Sometimes I'm not sure if he is talking about the road to playing professional baseball or the amount of traveling he does to find players.

Nichols spends more than 100 nights a year on the road, not counting the day trips he makes to see players. Besides Oklahoma, he covers Arkansas, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and Missouri.

"We drive a long ways," he says. "We're on the road an awful long time, but it evens out in the end. I'd rather do that than be inside."

Proof of his road warrior mantra can be told through two cars - one old and one new.  The Pontiac he just got rid of had more than 190,000 miles. The new vehicle has logged 5,000 miles and is only a month old.

The odometer is not being overworked today. It is only about 70 miles from his Broken Arrow home to Glencoe. The stop is to evaluate a player the Blue Jays recently selected in the amateur draft.

Driving into the community of 661, a gas station/lawn mower rental greets out-of-towners with a sign that reads, "Welcome Best of the Southwest baseball." That of course is followed by the standard sales pitch at the bottom of the marquee, reading "ice, drinks, snacks." The words "ice" and "drinks" is probably all it took to lure people inside on a triple-digit temperature day.

As we pull up to Glencoe High School, Nichols smartly parks far away from the baseball field. It is one of the tricks you learn when you've seen cars dinged and damaged by foul balls. 

Nichols does not sport any visible Blue Jays paraphernalia, wearing a white polo and a green visor. He walks to the field towing a small leather bag that holds his radar gun, a stop-watch and a duct-taped notebook for writing down observations.

He blends in with the crowd for most of the game except for the distinctive feature of having a radar gun. There's the occasional question about pitch speed, which he's glad to answer, but otherwise Nichols is left to take in the nuances of America's Pastime.

"You're watching them run, throw, catch, field and hit - all the tools," he says. "If those start to add up and they show major league tools, you start paying more attention. You give all the kids an opportunity."

Nichols was once in the same position that many of the players he is now evaluating. After high school, he spent seven years playing for the Baltimore Orioles organization. He also has the unique experience of growing up around the game. His father was a minor league manager.

When his playing days ended, Nichols spent what he calls five minutes in the real world before joining the Blue Jays 11 years ago.

"I was more of a competitor than a spectator. I wanted to play, I wanted to be on the field; I didn't like sitting on the bench" he says. "It took me about a year to start watching ESPN and start watching baseball again. If you've been around it your entire life, it's something you love to do and love to be around. It didn't take me long to get back into it."

The game he is involved in now is an entirely different one. It is the tricky game of talent evaluation - a job that doesn't come with a crystal ball.

"We make mistakes and it's tough because we are dealing with human beings," Nichols says. "We do make mistakes, but you try to limit those mistakes."

But there is something that is still the same.

"I'm still competing. I'm still competing against the guys that I scout against every day and they're trying to compete against me too," he says. "Hopefully we're trying to see something a little different and put that prospect exactly where he is now and what we think he's going to be doing later."

Nichols finishes taking his last few notes along the third base line, tosses his things in his bag and heads toward his car.

He is proud of his new ride. The car is sporty, noticeably bright yellow and the engine has a certain bite when it glides down the road. The mostly black interior with tinted windows provides an ever-changing view of America that a corner office could never replicate.

"I get to watch baseball for a living," Nichols says. "I get to go to the ballpark every day rather than working inside."

It is just another day at the office.

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