On an autumn night in Atlanta in 1996, Hep Cronin walked from Fulton County Stadium with Atlanta Braves scouting director Paul Snyder, commiserating. There had been this kid from Turpin High School. . .
Hep was a national scout, what they call a cross-checker, in the Braves organization for 30 years. He was maybe halfway through his run when he suggested the club take a look at an undrafted free agent from Cincinnati.
“He wants $10,000 to sign,’’ Hep told the team.
“We’ll give him $5,000,’’ was the response.
The player said thanks but no thanks.
A few years later – Oct. 23, 1996, to be exact – Jim Leyritz hit a three-run homer that turned the World Series. His team, the Yankees, trailed two games to one in the Series and by three runs on the scoreboard that night, with one out in the 8th inning. Leyritz’ blast off Mark Wohlers tied the game and lifted the Yankees from the brink. The Bombers won the game in 10 innings and the World Series in six games.
After that pivotal Game 4, Paul Snyder turned to Hep Cronin and said, “I guess we shoulda given the kid the $10,000.’’
That’s baseball scouting. So is this:
When St. Louis drafted Albert Pujols in the 13th round in 1999, Hep Cronin was in the Atlanta Braves draft room. “Who’s that guy?’’ he asked. No one knew.
A few years after the Reds drafted Chad Mottola in the 1st round, ahead of Derek Jeter, then-Reds manager Ray Knight sat in the manager’s office at Riverfront Stadium and declared Mottola would be the club’s rightfielder “for the next 10 years.’’
In 1978, the Baltimore Orioles took two third basemen in the first two rounds: Deer Park High’s Bob Boyce, in Round 1, 22nd overall and. . . Cal Ripken in Round 2, 48th overall.
Twenty-three players were taken ahead of Mike Trout.
Forty-three went before Joey Votto.
The chances of hitting on an amateur pitching phee-nom who later stars in the major leagues are about the same as one of those little sea turtle hatchlings making it to adulthood. On the list of Inexact Sciences, baseball scouting ranks somewhere between handicapping a horse race and predicting the weather. The Reds haven’t been great at it for a lot of years. They’ve had lots of company.
“Probably the hardest thing in the world,’’ Hep Cronin, father of Mick Cronin, chuckles. “You need conviction and a good gut’’ instinct. “Some guys just want to do it on the numbers. If it was that easy, everybody could do it.’’
Hep was the guy who urged the Braves to take third baseman Larry Wayne Jones No. 1 overall in 1990. It helped that everyone’s No. 1 – high school pitcher Todd Van Poppel – was adamant about going to college. But Cronin insisted after seeing Jones that Chipper would be “the next Cal Ripken.’’
In fact, Cronin’s report on Jones hung for a few years on a wall at Turner Field, in a spot called Scouts Alley.
He knows scouting is a business of making mistakes. No one can know what an 18-year-old pitcher will be when he’s 28. An ex-pitcher, most likely. There are “projections,’’ of course, but those barely qualify as educated guesses, from even the wisest of scouts.
As Midland Redskins coach Dave Evans said this week, “You can project all you want. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.’’
Evans has managed all kinds of future major leaguers, everyone from Mike Matheny to Andrew Benintendi. If every kid were Bryce Harper or Junior Griffey (another Midland guy), scouting would be simple.
Take Benintendi. The Reds did, in Round 31, the year he graduated from Madeira High. Evans had told Benintendi to go to college a few years to acquire experience and strength. He did. After an OK freshman season at Arkansas, Benintendi bulked his 5-foot-11 frame and became the national college player of the year his sophomore season. The Red Sox took him in the 1st round. Thirty-first round to 1st round, in just two years. He’s on the cusp of stardom now. “Projecting players is really, really hard,’’ Evans says. “Benintendi beat the odds. So did Scooter Gennett’’ another Midland player seen as too small to make it.
Hep Cronin chuckles when asked how hard it is to be right even some of the time, when you make your living judging 18-year-old pitchers. “(Paul Snyder) told me, ‘You’re gonna fail nine times out of 10 on high school guys. You gotta draft 10 high school pitchers to get one’’ right.
The first player Hep Cronin ever signed was a kid from Holmes High School, named Leo Foster. On his first at-bat in the major leagues, Leo hit into a triple play.
“Scouting baseball. Whew,’’ said Dave Evans.