Monday, March 16, 2015

The Pitching Doctor

Rod Fridley clamored to stay in the sun on what, for Phoenix, was a brisk, early December Saturday morning, his advanced age no doubt intensifying his earthly discomfort. The sun seemed to rise skyward more slowly than usual, casting long shadows across a humble, browning high school baseball field at the north end of the city. Baseball fields are usually built facing the northeast so that, as most games begin in the evening, the sun is at a place in the westward sky where it can do the least amount of damage to spectators and players. At just before 8am, however, if you want to head down the third base line and look at hitting and pitching mechanics as a scout like Rod Fridley is apt to do, your retinas are right in its crosshairs. It matters not for Fridley whose eyelids sag down from his brow after decades of squinting into the glare, providing him with a sort of natural, Darwinian ocular shade. Forehead wrinkled beneath a cap he bought while the Clinton administration was in office, Fridley wears a permanent frown, the corners of his mouth having succumbed to gravity over time. This is the face of a baseball lifer, someone the game has chewed up and spit out times over. Once near the top of the industry, Fridley now struggles to make ends meet.

A native Virginian, Rod Fridley has been around baseball for four decades now. Along that road, which has become unquestionably rocky, he’s been a player, coach, scout and executive. His resume reads like baseball’s version of the Abraham to Jesus lineage passage of the Bible. The most successful stretch of that journey came with the Chicago White Sox in the late 1980s. “I was first brought on as an area scout,” said Fridley in a bourbony drawl that sounds as though it aged a bit farther south of the Mason Dixon line than Virginia, “and on my own had to cover all of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.”

It’s not unusual for a scout’s area of coverage to be that vast despite how daunting it may seem to those unfamiliar with the job. Eventually, Fridley’s area grew and changed to incorporate the talent-rich Southeast. This included Georgia where Fridley would pluck future All-Star Mike Cameron out of, as Fridley puts it, “that awful football factory in LaGrange” in the late rounds of the 1991 MLB Draft. It was another feather in the cap of a successful talent evaluation regime in Chicago led by then Scouting Director Al Goldis. Jack McDowell, Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Ray Durham, Alex Fernandez, Mike Cameron. All stars, all drafted while Goldis and/or his staff (including Fridley) were doing the picking. “I think, years later, Baseball America called our 1990 draft the Draft of the Decade,” Fridley remembers, “We got an awful lot of big leaguers out of that draft. Six if I remember correctly.”

More than 20 years later on this particular Saturday morning, Fridley isn’t at Roadrunner Park in North Phoenix to look at any significant young player, no prospects of note who might be part of some historic draft class. He’s simply here to stay sharp just in case someone comes calling for work. That hasn’t happened in some time now. Fridley has spent a good deal of what little money he has scampering about at various baseball networking havens like the Winter Meetings in San Diego or at Fall League games from Surprise to Mesa as he tries to remind executives with hiring power that he exists. “I’m just tryin’ to scratch together enough to get out there,” Fridley said without specifying where “there” is, though it’s likely wherever Social Security and his pension will take him and no farther.

Fridley is regarded by those who know him (this qualifier is important) as one of, if not the best, scouts they’ve ever come across. The adjectives thrown around by Rod’s peers are comically hyperbolic, especially for men who are paid to be abject realists and fawn over players whose skills can be deemed “average” as it pertains to the Majors. One of those peers is Dave Perkin, a scout and author who has known Fridley since 2007. “Rod is the best scout I’ve ever come across. He’s the most knowledgeable, the most thorough. He’s the best in the business at breaking down pitching mechanics,” says Perkin, “I would stop him and ask what he was seeing. Arm action, hip and shoulder separation…Rod has a checklist of things he’s looking for and he breaks down every one of them.”

While effusive praise is common from those who do know Fridley, it’s strangely difficult to find people who recognize his name. Baseball’s scouting community is a narrow social group made up exclusively of men. This social structure is put together like Russian nesting dolls. Scouts develop relationships with high school and college players, those players turn pro and some become scouts and the cycle repeats. In essence, scouts know the guys they’ve scouted, the scouts they’ve scouted with and the elder statesmen who scouted them as amateurs. This results in a remarkable amount of social rapport among men who are, professionally, at odds with one another in one of the most competitive industries on Earth. Everyone knows each other in the scout section of your local college game. They eat together, drink (heavily) together, discuss where they’re staying, how many travel points they’ve accrued on their credit cards, what a pain in the ass it is to log their expenses in the team’s new system, etc. Not Rod Fridley. He sits in solace with remarkable posture and is rarely approached by anyone while he scouts.

Despite the success of their amateur talent acquisition during Fridley’s tenure, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf mutually parted ways (though not on good terms) with General Manager Larry Himes, Goldis and the rest of the staff after the 1990 season. Goldis caught on with Milwaukee in ’91 and left less than a year later after a spat with the team over the extent of his duties. All this left Fridley in limbo as well. Himes, who had become the general manager of the Chicago Cubs, brought Goldis to the North Side, Fridley in tow. After a disastrous 1994 season, Himes was fired and Goldis was canned a year later. Fridley was left floating again before he latched on as an area scout with Cleveland until he was part of a classically bro-ish in-office altercation that could not be properly fact checked for publication. He was let go and has struggled to get both feet back in the game ever since.

The grotesqueness of that unverifiable incident isn’t enough to blacklist anyone for twenty years, especially when that person is purportedly at the top of his field. Much more marginal talents have been coddled through their improprieties, some quite severe. Baseball is, almost to a fault, an unwavering meritocracy. If a team thinks you can help them win they are going to hire you. After spending months talking to and observing Fridley, his issues run a bit deeper than one intense verbal altercation with another scout. Fridley has some communication issues. His circuitous way of storytelling is endearing but inefficient and often confusing. Forty years of knowledge and experience forces itself out of his mouth like Coke from a shaken bottle and it often results in a verbal stream of consciousness that leaves the listener weary or, as Fridley calls it, “with a tin ear.”

In a line of work where communication skills are just as important as one’s ability to identify talent, executives don’t want to sift through metric tons of verbal and written rubble to extract a few nuggets of gold. Even if Fridley is an excellent scout he may not be able to delineate his observations in a way that is useful to someone willing to pay him. That could be impeding his ability to find work.
Another issue plaguing Fridley is his unabashed disdain for nearly everyone he’s come across during his years in the game. Plenty of scouts, coaches and analysts that have gone on to achieve resounding success can’t escape Fridley’s ire, and he’s not afraid to say so, even to people he’s only just met. He describes many of them as “perfectly nice guys,” or “nice enough” before adding an omnipresent “but” as he begins to rip their baseball acumen to shreds. The term “Pitching Doctor” is a particular favorite pejorative label Fridley likes to apply to coaches he thinks are ruining pitchers by altering their mechanics in inefficient or harmful ways. He often discusses past colleagues the way an old man might talk about the way his young neighbors take care of their lawns. The only men Fridley seems to have professional respect for are his former bosses, Al Goldis and Larry Himes. This is an issue in, again, an industry as socially inclusive as professional baseball.

“I’ve lost my sponsors,” Fridley says of Himes and Goldis, the latter having been inducted into the Scouts Hall of Fame in 2009, both gone from the game. “I think that and some of it is a bit of age discrimination. Lotta the guys doing things now are young guys from Ivy League schools who have never set foot within a mile of a baseball field. I don’t have that background, but they certainly don’t have mine.”

Dave Perkin seemed to agree, adding “There’s an increasing rate of numbers guys doing baseball jobs and it’s shutting out guys like Rod who have probably forgotten more about baseball than these guys will ever know.”

The statistics vs. scout strawman narrative has existed for over a decade now. The truth is most teams use a heavy dose of both evaluation methods and the ones who don’t have a balance lean heavily on scouting and eschew stats, not the inverse. The idea that old timey baseball men are an endangered species is a misnomer. Perkins continued, “Money is likely another factor. He’s going to cost more with his experience and tenure than someone young will. Control is a big thing in baseball. People are hired to do what you want them to do. It’s full of acolyte sycophants.”

Whatever the reasons for Fridley’s extreme difficulty finding employment, his struggle is ongoing and gut wrenching to watch despite his petulance. “It is my life and my love, a little bit,” he said. It was ironically as clear and concise as a statement can be, ringing true with immaculate affection. Rod Fridley continues to clamor for the sun.

4 comments:

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  3. Thank you for writing this piece. I had the pleasure of passing time and innings with Rod today at my Son's scout league game. Initially, Rod, leaned in and asked for help identifying the parents of one of my Son's teammates, but as the conversation began to meander through baseball lore and mundanity I realized that I was speaking to a sort of a Professor Emeritus of the game. After Jackson's game ended, I had the good fortune to introduce him to Rod and I gently backed away to gather my things and watched with delight as Rod counseled my son on a couple of different aspects of the game and salted in some anecdotes he had earlier shared with me and walking away I had the distinct impression that we had been graced with a true saint of the game.

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  4. Another informative blog… Thank you for sharing it… Best of luck for further endeavor too. For more information visit daily tech studios

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