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'A true baseball gentleman': After four decades, a Cardinals scout returns his radar gun amid changing landscape

'A true baseball gentleman': After four decades, a Cardinals scout returns his radar gun amid changing landscape

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On their way to work this past Halloween, Cardinals scouts Dirk Kinney and Mike Roberts stopped at Roberts’ favorite place for breakfast in Little Rock, Ark. After more than four decades on the road with an eye for talent, Roberts had developed a nose for culinary prospects, too, from the best oysters in Louisiana to the best barbecue around Memphis. He knew the best burgers off the beaten path, and when in Little Rock, knew the best place for scouts to get a five-tool breakfast. It’s at a little joint named Homer’s, because of course it is.

Kinney bought a souvenir coffee mug for Roberts and they headed to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s field. When there are other scouts present, back when they could be, and Roberts arrived it’s “like the Godfather’s walking in,” said Little Rock coach Chris Curry. “The respect is through the roof.” He urged the same from his players as Roberts spoke to them before walking the field, watching their practice, and then settling in, as scouts do, to observe.

That is how Roberts, “Lefty” to his friends, spent his final hours as an employee for the Cardinals — a lot like he spent the previous 43 years with them.

At a ballpark.

“Seventy degrees. Sunny day. No wind. Baseball to watch,” said Kinney, an area scout. “If you’re going to ride off into the sunset, there are worse ways.”

This past Monday, Roberts packaged up his club-issue laptop, radar gun, and Wi-Fi hotspot and shipped them back to St. Louis. That was his final act of a career with the Cardinals that stretched from pitching in the minors in the 1960s, to scouting the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, to mentoring scouts for the current farm-fed team. As a scout and regional cross-checker, he went from plugging coins into payphones to mobile “bag phones” to recording video on his phone. He pitched batting practice to Stan Musial, evaluated Yadier Molina in high school, and, before games stopped this spring, he saw 2020 second-round pick Masyn Winn in Houston. Roberts, 80, is part of the fabric of the Cardinals — a thread that connects past to present to future. And on Oct. 31, his contract ended. It was not renewed.

Throughout Major League Baseball, teams are downsizing budgets after a season upended by a pandemic. Some teams are further shrinking scouting staffs, letting contracts lapse, and limiting travel because there are fewer games, lingering financial concerns, and concern for the novel coronavirus’ continued spread. The advance of the analytics revolution has reshaped scouting for two decades. This year’s retreat from the road and reassessment forced by a virus could accelerate changes. What won’t change is the benefit of area scouts and cross-checkers like Roberts, on the ground, throughout the stands, in person, and best illustrated by Roberts’ lasting influence even after his last day.

“I hope that teams recognize when we’re through this what a modern scout can bring to the table, and how valuable the scouts like Mike are,” said Sig Mejdal, Baltimore’s assistant general manager whose first job in baseball was an early architect of the Cardinals’ analytics. “There is so much information available on players and the job has changed, but with these new skills and scouts that have traditional skills — they’re still crazy impactful. There are things you see in person you can’t get from a spreadsheet. … Our world likes its experts to have confidence, and the more the better. Mike is an expert, but he’s curious and confident that he can know more. He asks questions, never stops developing or exploring, and isn’t that a real expert? That’s Mike. I know the importance of baseball to St. Louis and what the 2011 championship and four consecutive NLCS mean there, and that would not be possible without the modern scouts. He’s one of those unsung heroes.”

“As a mentor to scouts,” said John Mozeliak, Cardinals president of baseball operations, “his name will be said around here for a long, long time.”

When the Cardinals and other teams pulled their scouts off the road, they put them in front of screens for this past year’s draft. Tech is ubiquitous at ballparks, slurping in everything from spin rates to exit velocity and spitting out data paired with video and high-speed highlights. Still, scouts were limited to the morsels on the screen, not the feasts of seeing the whole field.

During a conversation this past week from his home in Hot Springs, Ark., after a day of corralling oak leaves, Roberts described how he sees video as essential for coaching — replaying the same snippet over and over and over again to identify flaws — but its narrowness takes some adjustment for a scout. On highlights, the camera follows the ball. Sometimes it’s better to follow the player.

And, if possible, read the person.

The pandemic limited such interactions.

“With technology we can do more in some cases and we can also do more with less,” Roberts said. “But we don’t always see the reaction of the player prior to or following the play. These are the things I need to see in a game. How are they under pressure? Will they fold? You’re missing the human side of the relationship between the guy you sent to see him, the player, and the organization. You can still get a look at him. Somewhere along the line I always found a way to say hello, too.”

Roberts has plenty of tales to fill the innings with other scouts, the hours in the cars, or evenings over oysters, and he’s quick to point out “I’ve had players released, too.” He attended a showcase event in Wichita, Kansas, with Mozeliak, then scouting director, and after seeing a third baseman he assured them he was “a special hitter.” That was Albert Pujols. At midnight somewhere in Kentucky, he and Mozeliak watched Austin Kearns take batting practice, and Roberts recalls the person chasing baseballs beyond the fence gave up to instead protect the windshield of his truck. He signed Tom Pagnozzi after seeing him at catcher, was there on Texas A&M’s chilly opening night to watch Michael Wacha, and went to a showcase in Joplin, Mo., to “sit” on a young lefty named Rick Ankiel.

A few years ago he and scout Aaron Looper traveled through Oklahoma to see a righthander with crackling analytics and enthusiastic reports. Roberts didn’t need to spy the big numbers on the radar gun to know how much it liked the pitcher. He was more thrilled by the small number of scouts in the stands to see Ryan Helsley.

“We got this guy — how fun is that?” Roberts said.

All of the scouts with the Cardinals and many executives who got their start there have Roberts stories. Even as the team scaled back his travel in recent years, he’s spent weeks on the road with a parade of young scouts who are executives around the game, including Angels scouting director Matt Swanson, Mejdal, and two of his Baltimore colleagues, general manager Mike Elias and director of player development Matt Blood. It wasn’t his title, but mentor was his role in recent years. Longtime friend and Cardinals’ baseball operations exec Marty Maier, now with Cincinnati, said Roberts “would also do everything to help the next generation.”

During this scheduled time together, Roberts helped them acclimate to the job, and not just at the field. He tells young scouts about the importance of tipping the hotel maids and whoever puts out the breakfast, because as a scout they’ll be back, they’ll forget something. He talks to them about being road weary, being away from family. By talking to them about the lifestyle, he also becomes part of lives. When Mejdal’s father was ill, Roberts called often to check on both of them. Roberts attended Blood’s wedding, talks regularly with scouts who have moved organizations, and because of that and his time spent, he’s a touchstone in the business.

“Do you know Mike Roberts?” Blood said, recreating conversations between scouts. “Yeah, I know Mike Roberts. What a great human.”

“I’ve been in Lefty’s back pocket for a decade now,” said Ty Boyles, the Cardinals’ Midwest regional cross-checker. “It’s not like a textbook, A to Z. He’s a living textbook. He has an ease and grace how he goes about the job.”

Roberts has greeted many of his mentees with the same phrase: “Let your feet hit the floor in the morning and don’t lie.” He told Clint Brown, the Cardinals’ cross-checker in the Southeast, whenever he “sees a big guy who can run and has power — go back and see him again.” That echoed in Brown’s ears as he scouted the Cardinals’ 2020 first-round pick, Georgia prep star Jordan Walker. After a young scout told Roberts he graded a player as a seventh-round pick, Roberts advised: “Second round. Your career is going to be short if you don’t start liking players more.” He always likes to “rattle a few cages with the line that you’re watching the game from the wrong spot,” Kinney said.

Many of his mentees can repeat in unison his suggestion to watch infield and outfield drills from a few rows behind the first-base dugout — to see how throws truly carry.

Roberts reminds scouts that when the big-league team is good “we’re all good, and when we’re bad, none of us are any good.” And he will eventually talk about the time he delivered a pitch and was afraid to “hit God.”

In 1962, Roberts was a lefty in minor-league spring training when he got the call to throw batting practice to other hitters. Awaiting him on that Florida back field was Stan Musial, who wanted to face a lefty and wanted to see some breaking balls.

Roberts put the first three in the dirt.

“That’s OK, lefty,” Musial said. “We’re all right.”

“And then we had a BP,” Roberts recalled.

Roberts told that story almost 60 years later and hung on the word “we.” Musial could have said “you” or shouted it, but instead he said “we.” The inclusiveness of that comment calmed Roberts, stayed with him, and for many years so did a baseball signed by Musial from that day. Roberts gave the ball as a thank-you gift almost 10 years ago to the doctor, a Cardinals’ fan, who shepherded him through treatment for colon and rectal cancer.

Through that battle, which he learned he won shortly after the Cardinals claimed the NL pennant in 2013, he kept scouting.

“He had a lot of things he probably could have done, and it wasn’t like he needed baseball,” Brown said. “He’s one of those people that baseball needed him. A true baseball gentleman.”

A native of western Missouri who grew up listening to Cardinals games, Roberts threw his last pro pitch in 1964 in Minnesota’s farm system. He returned near home to teach physical education in Lee’s Summit and coach. He recalled that he started as a scout “watching games from the bullpen,” but the chance to make it formal, as a profession, came in the late 1970s. He joined the Cardinals and a group that included scouting legend Fred McAllister and Marty Keough, and became close friends with Maier. Outfitted with mobile phones for their cars, the two would pass the hours on their drives between games, bouncing ideas and opinions off each other and spending hours together on different strands of asphalt.

When they were in the same room, they insisted they wouldn’t leave without really “saying what you felt about a player.”

“He’d pull his glasses off, stop and say, ‘This is what I saw …,’” Maier said.

There are Cardinals prospects he scouted who will reach the majors years from now and scouts he mentored who will spot amateur talent for years to come. That’s a legacy for all to see. Scouting became as competitive for Roberts as pitching was because “it was me against Johnny Jones, me against the industry, me against the Cubs” in the search for talent. And as the industry changed — exponentially in recent seasons — he sought ways to adapt. Like those glasses he’d remove before offering an opinion, the analytics and tech could be utilized to sharpen or focus what he sees, not replace it. As teams streamline scouting, look for areas to reduce cost and face the possibility of the virus limiting in-person scouting, there’s a balance to strike. Focus and sharpen, but be aware some views cannot be replaced.

Roberts is a regular visitor to Little Rock with an open invitation he’ll accept to attend any games, and his long road with the Cardinals brought him there for his final day. The scoreboard danced with data from the latest tech. Players fell into choreographed drills. Roberts had the view he preferred, of the whole field. As infield and outfield practice started, he got Curry’s attention for a question.

“Now you know the best place to watch this?” he said.

Roberts pointed to the stands behind the first-base dugout.

“I’m 42 years old,” said Curry, born the year Roberts started scouting for the Cardinals, “and I’ve never heard that before.”

Experience offers an excellent vantage point.

“It’s always changing,” Roberts said. “Maybe we are a dying breed, and that’s OK. We shouldn’t forget what doesn’t change — if you can’t get excited about a player then how do you get your club excited about them? That excitement about finding a player gets them on a roster. Someone always has to say, ‘Yes!’ I’m still excited for the organization, for the players I took part in. I’m excited to watch.”

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