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BACKDOOR TO THE BIG LEAGUES


by: Joseph Schuster
SPORT MAGAZINE

Each summer Major League teams hold baseball's equivalent of the Hollywood "cattle call." Walk-on try out camps. Open to all comers, these camps offer long odds (in general one "prospect" is signed at each) and a short look. Players face the nearly impossible demand of impressing coaches and scouts over the span of a few grounders, and a couple of swings and throws.

Yet the potential reward of a minor league contract is a siren song to anyone who still nutures a dream born in Little League. Depending on where they are held, tryouts attract 50 to 200 hopefuls, more if the site is a club's home city. For teams, the exercise is akin to sifting through a couple of miles of beach in hope that a gold doubloon will turn up. Occasionally it does. Frank White of the Kansas City Royals and Marvell Wynne of the San Diego Padres are major leaguers who signed at try-out camps. Most signees enjoy decent careers in the minor leagues.

"We're big believers in camps," says Art Stewart, scouting director for the Royals, who held 132 open tryouts nationwide last year. "We want to make sure no one slips through the cracks. It's especially crucial for boys who play in colder climates like Minnesota. Our scouts get such short looks at those players under bad weather conditions. As a result many players are overlooked. At least 12 major leaguers have come out of our camps."

The Royals hold over 100 tryouts each year, but most aren't sold on the idea. The Dodgers discontinued their camps several years ago, but the Pirates, Cubs and Cardinals are among the most frequent fishers of these waters.

Tryout camps usually begin a week or two after the June draft. Anyone over the age of 16 can attend, but most teams look seriously only at players between the ages of 16 and 22, although older -- sometimes much older players show up with visions of Roy Hobbs dancing in their heads.

Players run a 60 yard dash against a stopwatch with a target time under seven seconds. "If I see a guy who isn't under seven seconds," says Scott Nelson, assistant scouting director for the Cubs, "he better be able to do something else very well."

Players then take their positions to field fungos. Infielders throw to first, outfielders to the plate and catchers to second base. Only a few teams give every player time at the plate, usually five swings against a pitching machine. Pitchers throw in the bullpen where their velocity is measured by a radar gun. Good control and an 88 - 90 mph fastball are essential.

Most teams do not require the pitchers to run, but the Royals do. "Marvell Wynne came to one of our camps as a pitcher," says Stewart. "He ran for us and flew like the wind. If he hadn't run we would have never known."

Being cut does not always mean it's time for a career in accounting. Former player Tom Poquette created such a favorable impression at a tryout that Royals scouts kept an eye on him in high school ball the next season. He was later selected in the 1970 draft. Stewart estimates Royals camps produce about 200 "follows" each year. Players for scouts to watch in coming seasons.

If you are seriously thinking about taking a shot at a tryout camp, scouting directors suggest you begin running and throwing regularly a month before the camp. "The worst thing to do is to go into a tryout camp out of shape," says Stewart. "Even if you have talent it's of no avail if you're not in top shape." In most cases, speed in the 60 yard dash and arm strength in the field determine who survives the first cut.



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