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One Good Day

So, kid, you want to be a ballplayer, play a part in the Show? Then step out here onto the real field of dreams. Oh, not what you expected? A diamond of green velvet, sure -- but next to a highway heading south out of Parker to nowhere? Probably only a few months removed from a cow pasture. No screaming crowds, either. Just a handful of parents dotting the hill behind the dugouts, willing to drive a few miles to sustain their kids' fantasies.

But this is where it starts. Line up for BP.

"It's the dream, right?" says Brad Engle, Ponderosa High School '98, about to start his senior year at Mesa State. "To play major-league ball. One shot, man. You havin' a bad day, you can't do nothing about it. But one good day..."

"The more looks a guy gets, the better chance he has," adds Scot Sealy as he eyeballs the boys taking some cuts. "Just takes one set of eyes, man."

Sealy ("Like the mattress: I always told the girls, 'You ain't slept 'til you slept on a Sealy'") knows the drill. As regional scout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he's expected to find every promising schoolboy ballplayer in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Montana and West Texas. Today he's put out a call for auditions at Ponderosa High School.

As of last week -- hell, as of mid-September -- the Rays were professional baseball's worst team, out of the AL East pennant race a week after opening day, or so it seemed. But do you think that matters here? Not to the hundred or so young men who have driven from points in Colorado, Nebraska and Utah to show their stuff to a real live professional scout. On this, the final day for pre-playoff trades in the Bigs, on an ex-cow pasture in the middle of Colorado, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are the absolute center of the universe.

Sealy holds about five such tryouts a year, across the region, open to any guy sixteen to twenty-five who thinks he has what it takes to get noticed by a major-league scout -- the speed of a college sprinter, an arm like a steel spring and reflexes like a kung-fu master, that's all. It's community theater with cleats: Everyone wants to get on stage, but finding an actor ain't always easy. "If you get a hundred kids and get a follow on three or four, you've had a real good day," he says, "a real good tryout."

Actually, that number is wildly optimistic. On any hot summer day there are about five million kids playing baseball (Little League counts about 2.4 million, double it for school ball and other leagues), on diamonds, in parking lots, backyards, parks, school yards. Conservatively speaking, it's safe to say that at one time or another about 99.6 percent of them dream about playing major-league ball. But kids grow up -- somebody's got to be an accountant -- and only 750 can make the Majors (thirty teams, 25-man rosters) at a time. That's a dismal fifteen-to-10,000 reality-to-dream quotient.

Still, sometimes you have to try to know for sure, just so you can get on with life. "I thought I'd give it a shot," says Tony Sanders, just out of college and working at the Arapahoe County Justice Center. "I mean, what the hell, right? Maybe I'll play some ball."

Maybe. If you're an entry-level scout, you live for that Moment, when a what-the-hell wanders in and the dusty nugget flashes gold. Your attention has wandered, or it's late in the day and you're tired, and then suddenly you hear a stupendous crack, like a ponderosa pine tree struck by lightening. You look up and there's some long-limbed kid who's driven his pickup in from Tumbleweed, Nebraska, and he has just cannoned the ball 400 feet straight away. And you hold up your arm to stop the pitcher from throwing his next ball, and you say, nonchalantly, "Where do you go to school, son? Really, only a junior?" And without moving your eyes away because he might just disappear, you nod to your assistant to pull the kid's card out of a thick pile he has on his clipboard...

It can happen, you know. Last year Sealy is holding a tryout and this twenty-three-year-old out-of-state guy who happens to be visiting a buddy decides to stop by. He steps up to start throwing pitches, and there is a loud slap, like a deer rifle shot, ball to leather, and Sealy glances at the screen on the back of his radar gun, and it says 95, meaning miles per hour. That was a nice Moment. (He quickly signed the kid up for a Devil Ray Single A team out of St. Petersburg, though he was released this year.)  

Or even just yesterday, up in Greeley: About 120 kids show up, and they're taking BP, and one of them is this big kid who has driven up from Thornton because...well, because it's the majors and anyone can dream for a morning. But this kid, he steps up to the plate -- and starts pounding the ball. "Just hitting the crap out of it," says Jeff Thompson, Sealy's assistant. Turns out he's just out of Northglenn High School, at loose ends -- not even signed up for junior college ball! So you get his phone number, tell him you know a coach at a nice junior college in Arizona who's always looking for a guy who can hit, and you start setting it up.

Because you never know.

After all, that's how Sealy got his start. He was a big, thick catcher from Alabama who went to countless major-league tryouts, traveling road shows where regional scouts crisscrossed the Bible Belt checking out the young talent. And when he was fifteen, Sealy caught somebody's eye. He played some decent years, first with the Rangers organization and then with the Seattle Mariners, in their farm system, ending up at the AAA Tacoma Rainiers, hitting a consistent .270 -- not bad, but, ultimately, not good enough.

He retired a few years ago, grew a little thick around the belt, thought first about maybe going into coaching. But a friend told him to try scouting for a few seasons, and so here he is, on the road almost constantly -- holding tryouts, stationing himself behind home plate with a radar gun at Connie Mack tournaments, slipping into the stands on still-aired Arizona afternoons to take in the East Nowhere High v. West Middle-of-the-Desert matchup, because he's heard some kid throwing that day has a catapult arm and a breaking ball that dives like a one-winged plane. This trip began in late July, and Sealy won't sleep in his own bed in Mesa, Arizona, until mid-September.

"Outfielders," he calls, and a few dozen guys trot out into right field to take fly balls and air out their arms to third and then to home. Thompson says a kid's name, and Sealy, hitting to the field from the pitcher's mound, yells it out. The kid (some are dressed in sweats, a few shorts, many in smooth, tight baseball pants, as if the right wardrobe might help them get the part) separates himself from the crowd. He takes his stance and waits for Sealy to smack a fly.

After watching the balls whiz past first his left ear, to third, and then his right, to home, Sealy mutters a score to an assistant, who writes it on a card the kids have filled out with their names, ages, addresses. The grades range from a three to an eight, with a five meaning the kid has an arm like your average, journeyman major leaguer. Sealy assesses most as a two. Some boys don't even merit a mark. "Oh, my," he says as a throw dribbles by the mound, rolling like a boccie-ball toss. "They don't make a score for that."

But to the kids he is unfailingly encouraging. Each boy, no matter how good, gets the same number of balls to field and throw. "You got guys here that can't throw, can't catch -- just weren't born to play baseball," he says. "But they make the effort to come out here, do a workout in the hot sun, take batting practice in the heat. So you gotta show them respect." Even when one young kid misses an easy one-hopper -- barely Little League, never mind Major League -- Sealy is kind. "Bad hop," he calls. "Take another one."

And he's always on the lookout for the Moment. There is a brief pause and silence among Sealy's crew as a stocky, pigeon-toed kid from Nebraska fields a ball cleanly and buggy-whips the throw to third base, eye-high on a single hop. The ball hisses in the air. One of Sealy's assistants holds out the kid's card and Sealy glances at it. "What'd he run the sixty in?" he asks. The answer is "Slow," and so Sealy moves on and the Moment passes.

"Infielders," Sealy calls, and the glovemen form a knot behind deep shortstop. They step forward one by one to take three sharp grounders to their glove side, then one to the backhand and finally a slow roller that catches in the infield grass, lets Sealy see how the kid can field and throw on the run. "This kid in high school?" Sealy wonders as a lanky guy with Rollie Finger '70s hair and a goatee steps onto the dirt.  

"College," says Thompson, checking the card.

"I was gonna say. None of the high school coaches I know let 'em wear their hair like that."

"First basemen!" Sealy yells, and the half dozen or so boys who've staked out that position line up just outside of the line. The first kid, who plays with a perpetual Lenny Dykstra grimace, fields Sealy's stinging grounders as casually as if he's scooping litter for Adopt-a-Highway. His throws whir across the diamond on a vibrating rope.

"Hey, Ryan," Sealy calls to the kid, looking at his card. "You ever pitch before?"

"Yeah."

"You go to Christian Academy?"

"Yeah."

"You pitch for me today?"

"Yeah," Ryan says, walking to the side of the field with maybe just a little more swagger.

"Catchers!" Sealy yells, and the big guys with the thick legs and black pads line up behind the plate as Sealy grabs a bucket of balls and two of his assistants crouch next to him with stopwatches in their hands. They are to measure the "pop-to-pop" -- the time between the pop the ball makes as Sealy's pitch lands in the catcher's mitt and the pop it makes after the catcher yanks it out of the cushion and throws it into the glove of the second baseman 127 feet, three-and-three-quarters inches away.

A major-league catcher's pop-to-pop is under 2 seconds, usually around 1.9, even 1.8. The first guy's throw is 2.2, then 2 flat, then 1.95. Sealy looks at his card, nods for Thompson to tuck it in the "keeper" pile. Good arm.

The next catcher is nervous and overeager and launches his pick-off throw over the second basemen's head, and the ball bounds into center field. "That's alright," Sealy yells. "Air it out, baby. Show me somethin'."

"Where's he from?" he asks in a low voice.

"Sterling."

"Sterling? Where's that?"

"Northeast part of the state. Good pheasant hunting up there."

"Is there?" Sealy says. "Keep his name."

Batting is next, and one of the first hitters up waits on a pitch. "I don't throw balls," Sealy says, not really joking. "Nuthin' but strikes. If there's a ball in the cage it's 'cause you missed it, understand?"

A slim, rangy boy steps up to the plate and begins pounding balls deep into the outfield, the bat sweeping around his torso smooth and level and beautiful. Sealy, who watches the batter's swing and connection rather than the ball's trajectory, tosses a couple more pitches, then stops.

"How old are you?" he asks.

"Seventeen."

Sealy grins widely and looks over at his assistant standing next to the batting cage. "Seventeen!"

Then, "Where to you go to school?"

"Grandview."

His card is separated from the pile. ("I'm looking for the young guys," Sealy says later. "Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old, guys who I can keep an eye on as they go through high school, to see how they develop. Like this kid; I wouldn't have found him if I didn't have this tryout. Now I know that next year my ass is going to be in Grandview watching him play.")

Last up are the pitchers; "We're always looking for arms," Sealy says. First, though, he tells the rest of the players to go home.

"Thank you for coming," he tells them. "Good effort. Real good effort. I saw some good things today, and we'll be callin' some of you. If we don't, though, you should still keep comin'. Keep comin' to these tryout camps. Young guys, especially. That's how I got discovered. Really. It only takes one set of eyes on you. You got a chance, grab it. I know a lot of you drove a long way to get here, so ya'll travel safe home."

As it starts to sprinkle and the early afternoon summer thunder sounds off in the distance, Sealy stations himself behind home plate. He squats on a drywall bucket and aims a radar gun toward the mound. "Okay," he yells. "Give me your best bullets." The first throw is 88 miles per hour. Sealy raises his eyebrows -- perhaps a Moment?

A few minutes later another pitcher prepares to uncork his very best stuff for the scout. Sealy, who as a former catcher has a soft spot for the young men who crouch behind the plate, ribs the beefy kid who has stepped in front of him to catch the pitcher's tryout throws.

"Van Kooten, you're an animal," he growls in a low voice. "You know that? You're an animal."

The catcher doesn't turn around. "I try to be."

"How old are you?"  

"Twenty-four."

"You graduate?"

"Yeah."

"You married?"

"No."

"Got a girlfriend?"

"Oh, yeah."

"You say that with confidence, Van Kooten. Like you really got a girlfriend. What's her name?"

"Baseball."

Sealy smiles as he points his radar gun, aiming for a Moment. "Yeah. Baseball. I like that."


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