Gillick the game's top talent evaluator

July 21, 2011

Pat Gillick scouted me, too.

OK, so maybe one of the greatest general managers of all time didn’t actually scout me in the traditional sense.

I was never a prospect for the major leagues, in the same way that I was never a prospect to date a supermodel.

But perhaps the greatest honor of my “career” — such as it was — is that I went through the same Gillick Test as Roberto Alomar, Jayson Werth, Ichiro Suzuki and all the great athletes who, you know, could actually play.

And at the time, I didn’t even know it.

See, my first day-to-day experience covering Major League Baseball came in 2005, as a backup Mariners writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Objectively speaking, the team was terrible that year. But one highlight of the job was that it enabled me to talk baseball with Gillick, the brilliant and genuine man who will be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Gillick was working as an adviser to general manager Bill Bavasi at the time, and so I spoke with him over the phone a number of times during the year. But I didn’t meet him until the end of the season, when a large group of team officials gathered at Safeco Field for organizational meetings. Gillick was out watching batting practice before one game, leaning back on a dugout railing as he surveyed the field. I figured it was time to introduce myself.

So, I walked over to him and extended my hand. I thanked him for taking my calls during the year and said what an honor it was to meet him, because I believed then (and still believe now) that I was standing before the best baseball executive of my lifetime.

And then Pat Gillick said something entirely unexpected.

“Hey J.P., did you play baseball yourself?”

I wasn’t sure if it was a trick question. You must understand the first rule of sportswriting: Never, ever talk about when you played. If you do, there is a high probability that the people who play or work in the game — people who actually know and understand talent — will laugh at you. To expect otherwise is to believe Kobe Bryant would be impressed by your paycheck.

But in his instance, there was something honest, something inherently curious, about the way Gillick asked the question. So I told him, yeah, I played in high school and on a junior varsity team in college. Nothing special, I insisted.

Gillick nodded, as if the answer was precisely what he anticipated. And then he threw the verbal equivalent of a knee-buckling curve.

“You were a slap-hitting second baseman.”

Note the absence of a question mark at the end of that sentence. It was a statement, not a question. Gillick needed all of four seconds, and one handshake, to scan through the Amateur Player Checklist in his supercomputer noggin and conclude that the awkward 23-year-old before him was most certainly a former middle infielder of suspect athleticism.

He was right. Of course, he was right. In 15 years of baseball, I never once hit a home run. I am, however, quite confident that I led the Tri-Valley Conference in 130-foot duck snort singles during my senior year.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But in that moment, I was more shocked than if he had blurted out my email password.

“How did you know?” I stammered.

“Well,” he sighed, “I saw you walk over this way. You don’t have long arms or legs, so you wouldn’t have been a pitcher. You weren’t stocky enough to be a catcher. You aren’t muscular enough to be a big power hitter, so you wouldn’t have played the corner spots.

“You probably weren’t fast enough to play center field. You probably didn’t have the arm to play short. So, yeah, you were a slap-hitting second baseman.”

Gillick grinned. At that moment, I gained a new appreciation for why the man is so great at what he does. Gillick is a Hall of Famer because of what his teams accomplished during his career as an executive, but he’s always been an evaluator at heart. Better than anyone in the game today, he knows how a baseball player is supposed to look, move, and act.

It would be inaccurate to say Gillick was born with that ability. He wasn’t. He has worked at it for most of his 73 years on this Earth. He doesn’t compare today’s players with those he competed against as a pitcher at USC and in the minor leagues. Rather, he’s constantly testing his own conception of what makes a successful modern major leaguer — the on-field tools, the off-field makeup. As one of his former employees once told me, “Pat is always assessing.”

So, that’s why he took the time to break down my baseball “tools.” He just wanted to make sure his eyes were calibrated properly.

“You should have told him you were a power pitcher — that would have thrown him,” laughed Phillies executive Charley Kerfeld, one of Gillick’s closest friends. “I would say he’s done that with every person he’s ever met in his life.”

Gillick has reached the postseason everywhere he’s been a GM — from Toronto to Baltimore to Seattle to Philadelphia.

He won consecutive world titles with the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993, built the Mariners team that won an AL record 116 games in 2001, and won another World Series with the Phillies in 2008 — in what was (we think) his final season as a general manager.

He’s still working as a senior adviser to Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., still flying around the country to see amateur talent, still scrutinizing an afternoon batting practice in search of the next great player.

Gillick’s eye for players is one reason for all the success.

His eye for people is another. He prioritizes character, on and off the field. He hires excellent scouts, empowers them to do great work, and listens to their opinions. In a bottom-line-oriented business, contested at a frenetic pace, Gillick hasn’t forgotten how important it is to make sure his employees know their contributions are valued.

The result is uncommonly strong loyalty. Longtime Gillick employees talk about how he asks about sick relatives and offers assistance to scouts who have fallen on hard times. Kerfeld remembers calling Gillick after the tragic death of Christina Taylor Green — granddaughter of Phillies executive Dallas Green — during the Tucson, Ariz., shootings on Jan. 8. Gillick’s first reaction was that he had to be there for the Green family. So he and Kerfeld flew to Tucson.

“He’s a much, much, much better human being than a GM — and he’s a Hall of Fame GM,” Kerfeld said. “That’s why he’s had so much success. He’s a man who knows how to treat people. The guy who sweeps the floor is the same to him as the assistant GM. He’s very good to everybody around him. He knows their names. And none of it’s phony.”

I still remember seeing Kerfeld at the 2008 general managers’ meetings in California, mere days after the Phillies had won the World Series. After congratulating him on the championship, I asked Kerfeld — who lives in Washington state — how many days he’d spent at home during the pennant race and postseason run.

His answer: two days in two months.

When Pat Gillick gives you a scouting assignment, it’s a little like Steven Spielberg asking if you have time to watch a film he put together. You say yes without hesitation. And so Kerfeld was happy to play airport hopscotch while living out of a suitcase for eight weeks, doing everything he could to send Gillick out a winner, even if it meant not seeing his wife between Labor Day and Game 3 of the World Series.

As Kerfeld told me that day, “You do special things for special people.”

Gillick brought a pioneering spirit to his job, finding impact talent in the Dominican Republic (with Toronto) and Japan (with Seattle), along with just about every corner of the U.S. He is one of the most famous and accomplished executives in the history of American and Canadian professional sports. It’s quite possible that there have been more miles flown in the name of Gillick than just about any other modern baseball executive.

“He did send me away on an international trip where I got home on Christmas Eve, which didn’t go over too well with my wife,” recalled Bob Engle, one of Gillick’s most trusted scouts in Toronto and Seattle. “But you know what? You would do it, because you knew he would do it.”

Engle describes Gillick as a workaholic with a photographic memory, which sounds about right to me.

Just to test that Hall of Fame recall, I asked Gillick earlier this year if he remembered a six-year-old scouting report on an ordinary high school player who never amounted to much.

And this time, I wasn’t surprised at all by what he said.

“I do remember,” he replied, laughing. “What can I say? You looked like a slap-hitting second baseman.”