If George Genovese were trying to assemble the finest team of rodeo cowboys, he would pay closest attention not to the heroes who ride the crazed animals but to the guys assigned to hose the beasts down after the performance.
Genovese, however, is a scout for the San Francisco Giants. And he has made a career out of discovering, nurturing and eventually signing to professional baseball contracts guys who not only didn't star on their high school or junior college teams, but in many cases didn't even start.
Some pro baseball scouts concentrate on drafting and signing polished diamonds, the elite players of amateur baseball. Others look for diamonds in the rough. Genovese goes another step. For 25 years, he has been discovering diamonds that are still in the mine, buried under a thick cover of immaturity and lack of instruction, guys buried deep on their own team's depth chart and who spend so much time sitting on the bench that they have earned endearing nicknames like "Splinter Butt."
Take George Foster. Genovese did. Everyone else looked at the 18-year-old Foster in 1967 and saw this incredibly skinny kid, a reserve at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale who appeared to have last eaten a good meal around the time of the Sputnik launch. Genovese saw a skinny kid who was just learning the basics of baseball, but who could, on occasion, launch a batting practice pitch nearly into Sputnik's orbital path.
With competition from \o7 no\f7 other scouts, Genovese signed him to a contract in 1968, and Foster was in the major leagues two years later. He was traded by the Giants after three seasons, but when he retired two years ago, Foster had hit more than 300 home runs, accumulated more than 1,100 runs batted in.
"Not bad for a skinny kid," said Genovese, 65, who lives in North Hollywood and patrols much of Southern California in search of talent.
"When I saw him for the first time he had an average arm and average speed, but the first time I pitched to him he showed tremendous power, amazing power for such a little guy. And he also had tremendous desire and a real willingness to learn. I never had to prod George Foster. He was always there, always ready. One of the first times I ever talked to him he said to me, 'Mr. Genovese, I'm going to play in the big leagues.' "
Before Foster there was Bobby Bonds, a kid signed by Genovese in 1964 after a high school career in Riverside that drew rave reviews from nobody. Except Genovese. He had organized a team called the Giants Rookies in 1964 for prospective players. The team, which Genovese still oversees, tours Southern California, playing against pickup teams made up of high school and American Legion players. Another Giants' scout, Evo Pusich, brought Bonds to see Genovese after Bonds' junior year in high school and Genovese put him on the team for the summer.
"After a few games I told Evo, 'When this kid graduates, sign him.' But he had a terrible senior year. Just terrible, and all interest in him died," Genovese said.
The Giants turned Bonds down, despite Genovese's pleadings. After he arranged another tryout for Bonds and the Giants again rejected him, Genovese called scouting director Jack Schwartz.
"I told Jack that I would lose sleep over not signing this guy," Genovese said. "I mean I would have really lost sleep. I thought he was that good."
The Giants gave in, signing Bonds to a contract and shipping him off to an instructional league. In his 10-year major league career, Bonds hit 332 homers, drove in 1,024 runs and stole 462 bases.
"In hindsight, we all would have lost more than a little sleep if we hadn't signed Bobby Bonds," Genovese said.
There were others.
In 1968, the same year he signed Foster, Genovese secured Gary Matthews out of San Fernando High School, where he was a pitcher. And not a very good one. But while other scouts saw a pitcher who couldn't pitch, Genovese saw a pitcher who could hit the ball out of sight and wondered why he wasn't a regular player.
He became one in the minor leagues and turned in a thumping major league career. In 13 years with the Giants, Atlanta, Philadelphia, the Chicago Cubs and the New York Yankees, Matthews hit 197 homers, drove in 869 runs and had a career batting average of .286.
"I didn't think he could pitch," Genovese said. "Nobody thought he could pitch. But this guy really turned me on at the plate. I thought to myself, 'This guy doesn't \o7 have\f7 to pitch, now does he?' "
The same year he signed Matthews and Foster, he also signed Garry Maddox, a scrawny kid from San Pedro High School who played second base and occasionally the outfield and impressed only his parents with his talent. Until Genovese saw him.
"I saw tremendous speed," Genovese said. "He would run down absolutely everything hit anywhere near him in the outfield. And the next game he'd be back at second base."