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There's Trust in His Eyes

Bill Plaschke

Dodgers value the experience of scout LaMacchia, 85, who was full of praise for Ethier

August 16, 2006|Bill Plaschke

Around the hotel table sat Dodgers executives discussing trades.

In the corner sat the old scout watching television.

Around the hotel table they were talking about dumping Milton Bradley and wondering whom they should demand from the Oakland A's in return.

In the corner sat the old scout who has never worked with radar gun, computer or even stopwatch.

Around the hotel room table, someone mentioned an unknown double-A outfielder named Andre Ethier.

In the corner, the old scout jumped.

"Wait a minute!" shouted Al LaMacchia. "I know Andre Ethier!"

In a gait slowed by years of climbing bleachers, LaMacchia walked over from the television to the table.

With Dodgers executives staring at him in amazement, the old scout began to sell.

"I've seen Ethier for an entire season, he's a tremendous athlete, works harder than anybody out there, a young Shawn Green," LaMacchia reportedly told the execs. "You trade for this kid, he has a chance to be something big."

Thus it happened that a new Dodgers star was born.

In some ways, so too was an old scout.

*

He was on the phone, and it sounded as if he was crying.

"You're writing something about an old fella like me?" said Al LaMacchia.

He's 85, and he's been scouting for 51 years, and he can't believe anybody still cares.

I tell him I am writing the story because the Dodgers still care.

For the first time since Fred Claire was their last world championship general manager, the Dodgers are listening to their older scouts again.

They are reading reports scrawled in aging penmanship. They are evaluating players based on dusted-off instincts.

Ned Colletti's new administration is still using computers, but they also value guys who have no idea how to turn one on.

"I trust my eyes," LaMacchia said. "Been good enough so far."

Colletti trusted LaMacchia's recommendation at last year's winter meetings in Dallas, and the Dodgers are in first place in August, and that is no coincidence.

"You cannot microwave experience," Colletti said. "The only way to get it is to live it. I want guys who have lived it."

Colletti has hired two scouts/advisors since joining the Dodgers last winter in moves typical of him but totally uncharacteristic of any other CEO anywhere.

Both of the new guys were over 70.

The scout, Phil Rizzo, lives in Chicago and does nothing but attend Cubs and White Sox games.

"The guy who watched a bunch of Maddux starts and filed the reports on him?" Colletti asked. "That was him."

The advisor is Bill Lajoie, a longtime baseball executive who helped engineer the trade with one of his former employers, Atlanta, for Wilson Betemit.

"Scouts are my lifeblood, they see players, they know players, they can tell you things that you can't get anywhere else,"' said Colletti.

LaMacchia knew Ethier.

It required thousands of miles on his old Ford, and pages of scribbling in his little black date book.

It required a brief break for congestive heart failure -- "He told me it was just a little thing, he'd be back in a week" said Colletti -- and it took him all of last summer.

But LaMacchia made it his business to know Ethier.

"I guess that's what I do," he said. "I try to know players."

Working as a national scout from his home in San Antonio, where he lives with his wife of 62 years, Annie, LaMacchia would watch Ethier as he played for Oakland's double-A Midland team.

He saw him play in San Antonio, and Corpus Christi, and Frisco. He saw him taking early batting practice on 100-degree days, and running out ground balls at the end of blowout losses.

He didn't need a stopwatch to judge his hustle. He didn't need a computer to feel his swing. And when LaMacchia ever needs a radar gun reading, well, he just asks one of the scouts sitting next to him.

"The younger fellas look at me like I'm strange," he said. "But it's all in my heart and my head."

In Ethier, he saw so much potential, one day he couldn't help himself.

He walked down to the dugout railing and started giving him instructions.

Said LaMacchia: "I wanted to help the young kid, tell him not to try to pull everything, tell him to take what they gave him."

Said Ethier: "I thought he was just some crazy old man yelling at me from the stands."

A couple of old-timers quickly set the kid straight.

LaMacchia was a right-handed pitcher who won a couple of big-league games for St. Louis and Washington in the mid-1940s then became a legendary talent evaluator.

He is known as the scout who signed Dale Murphy with the Atlanta Braves, then he later spent 20 years and won two world championships with the Toronto Blue Jays.

He joined the Dodgers in 2003, but he initially thought he was wasting his time. He says few people in the front office ever asked for his help.

"I wasn't really doing much," LaMacchia said. "Then Ned came along, and everything changed."

Empowered by Colletti's edict that every employee would have a voice, LaMacchia used that voice on Ethier.

After that first conversation, the old scout would often meet the young prospect near the dugout and talk baseball.

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