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BEIJING 2008

At the Olympics, eyes on the ball

Baseball scouts aren't combing only the U.S. hinterland. The Games offer one-stop shopping.

August 17, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Used to be baseball scouts could get by on nothing more than an eye for talent, a stomach for greasy-food dinners and a tolerance for flea-bag roadside motels in places like Mobridge, S.D., or Tupelo, Miss.

Not anymore. With nearly a third of current major leaguers and half of all minor leaguers having been born outside the United States, simply beating the bushes and cornfields for talent isn't enough.

"It's a world game now," said John Stockstill, director of international scouting for the Baltimore Orioles. "You hop on a plane and you get here in 12 hours."

Which is why every major league team is believed to have at least one scout at the Olympics. Most, including the New York Yankees and Colorado Rockies, have two. And what they've seen so far is a surprisingly competitive tournament.

Cuba and South Korea are the lone teams to make it through the first four days unbeaten -- and only because Cuba held off stubborn Taiwan, 1-0, and South Korea won two of its first three games in the ninth inning.

The United States, meanwhile, is in danger of failing to make the medal round after last-inning losses to both unbeaten teams.

"That's international baseball for you," U.S. infielder Jason Donald said. "Every game, every run, every pitch, there's so much lying on it."

Which makes the Olympics one-stop shopping for professional scouts. "To see the Cubans, where else are you going to go?" asked Randy Johnson, a special assistant with the Oakland A's. "To see Korea, this is the place to go to see their best players. Same with Taiwan. It's a matter of seeing all the better players in the world in one venue."

Not that the scouts can sign any of those players. The Cubans are unavailable unless they defect, and all but one of the U.S. players is already signed. Many of the Koreans and Taiwanese are professionals in their own countries and none of the Japanese can negotiate with U.S. teams until they first become free agents at home, then go through a complicated and -- for the teams -- expensive posting procedure.

But then again, there's nothing wrong with a little window shopping. "You're just looking for talent, period," Johnson said. "You never know when any talent is going to be available [so] you have to constantly keep in check."

Adds Gordon Blakeley, specialist assistant for the Yankees, who signed two Chinese last year: "It's a couple of things. One, you look to try to see if there's somebody you can sign now. And two, for the future."

Scouts also use the Olympics to update reports on many of the prized prospects playing for the U.S., in case their names come up in trade talks. But just whom they're looking at and why is a closely guarded secret.

"I don't comment on any particular players," Stockstill said. "Some clubs will have no players, some will have eight or 10. And some will be available and some won't be available."

Among the teams scouts are panning is the Netherlands, while one they're watching closely is Japan, an all-star team of the 24 best players from the Japanese Central and Pacific leagues.

"If you went to Japan, it might take you a month to see all those guys," Blakeley said. "[But] we're not skipping anybody. You just never know. Sometimes guys at a young age throw 85, 86 [mph]. And three or four years later you see them again and they're throwing in the lows 90s."

But if the Olympics have become a necessary stop on every scout's itinerary, it's not the only one. Or even the most important one.

"Bottom line, you have to be really good in the Dominican and Venezuela," said Colorado's Rolando Fernandez. "But it's also always good to have other resources to cover other ground. Because you can always find good players.

"And that's what our job is: to find good players. It doesn't matter where they are."

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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