Diamonds In The Rough

BASEBALL JOURNAL

June 02, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

One evening it's northern Anne Arundel County, the next morning Chambersburg, Pa., the next day Essex. In the closing days before today's amateur baseball draft, Jim Gilbert's working life unfolds on ball field after ball field strung together by hundreds of miles of road and populated by young men who may have major-league talent.

Gilbert -- full-time Orioles scout -- watches, makes notes, moves on. He figures he drives 40,000 miles a year keeping tabs on players in high school, college, American Legion, summer and community league baseball in five states and Washington. After scouting 20 years and seeing thousands of young ballplayers, Gilbert says he still enjoys the hunt.

"You don't lose that," says Gilbert, a retired Baltimore City police officer who lives in Hagerstown.

He's a husky, 64-year-old man who speaks in a slow drawl. This perfect spring evening, as he walks from the parking lot at Joe Cannon Stadium in Harmans carrying his radar detector in a briefcase, he seems tired. He has had a few long days as the deadline approaches for the draft, which begins at 1 p.m. today.

"We don't really go by days or weekends," Gilbert says. "It's who you have to see, that's all."

On this Friday evening, Gilbert has to see Brandon Agamennone, an 18-year-old pitcher from Crofton who has compiled an 8-2-1 record for Arundel High School in 1994. Gilbert saw Agamennone pitch last fall and was impressed, but he wants to see more. Tonight, Agamennone pitches for the state division championship as his team faces Perry Hall.

"He's a gamer, that guy is. He knows how to pitch," Gilbert says of Agamennone. The Arundel High senior throws breaking balls, changes speeds, has good control and has "a good pitching head on him. . . . He's got everything but velocity."

Gilbert is here to see speed. He has seen Agamennone throw 80-mph fastballs, but that's not enough. The Orioles don't get interested until the radar gun shows 83 or 84, Gilbert says.

At this point in Gilbert's scouting of Agamennone, it's a question of numbers. But judging prospects is not so simple. Gilbert looks at the skills and also the person who possesses them. He often looks for a quality he cannot exactly name in words.

"What you can't see is one thing, it's in here," says Gilberttapping his chest with the fingers of his left hand. "As far as advancing, fighting their way up through the minor leagues into the big leagues, you've got to have a lot of that."

Whatever that quality is, Gilbert says one player who had lots of it as a prospect was Bill Ripken, a skilled fielder with good instincts who "wanted to play real bad. . . . He always told me he was going to knock Cal out at shortstop in the big club."

Gilbert scouted Bill Ripken at Aberdeen High and signed him to play in the rookie-level Appalachian League in Bluefield, W.Va., where about one of 20 players makes the major leagues.

In 20 years, Gilbert has seen several of his discoveries beat the odds, among them former Orioles first baseman and designated hitter Jim Traber; John Stefero, who played for the Orioles and Montreal Expos; Ricky Steirer, who pitched for the California Angels in the early 1980s; and right-hander Mike Bielecki of the Atlanta Braves.

Bielecki was one of the surprises. Gilbert spotted the Dundalk resident pitching at an American Legion game in Hagerstown where Gilbert had gone to see two other players. Those players faded into the crowd; Bielecki "just emerged out of nowhere," Gilbert says.

In the holiday weekend before the draft, Gilbert hopes to see three pitchers emerge: Agamennone on Friday night, 19-year-old Joey Rhodes in Chambersburg, Pa., on Saturday morning and 18-year-old Matt Leviton in Essex on Sunday.

Gilbert and part-time scout Ed Colbert of Baltimore take seats behind home plate in the metal grandstands of Joe Cannon Stadium along with about 1,100 of the players' relatives, friends, classmates. As Agamennone prepares to pitch to Perry Hall's second batter, Gilbert pulls out the radar gun and points it through the hurricane fence toward home plate.

"Speed is God-gifted," says Colbert, who played rookie ball in the Los Angeles Angels' organization in 1961 and 1962. You can teach a player a lot about pitching, he says, "but you can't teach him how to be fast."

This evening, Agamennone is fast, but not fast enough. In six innings, his best pitch crosses the plate at 81 mph. That's no better than when Gilbert saw him pitch for the Oriolanders in the fall.

"He's been at that speed a few years," Gilbert says. "You don't know if he's getting any better."

After the game, which Arundel loses after Agamennone is removed for another pitcher, Gilbert does not talk with the young man about his future with the Orioles. Not yet.

The same goes for Rhodes and Leviton, Gilbert says in a telephone interview Monday morning. Gilbert says he won't be recommending action on any of the three pitchers.

Rhodes, first spotted at Hendersonville (N.C.) High and touted highly by a veteran Orioles scout there, seems to have regressed.

"He's throwing across his body. He's just landing all over the place," Gilbert says. Leviton, who threw 84, 85 mph in the fall, "didn't throw well, either. His mechanics were all messed up."

Gilbert figured Agamennone would show something more. He thought the others would have progressed. He has made notes to add their names to the list of 100 to 200 players he is keeping an eye on at any one time. That's all he has got, three days and hundreds of miles later.

"You just don't know, you have to take a chance. That's what makes this game what it is, I guess."

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