Scout troop packs place, just in case

Rare glimpse at Cuba fills clipboards aplenty

May 04, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

They're always looking.

The historic home-and-home series between the Orioles and the team of all-stars from Cuba may have been a one-time event -- perhaps even a geopolitical sideshow -- but it had to be one of the most heavily scouted exhibition series in history.

Nearly every major-league franchise was represented in the stands at Havana's Latin American Stadium when the Orioles visited Cuba five weeks ago, and there were plenty of guys with clipboards in the field boxes behind home plate at Camden Yards last night.

They didn't come to see the struggling Orioles.

Seems like a lot of effort and expense to scout a team from a country that doesn't allow its players to emigrate to play in the major leagues, but even the possibility of a change in the repressive Cuban political system is enough reason to stuff a file cabinet full of information on some of the world's top amateur players.

"I think it's important because, `Who knows,' " said Jack Zduriencik, the director of international operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers. "No one knows what is going to happen. It gets down to this: No matter where it is, if there's talent on the field, our job is to see it. Our job is to evaluate talent. We have no control over the [political] situation."

Zduriencik was accompanied to Baltimore by longtime Latin American scout Mike Brito, who gained notoriety in the late 1970s and early '80s for his discovery of Mexican pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela.

The Cuban team has a stable of hard-throwing pitchers with good control. The major leagues are suffering from a shortage of pitching depth. You figure it out.

"Any time you walk into a park, you're looking for the next Roger Clemens or the next Randy Johnson," Brito said. "Or you're looking for a guy with a quick bat like Ken Griffey. The Dodgers organization is always trying to get the best talent."

The goodwill exhibition series provided a unique opportunity for major-league scouts. Clubs periodically get the opportunity to scout the Cuban national team in international tournaments, but this series was the first time in 40 years that a Cuban team faced major-league competition.

"I think there's a great sense of excitement because of the historical significance of Cuba playing against major-league talent," said Zduriencik.

The Orioles, of course, are getting the best look. Almost every member of the baseball operations staff attended one or both of the games, but the club has tried hard to dispel suspicion that owner Peter Angelos embarked on the Cuban initiative to get his foot in the door in case there is a change in circumstance that makes it possible to sign Cuban players.

"We're just doing standard scouting, just like any other club," said Orioles general manager Frank Wren. "We want to have a read on players internationally, in case they become available to sign. That would be true if it were Australia or Cuba. We just tell our guys to try and give us as much information as possible."

That may be true, but it is becoming apparent that a lot of clubs view Cuba as international scouting's new frontier.

"We always watch the Cubans wherever they play," said Seattle Mariners assistant general manager Roger Jongewaard, who came to Baltimore to represent his team and get a firsthand look at the players he has been hearing about from his international staff. "We think they have some talent, and I like to see what I'm reading about. We have an extensive file on them."

Good scouting information could pay off if a top player defects from the Cuban team and tries to sign with a major-league franchise, or if Cuban-American relations improve to the point where there is a legal influx of players into the United States.

"I think that everybody in baseball hopes that would happen," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays international scout Rudy Santin. "The more avenues you have to get the best players, the better for baseball."

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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