On the Road Again?

Baseball is starting.

Selfishly, I’m excited. I love the game. And we need it here at FanGraphs. We can get ready for Opening Day with transaction analyses, prospect rankings, and various pre-season activities. But once the snow melts and temperatures warm (at least here in Midwest), we need games so we can talk about individual moments and the broader standings, and keep the content machine grinding away.

Behind that hum of activity, though, there’s still a pandemic. The overall state of COVID-19 is starting to improve in the US if you look at the numbers. Vaccinations are beginning to roll out, albeit not at the rate anyone would like, and important metrics like the positivity rates and total cases are in decline in most places relative to where they were at the end of last year. While those recent trends are likely cold comfort to those grappling with the disease every day, it does feel like there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.

But even with the situation improving, the pandemic is far worse than it was when everything shut down last March. Baseball is still starting up, however, and for scouts, it’s time to go to work. I ran around with a lot of these people during my time with the Astros and in my prior media days. I got to know many of them, and learned so much from talking with them. And because travel comes with the job, their health is in peril, perhaps even more so than that of the players and personnel who accompany a big league team. Due to the nature of their work, they’re not protected by any kind of bubble system, or mandatory testing schedule. It’s hard for it not to feel kind of gross.

The range of plans for dealing with scouting in the midst of what is still very much an active pandemic is wide. For some, it’s business as usual, with their amateur group blanketing the country as it did before we worried about packing masks and hand sanitizer, as if all of this never happened, or more importantly, wasn’t actively happening. Most teams have some sort of restrictions in place, trying their best to keep scouts local, and limiting plane rides only to cross-checkers; others have gone as far as to trying to limit air travel and hotels for all staff as much as possible. But seeing players remains priority one.

There are other factors in play as well, with two of the most significant pulling team approaches in opposite directions. Budgets have been slashed, and travel is expensive, giving teams a monetary reason to keep scouts away from airports, hotels and rental car counters. At the same time, those budget cuts have led to staff reductions for many clubs, resulting in fewer scouts needing to see more players than ever, especially after 2020 scouting restrictions have left teams scrambling to get looks at a 2021 class that is particularly deep after last year’s reduced draft.

Nobody is more frustrated by the situation than scouts. They already feel like they’re on the precipice of a rapidly changing industry. They’ve seen many of their friends and colleagues lose their jobs, their careers, even their lives. They want to get out there. I don’t know any group of people who actively want to do their jobs more than scouts. They want to drive late nights on desolate highways to see the pop-up kid in the middle of nowhere who is suddenly touching 96, or to get another look at that highly-regarded college catcher to gauge if he can really stay behind the plate. And to be fair, scouts have a wide variety of attitudes towards the pandemic itself. There are 500-plus amateur scouts working in baseball today, from a wide range of backgrounds, and for every one of them who trusts the science, there is another likely to tell you that this is no worse than the flu, that the masks and shutdowns are just an over-reaction, and, anyway, have you seen Plandemic?

But despite many scouts’ desire to get going again, the whole thing makes me exceptionally uncomfortable. As someone who used to spend 100-plus days on the road annually (time away from home that is still far less than most area scouts), I’m glad I’m not in that role again this year, where I would need to make hard decisions balancing my career against the well-being of my loved ones and community.

When scouts do hit the road, teams are trying to offer some protection, with most providing PPE (masks, gloves, sanitizers) to their staff. But the conditions on the ground can leave a lot to be desired. While the best of the big college programs have COVID protocols, they won’t be nearly as exhaustive or disciplined as those of Major League Baseball, and those major programs are also the places most likely to have uncomfortably large crowds.

Still, I worry more about the small schools. My last amateur assignment before things shut down last spring took place at a very rural junior college in the middle of the country. It was a 80 minute drive from the nearest Marriott, and when I checked for a place to get coffee in between games of a double-header, I learned that the closest Starbucks was 54 miles away. I was at a good program, one that has produced big leaguers, but does anyone really think they will have an effective protocol? Sure it’s a smaller crowd and it’s easy to isolate ones self while watching down the line. But what about when it’s time to huddle behind home plate to watch the pitcher and hold up a radar gun? What about the fact that you’re surrounding yourself with other scouts who are at a higher risk than most simply because of their own travel?

Complications arise when it comes to pro and international scouting as well. Some teams plan to only utilize their local scouts for spring training games, but others are taking their same pre-pandemic approach, flying staff into two of the hottest spots for COVID while keeping them out of the team bubble for safety purposes. And while some clubs are relying solely on their boots on the ground in Latin America, others already have staff traveling to the Dominican Republic and Colombia to see workouts. Both countries are currently designated as “Level 4: Very High Risk” on the CDC’s Travel Recommendations website. There is no higher risk level, though it should be noted the United States is the same alarming red shade on the CDC’s map.

The scouting community has already suffered losses. In July of last year, Diamondbacks international scout Johan Maya died in the Dominican Republic due to COVID-19. Before he was with Arizona, Johan was part of the Astros’ international contingent. A native of Venezuela, he loved the game so much, and during the several trips to the DR when I got to see players with him, I can’t remember a second when he wasn’t smiling. And sadly, he wasn’t the only lost to the pandemic. In September, Cardinals scout Charles Peterson passed away due to COVID-19 complications following an extended hospitalization. Dodgers scout Jairo Castillo died from COVID-19 complications in December. Peterson was 46 when he passed; Maya 40; Castillo, 31. I’ve spoken to several scouts who have battled the disease. One merely lost his sense of taste for a bit. Another quarantined himself away from his family in a locked hotel room, and later found himself on his knees, gasping for breath. There are scouts in the industry with pre-existing conditions, or who are simply at higher risk because of their age. It’s a very real danger.

I love the fact that baseball is back. I can’t wait to see what happens between the lines. I want scouts to be able to do their work. But as excited as I am, in the back of my mind, there’s a near-constant prickling of concern.

I’m just worried about my friends.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Rod Fridley
1 year ago

Good column