29 Years and Counting: A Visit With Longtime Cubs Scout Billy Blitzer
The 2011 season marks Billy Blitzer’s 29th consecutive year scouting for the Cubs, a rarity in these days of rapid turnover when too many owners and team managements are looking for quick fixes and think the development process can be miraculously speeded up. The Reds’ Gene Bennett probably holds the modern record for scouting longevity, retiring at the end of 2010 after 58 years with Cincinnati, but the personable Blitzer, who will turn 58 on August 14, is halfway there.
During his time with the Cubs, Blitzer has worked for six general managers (from Dallas Green to the incumbent, Jim Hendry), eight scouting directors, and 11 East Coast scouting supervisors, but he dismisses any profound explanation for his job security. “My father always told me to do my job and work hard at it,” says Blitzer, adding that he is usually one of the first scouts to send in his reports to the main office. While he built his reputation scouting the amateur free agent market, in 2011 Blitzer’s primary duties have become professional scouting, in which he evaluates other organizations’ minor leaguers.
The jewels in Blitzer’s scouting resume are shortstop Shawon Dunston, the number one pick in the nation in 1982, and 267-game winner Jamie Moyer, who signed as a sixth-round pick in 1984. “Jamie only threw 85 miles per hour when I saw him in college, and he may be down to 83 now, but he still knows how to pitch,” Blitzer asserts. “He may have had the least talent of all the players I’ve signed, but he has been the most successful.” (It wasn’t the scout’s decision to give up on Moyer after the 1988 season, which allowed all but 28 of Moyer’s victories to come in uniforms other than Chicago’s.) Moyer will miss 2011 after having “Tommy John” surgery, but hopes to resume his career in 2012 near age 50.
Like all good scouts, Blitzer is proud of the players he has guided into pro baseball, even the ones who did not enjoy stellar big-league careers. Some have stayed in the game as coaches, instructors, and scouts, notably Alex Arias of the Orioles, Derrick May of the Cardinals (son of former major league outfielder Dave May), and Greg Smith of the Rangers. “All three of them were somewhat shy as players and have learned now to be more vocal as coaches,” Blitzer notes with a smile, understanding how the challenges of daily life in baseball can widen and deepen personalities.
Being a part of baseball was a lifelong goal for Blitzer, who grew up in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn and still makes his home near Coney Island. While a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School, one of his sophomore teammates was the future Mets outfielder Lee Mazzilli. “I didn’t have to be a scout to see that Lee would be in the big leagues one day,” Blitzer recalls.
Billy went on to Manhattan’s Hunter College where by his own scouting report he was a “good hit, can’t run” outfielder. Yet he grasped the subtleties of the game well enough that while still an undergraduate he was named a staff assistant, making him at the time probably the youngest coach in the country. He continued playing and coaching in Brooklyn, often on the legendary Parade Grounds, a hotbed for budding talent where such future big leaguers as Tommy Davis, Willie Randolph, and Joe Torre once honed their craft.
One summer afternoon in 1975, Ralph DiLullo, a longtime scout for the Cubs who had just gone to work for the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau, called Blitzer over. Billy thought DiLullo wanted to discuss the merits of highly-touted high school outfielder Dallas Williams, who had just legged out an impressive triple and would become the Baltimore Orioles’ first-round pick in next year’s amateur free agent draft. “No, I want to talk about you!” DiLullo said. “I’ve seen you working with young players and correcting their mistakes. I want your help in setting up a tryout camp.”
And so Billy Blitzer’s professional career began as a bird dog for the Scouting Bureau. (A bird-dog does not draw a salary but receive some expenses and may get a commission if any of his discoveries make the major leagues.) Working with DiLullo provided a great apprenticeship for Blitzer, who was captivated by the life story of his mentor. DiLullo was born in a small Italian village east of Rome and came to America as a six-year-old after his father, a corporal in the Italian army, was killed in World War I.
The family settled in Paterson, New Jersey, where Ralph fell in love with baseball. Coming of age in an era when the sport was indeed the national pastime and every aspiring athlete dreamed of playing in the major leagues, Ralph was thrilled when the Browns offered him a minor-league contract in 1931. A sturdy, savvy catcher, DiLullo never reached The Show but was hired by Pittsburgh in 1946 as a scout. Two years later, he was managing in the Tigers farm system. During the 1950 season he became future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning’s first minor league manager, and the longtime United States Senator always paid homage to the tutelage he received from his first pro skipper.
From 1953 through 1974, DiLullo served as a valuable Northeast scout for the Cubs. Two of his prize signings were future Hall of Fame relief pitcher Bruce Sutter and hurler Joe Niekro, both of whom DiLullo signed as undrafted free agents for only $500 apiece.
DiLullo cut a distinctive presence at amateur games, Blitzer remembers fondly. Always attired in a shirt and tie and a floppy fisherman’s hat, many people called him “Corp,” a tribute to his father’s military background, but Blitzer called him “The Jet,” for the way he rushed out of one ballpark on his way to scout at another. (It is probably no coincidence that The Jet’s two sons became aviators.)
Another of Blitzer’s early mentors was Herb Stein of the Minnesota Twins, who established his reputation by signing future Hall of Famer Rod Carew in 1964, future Cy Young award-winner Frank Viola, and 1991 World Series hero Gene Larkin. Stein spent his whole career with one organization, having been signed by the Twins’ lineal descendant, the Washington Senators, off the New York sandlots. World War II service in Europe denied Stein his chance of reaching the majors, but after the war, the infielder resumed his career as a player-manager in the Senators’ minor-league system and then started scouting, remaining with the franchise when it moved west in 1961. Like DiLullo, Stein ensured that Blitzer became well-versed in the nuts and bolts of the scouting profession, evaluating unsentimentally the talent at hand. He stressed the importance of assessing mechanics, breaking down a pitcher’s arm and body motion, and a hitter’s approach to the ball.
Even more importantly, Blitzer learned from Stein an appreciation of the intangibles in evaluating a prospect. Does he carry himself with confidence not cockiness? Does he approach practice seriously? (Like many veteran scouts, Blitzer laments the decline of pre-game infield drills, which can reveal the condition of a player’s arm and his readiness to play.) How does he react to failure in a game that is based on failure? Stein taught Blitzer to watch carefully how a pitcher behaves when he has been hit hard. “You don’t want him to get too domestic out there,” the older scout warned.
From Stein, Blitzer also picked up the necessity of optimism as a credo for his craft. “The day a player signs a pro contract, he is automatically a better player because the monkey is off his back,” the Twins legend liked to say, and Blitzer imbibed the message.
Herb Stein was a founder of the New York Professional Scouts Hot Stove League, an organization of scouts and coaches that celebrated its 46th annual dinner in January 2011. Several years ago, Stein—who passed away in December 2010 at age 93—handed Blitzer the baton of organizing the dinner. At the latest dinner, 6' 8" Dellin Betances, the promising Yankees minor-league right-hander, received the first annual Herb Stein “Star of the Future” Award.
Scouts often disagree passionately about whether a pitcher can be too tall to master the mechanics of his craft. In an irony that Blitzer enjoys (and Stein would have too), Betances’s parents are actually of “ordinary” size.
After bird-dogging for the Scouting Bureau for seven years, Blitzer was offered a position as a Cubs full-time Northeast area scout in fall 1982. Before he could accept the job, Blitzer realized that his mother would have to be convinced that the job offered the kind of security she wanted for her son.
Gary Nickels, one of many scouts who migrated from Philadelphia to Chicago when Dallas Green, the 1980 field manager of the Phillies’ world champions, took over as Cubs general manager, proved a good salesman. He was about Billy’s age, not far removed from college himself, a graduate of Illinois-Normal in Bloomington, and pleasant and straightforward. He had once appeared in a State Farm insurance commercial.
Nickels assured Lillian Blitzer that scouting would provide her son a decent livelihood, an opportunity to travel the country meeting interesting people, and a challenge and privilege of helping young athletes to choose a career in baseball. Mrs. Blitzer knew how much her son enjoyed scouting and how he wouldn’t be happy at a desk wearing a shirt and tie. It didn’t take too long for Nickels, who later signed Northwestern University’s Joe Girardi for the Cubs and now scouts for the Dodgers, to seal the deal.
Technically, the credit for signing Shawon Dunston belongs to Nickels and his superior Gordon Goldsberry, because Blitzer did not begin his Cubs career until fall 1982. Yet Blitzer for years had alerted the baseball scouting community about the extraordinary talents of the Brooklyn youngster who Chicago eventually drafted first in the country in June 1982. (The Mets selected Dwight Gooden fifth in the first round that year.)
Blitzer had known Dunston since he was 12 years old and playing for the charitable organization Youth Service League teams on the Parade Grounds. “Shawon’s coach told us we have to see this kid play,” Blitzer remembers about the day he and YSL coach Mel Zitter first glimpsed the athletic youth with the rifle arm. Dunston was indeed as good as advertised.
Zitter—who later prodded Manny Ramirez to success on YSL teams and has scouted for Tampa Bay and other big league teams—and Blitzer quickly took Shawon under their collective wing. They made him batboy for the older Youth Service teams and watched him develop into an outstanding prospect, helping him with tips on fielding, hitting, and running “always straight through the bag at first base.”
Oddly, during Dunston’s senior year at Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High School, he was not playing shortstop but rather third base; his coach thought the team possessed a better shortstop. Blitzer feared that this eccentric fellow might also be tempted to use Dunston on the mound due to his strong arm. Sure enough, one night Shawon came home from a game with a sore arm after pitching in relief. He had never pitched before.
In a compelling example of the genuinely paternal care that good scouts display for gifted talent, Blitzer rushed to the Dunston home to tell Shawon’s father in no uncertain terms that if ever again his son was told to pitch, he should refuse and leave the team. The father complied, and when draft day came on June 6, 1982, a rested and ready Shawon Dunston—fresh off a senior year in which he’d batted .790 was picked first in the nation. He went on to enjoy a 14-year career, the first 11 with the Cubs, and now lives in Fremont, California, not far from the San Francisco Bay area after having made (according to Baseball-Reference.com) nearly $25 million in his career.
To some baseball analysts Dunston’s career numbers might look disappointing considering he was a #1 pick. He collected 1,597 hits, 150 homers, and 668 RBI and batted .269 with just a .296 OBP and a .416 SA (actually impressive for a shortstop). He had a quite unfavorable walk-strikeout ratio of 203:1,000.
But don’t tell that to Billy Blitzer. He remains very proud of a neighborhood kid who fulfilled his dream of making the major leagues and even starring there for a time.
A few years ago Blitzer tried to make the same point in person to another of his signees, third baseman Gary Scott, who was being honored by his Philadelphia alma mater Villanova University for his stellar college career. After an MVP season for the Cubs affiliate in the Carolina League and sensational spring training, Scott opened the 1991 season as the Cubs starting third baseman. Hailed as “the next Ron Santo,” he fizzled and lost his position after only 79 at-bats. He was out of major-league baseball before the end of 1992 with a career average of .160 in only 175 at-bats.
Scott, who has since gone on to a very successful business career, saw Blitzer at the Villanova ceremony and averted his eyes. When the scout came over to greet him, Scott said, “I’m sorry I disappointed you.”
“Never think like that,” Billy replied. “You made the major leagues and that’s a great achievement.”
Blitzer recently experienced a far happier moment on a Philadelphia campus. After the 2009 season Jamie Moyer’s alma mater, St. Joseph’s University, honored him with a Doctorate for Public Service. The award was a tribute to the admirable charitable work of the Jamie Moyer Foundation, which among its other projects has established a bereavement center for young people who have lost parents and other loved ones.
Without telling Moyer, Blitzer drove down to attend the ceremony and bask—privately—in the accomplishment of his most successful protégé. As he settled into the audience, Blitzer was flooded with warm memories of the pitcher. How he haggled over his first contract in the kitchen of Moyer’s parents, Jamie wanting $15,000 to sign, Billy offering $10,000. Tempers got a little frayed until Mrs. Moyer, who ran a bakery, brought out some milk and cookies and ultimately the two sides compromised at $12,000.
Blitzer also thought back to the day when he saw Moyer, gone from the Cubs and not yet established in the big leagues, struggling on a national TV game, showing little command and getting hit hard. And how he phoned him after the game and scolded him as only one professional could do to another in the spirit of constructive criticism.
“You’re not the pitcher I signed!” Billy exclaimed. “Your motion, your mechanics, they’re all out of whack!”
Moyer listened and continued to work at his craft, and after intermittent success in Boston and Baltimore, it all came together for him in Seattle at age 34. And he got on a roll that may lead him to the Hall of Fame when it’s all over.
Billy was reliving these vivid memories as he settled into the festive crowd at St. Joseph’s when suddenly he heard an animated female voice.
“Jamie, look who’s here! It’s Billy!” Karen Phelps Moyer, daughter of basketball maven Digger Phelps and Jamie’s collaborator in all his charitable work, was calling out to her husband.
“What are you doing out there?” Jamie asked. “Come down here and sit with the family.”
There are some moments in a baseball scout’s life that all the money and long-term contracts cannot buy.
Blitzer experienced one that afternoon at St. Joseph’s and he expects another one some time in the future when the Cubs finally break their World Series drought. Nobody knows, of course, when that time will come, but Blitzer is confident as only a scout trained in realistic optimism can be. In the meantime he traverses the country nearly every month of the year, meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends, and enjoying his job of looking for future talent. He says simply, “The day I get bored, I leave.”
LEE LOWENFISH’s biography, "Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman" (University of Nebraska Press), won SABR’s 2008 Seymour Medal. His first book, "The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars", is now out in a third edition, also from the University of Nebraska Press.