I spent Thursday afternoon talking up two open-tryout participants on the back field at Camelback Ranch. One was disabled Navy veteran Doc Jacobs, whose story will appear in tomorrow’s editions. The other was Tom Wright, a 54-year-old high school teacher from Hawaii (via Livermore, California), whose story appears below.
First, a word about these open tryouts.
The Dodgers typically sign one or two players to minor-league contracts out of these things every year. You can pick up a newspaper and read that. What’s hard to capture is the range of the spectrum of baseball abilities reflected on one field. Some of the tryout participants would be considered subpar players on a college team. In fact, this is the majority of participants.
Several of us were leaning over a cyclone fence beyond the first-base dugout to get a glimpse of the infield drills. Each player stood at the shortstop position, got two ground balls hit right to them, two ground balls hit to their backhand side, and another that they had to charge and throw on the run. This gives coaches a look at the range of each infielder’s abilities.
This isn’t too difficult — even if you’re an outfielder, a third baseman, even a catcher playing shortstop. A.J. Ellis, for example, could pick up these ground balls and make an accurate throw off his backhand. If you’re worthy of a minor-league contract, you should be able to do this.
The drill begins as a coach yells out the number attached to the back of each participant’s shirt. He’ll take his ground balls and, no matter how bad he looks, get four more. A guy can air-mail a throw by 20 feet over the first baseman’s head and disqualify himself from ever setting foot in Dodger Stadium again — that guy still gets five ground balls. Then the next man steps up. Not all first basemen are adept at knowing when to jump to leave the bag to make the catch, when to take a step off the bag to catch a wide throw, or pick a long-hop throw off the ground. So there’s a high risk of failure on both ends of this transaction.
To protect those of us who were leaning over the cyclone fence, three high nets were placed behind first base to shield us from stray baseballs. It didn’t matter. Within five minutes of this drill, at least five baseballs had made it over or around the nets and went careening toward the spectators. We all had to clear out to allow the Darwinian process of shortstop elimination run its haphazard course.
Wright (whom I pictured leaning over the fence above) was one of those who had to clear out. He had already done his work in the bullpen, fluttering his knuckler over home plate as scouts held their radar guns and took notes. (They might have put away their radar guns for Wright, since speed doesn’t count nearly as much as movement with a knuckleball.)
What I liked about both Wright and Jacobs is that they felt a sense of responsibility to perform well that went beyond personal pride. Jacobs wanted to show that disabled veterans don’t all wind up homeless, depressed alcoholics. Wright wanted to prove that age is just a number. Talking to these two, it seemed like more than a tryout.
“The team, the owner that’s willing to break this age fascination, I think, will win because there’s so many guys that have been out there that are just top-three round draft picks or unbelievable talents but the game won’t let them play again,” Wright said. “I’m just like, ‘what about second chances? Don’t you believe in second chances, or do you just believe in 17-year-old kids?’ Some people don’t mature until they get older, some people don’t train hard, some people don’t focus, some people for whatever reason go away from the game. It’s like, c’mon, look at their talent. Can they run, can they throw, can they hit? Are they good under pressure, what’s their batting average? Let’s focus on their ability rather than something they can’t control.”
Wright is already a living testament to his theory. He’s loaded a personal infomercial of sorts to his YouTube page, replete with film of his workouts and set to the soundtrack of “Put Me In Coach.” He has a baseball-reference.com page, albeit a brief one, from his time spent in the Mexican League as an outfielder. He’s signed “probably seven” minor-league contracts out of open tryouts over the years. He made one major-league camp.
Former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda watched a portion of Thursday’s tryout.
“Tommy says, ‘Wright, where have you played before?’ I said, Tommy I played against you, man! We played against him when I was with the Yankees in 1996.”