Bob Fontaine Jr. talks scouting, soul-searching on “Chatter Up!”
There is perhaps no better way to spend a day than at the ballpark. Spending the day in the sunshine, watching your favorite team do battle with a heated rival, and enjoying the atmosphere of pure competition are all things that baseball fans expect to enjoy when heading through the gates, regardless if it’s a crisp, April Opening Day at Wrigley or a scorching summer day in Atlanta. If there was a way to spend every day at the ballpark, there’s no doubt that countless diehards would indulge. As one man once put it, “The one thing about baseball: no matter where you are in the world, you feel at home as soon as you’re at a ballpark, because everybody there shares the love of the game, and they’re very open to helping and answering questions.”
That’s what Bob Fontaine Jr. – a self-proclaimed “Baseball Gypsy” – first explained when he joined JapanBall’s Chatter Up! on March 18. Fontaine, who worked for almost 50 years in various Major League Baseball (MLB) scouting departments, told a captivated audience how his work never truly felt like work because he got to spend it in a place he loved: ballparks across the world.
“[My father] always told me when I got started, ‘Don’t you ever, ever not appreciate where you are and what you’re doing, because you’re lucky. You’re going to a ballpark to make a living, so your bad days aren’t that bad,’” Fontaine recalled. “I never forgot that, I never forgot how lucky I am. Hey, you’re looking at a guy that barely squeaked through high school, who doesn’t have any ability, and I lasted almost 50 years. It’s because in baseball, if you listen, and you’re not afraid to take a chance once in a while, even somebody with my lack of ability can stay around for a while.”
Joining the call to discuss his new memoir, In Search of Millionaires (The Life of a Baseball Gypsy): The Bob Fontaine Jr. Story, Fontaine took questions from the crowd and spoke on his wide variety of experiences, including scouting and signing future Hall-of-Famers Tony Gwynn, Randy Johnson and Ozzie Smith, as well as household names like Jim Abbott and Tim Salmon. In a modern baseball world where sabermetrics are all the rage, Fontaine is a fountain of old-school baseball knowledge. He shared the unique input that a scout like him can provide on a player:
“What the traditional scout gives you is personal reference, like [with] things I learned on players that I missed on; analytics didn’t do that. I’m a firm believer that the best video camera is your eyes, the best model is your brain, and the best way to make a tough decision is with your heart,” Fontaine said. “If you can apply that with what the statistical analysis can give you, I think you can beat a lot of people, and there are clubs that do it. There’s not many, but I have yet to find a number that cares if you win or cares if you lose; never have. A human cares if you win or lose and cares to be successful, he doesn’t want to be unsuccessful.”
Fontaine, the son of legendary Brooklyn Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates scout Bob Fontaine Sr., first got his start in the profession while his father was with the Pirates. But Fontaine Sr. didn’t give him a cushy job in the office: Jr. started first as a minor league bat boy – where he struck a close relationship with Hall-of-Famer Willie Stargell – and then moved on up to peanut vendor at Forbes Field. He stayed around until he was finally old enough to learn the scouting game himself. Gaining his first job when he was just 19 with the upstart San Diego Padres, Fontaine endured his first real tests as a scout for a cash-strapped franchise, including dealing with a meddling owner:
“We had no money, and there were no TV contracts. Today, everybody gets those big TV contracts and it makes you look a lot smarter when you can spend tens of millions of dollars. We were drawing probably 2,500 a game, no TV contract and a very small radio contract,” Fontaine explained. “Mr. Kroc, who owns McDonald’s, bought us… The only problem in those early years was he’d say, ‘You guys can spend any money that you make. I’m not looking to make money out of the team. You can spend everything you make.’ Well when you’re drawing 2,500 people a night, you’re not making any money. I tell you what, we literally had no money. When I was signed, Peter [Bavasi] told me, ‘You’re the Midwest scouting supervisor.’ I said, ‘Wow, Peter! My first day on the job and I’m a supervisor, who do I supervise?’ And he shook his head. He said, ‘No, you don’t supervise anybody! We give titles here, not money.’”
The experience with the Padres was just one of many baseball snapshots Fontaine highlighted from his storied career. Others included what he always looked for in evaluating players – remarking the feet were the most important, as the game moves so quickly – and how veteran scouts imparted their wisdom on him via long nights drinking scotch in cheap motels around the country. It was all experience critical to Fontaine’s success in the big leagues, he explained, especially when scouting players like the one-handed phenom Jim Abbott:
“I think every scout, if they scout for any length of time, is going to have one player that just is special to you… Jimmy Abbott was that,” Fontaine said. “There were people that were even kind of saying, ‘Oh, they did it for a publicity stunt.’ I remember saying, ‘Yeah, we took the eighth player in the country for a publicity stunt? Give us some credit!’… Jim didn’t play baseball for inspiration to others, he played baseball because he loved the game. That’s what was so real about him, and he said, “If I inspire somebody, great, but that’s not why I’m playing; I’m playing because I love to play baseball.” I think he inspired people by the way he handled himself both on and off the field.”
All of this experience made what Fontaine had to say about international baseball even more valuable. As someone who’s traveled all over the globe to see the game – including a memorable trip to Koshien to watch a young Yu Darvish play – he explained that every version of the game offered something unique, and that each player he recruited from an international stage brought something new, while giving the perspective that baseball truly was an international game:
“I think what surprised me was, internationally – for many years – was [just] basically the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela,” Fontaine said. “I went to Russia early in the 90s, because when the Soviet Union fell, it intrigued Billy Bavasi and I that maybe we can get some athletes out of there, because they’re phenomenal athletes. That was the greatest trip of my life. I grew up in the Cold War era and stuff, and to be there, and to think, ‘my god, I’m looking at baseball players in Russia?; We ended up signing three, and they came over, and it was a little emotional for me the first day in Arizona, when I’m watching three kids from Russia, playing with American teammates named Angels, you just said, ‘Wow, baseball did this.’ We get countries that hated each other for years, and three months after the fall of the Soviet Union, we got Russians playing baseball; it made you feel good.”
The crowd experience was also something Fontaine touched on, saying that each place he saw the game offered something different. Whether it be crowd intensity or just a different style of play, Fontaine said, it was best to get out and see it for yourself, even offering a voluntary testimonial to what JapanBall is offering in its upcoming tour season:
“Looking at the schedule of events that you’ve got, it’s a tremendous, tremendous list, because I’ll tell you, having been in those places, every one is a little different… it gives you a better understanding of the game of baseball worldwide,” Fontaine said. The Bahamas, for instance, people don’t talk about [how it’s] a great place to watch players, a lot of enthusiasm and they’ve had big league players come out of there. It’s really an interesting spot. The Dominican Republic, they have their own flair for the game. Obviously Japan and Korea do as well… The one thing about baseball: no matter where you are in the world, you feel at home as soon as you’re at a ballpark, because everybody there shares the love of the game, and they’re very open to helping and answering questions. I think it’s a great experience and a great service that you’re providing here for people to see and understand baseball around the world.”
With such a glowing review, we’d be remiss if we didn’t highly recommend Fontaine’s memoir – which can be purchased here (with JapanBall receiving a small commission) as well as the entirety of the Chatter Up! discussion, in which Fontaine discussed players he scouted, like Gwynn, Johnson, and Smith, as well as those he missed like Frank Thomas; his dream of running a minor league team in Hawaii with JapanBall founder Bob Bavasi when they were young Padres employees; his father’s exploits pitching in disguise in Mexico as “Roberto Fontaiño” while with the U.S. Army; and much, much more.
If you go to enough ballparks, you meet countless kindred spirits in your travels; Fontaine is certainly one of those, and the baseball world thanks him for it.