Since 1979, the safest bet in baseball has been that the National League Rookie of the Year will wear the uniform of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Four Dodgers in a row won the award starting in 1979; for the last five consecutive years Dodgers have been selected. Over the past few years, the Dodgers have found, signed, and developed more players who are in the major leagues than any other organization. Last year, the Sporting News named the Dodger farm system the best in baseball.
Ask Charlie Blaney, the Dodgers’ vice president for minor league operations, how the Dodgers have achieved such a remarkable record when it comes to talent and, in true Dodger-blue style, he refuses to take any credit for himself. “It’s good scouting, first and foremost,” says Blaney, a 31-year Dodger veteran. “The scouts are the ones who go out and find the talent. Then you have to develop that talent. But the credit for that really goes to the player. The player is the one who has the talent. The player is the one who works hard. We’re on the sidelines, encouraging, cheering, helping where we’re needed.”
As Blaney is quick to point out, baseball is like any other business: it’s all about talent. And in its handling of talent, baseball offers useful lessons in the handling of talent: scouting, developing, teaching, and retaining the best players in the world, in an era of free-agency and ballooning salaries. Building a competitive organization in baseball, from the major leagues to the greenest farm club, in other words, is a lot like creating a fast company. Here are Charlie Blaney’s tips on talent, the Dodger Way.
Here’s the Point
First of all, you don’t look at players with the idea of them being Rookie of the Year. Our goal is not to develop Rookies of the Year. Our goal is to win the league championship, and then to win the World Series. It takes quality players to do that. So our goal is to find every quality player we can. If they become Rookie of the Year, that’s great. That’s an indication that they’re a quality player. But having five Rookies of the Year in a row isn’t the point. The point is, we’re not going to be satisfied until we win that next World Series.
Grow Your Own
Last year we had 60 players play in the major leagues who were originally signed and developed by the Dodgers. In Los Angeles, 18 of the 25 players on our roster were home-grown. Both of those figures were the highest in baseball. That’s our philosophy: if we develop our own talent, we’re more likely to win.
We put our best young players from the draft together each year in rookie ball and have them move up together. We want their competitive spirits to feed off each other: “You hit a home run last night. I’m as good as you. I’m going to hit one tonight.” We bring them up together. They get to know each other, and they learn to play together on the field.
Part of our development in the minor leagues is to teach the player, “You’re here to win.” We want them to beat the other teams in rookie ball and Class A and Class AA and Class AAA, so when they get to Los Angeles, they’ve been beating the other teams for the last four years. It’s nothing new.
You can’t impart that pride and tradition when you just go sign a free agent or trade for someone who’s come up through someone else’s system. They don’t really understand the Dodger Way until they’ve been here awhile.
Growing your own talent is also better in terms of economics. The way baseball is going today with free agency and the huge contracts, it’s more economical to grow your own. Part of the basic agreement says that a player that you sign can’t go anywhere else until after he’s played for you for at least six years in the major leagues. But that’s also why it’s important to have a strong minor league system — when you say goodbye, you’ve got someone to take their place. You also have more ammunition to use if you need to make a trade.
The Sixth Tool
The heart and soul of any baseball organization are the great scouts. They’re the unsung heroes. They’re the ones who are out beating the bushes, driving 200 miles to see a high-school game that gets rained out, or the opposing team walks the star player four times because they don’t want to face him. They’re the ones who deserve the credit for finding the talent.
Our scouts all have territories, and ever since baseball became a gold medal sport in the Olympics, we’re scouting worldwide. We have 25 full-time and 10 part-time scouts who’re scattered throughout the world looking for talent. Any high-school or college player in the United States or Puerto Rico gets picked through the draft. The rest of the world is open to the highest bidder, whichever organization can find a player and sign him. The Dodgers have more than 100 players under contract who aren’t U.S. citizens, from 14 different countries.
There are five physical tools that are easy for a scout to determine because they’re measurable: hitting, hitting with power, fielding, running, and throwing. Scouts can look at a player and judge those five physical tools. They have stopwatches to see how fast he can run, and they know what major league standards are in each category.
But there’s also a sixth tool that isn’t physical that’s extremely important, and this is where scouting makes all the difference. That sixth tool is called general makeup. Makeup encompasses work habits, desire, drive, attitude, discipline — all those things that a player learns from his family or his coaches in growing up. Makeup, for me, is number one.
Quite often we see players who have the physical tools but do not have the makeup. They don’t make it. And quite often we see players who have medium physical tools but outstanding makeup, and they can make it. They need to love it. That’s the important thing.
In the baseball business there are three main departments: scouting, minor leagues, and major leagues. It’s the same as any business that’s selling hamburgers or shoes or cars: you have someone who finds the raw material; you have someone who manufactures the raw material; and you have someone who markets it to the public
Once the scouting department finds the player, either from high school or college, it turns him over to the minor league department. Our job is to develop him. That means we do whatever it takes to help the young man be the best and most complete Dodger professional on the field. So we develop that player’s baseball skills so he can hit and run, field, throw, and catch to the best of his ability. But it just starts
We also teach him to be on time. We teach him how to handle his money, how to handle drugs and alcohol, how to dress properly, how to talk to the media, how to handle gals who are going to be chasing him, how to plan for life after baseball. These players have friends who are going to med school or law school; these players are going to baseball school, and they graduate when they appear in the box score in Dodger Stadium.
It usually takes a player who has the skills three to five years of development before he’s ready to play in Los Angeles. Of all the players who are drafted and signed by the scouting department, only 7% to 10% ever make it to the major leagues. So it’s a high-risk business. And it’s very competitive. But the rewards are great when the player does make it.
The Pride of the Dodgers
We really emphasize the pride and tradition of the organization. The Dodgers are now 107 years old. As soon as a player is drafted and comes to our rookie camp in Vero Beach, Florida we begin the process of teaching him what his roots are. Nothing is more important to us than who puts that uniform on and how he wears it.
We have a film that teaches the history of the organization, starting back in 1890, and goes through all of the players who’ve been part of the Dodgers. During spring training, three nights a week the players all must report for discussions. We bring in guest speakers to talk about how to plan for life after baseball, how to handle your money, what it is to have pride in Dodgers’ tradition. The Dodgers are fortunate to have a long tradition, and it’s our job to pass it on to the players.
Last year we had 27 minor league staff in uniform, and they totaled 567 years of experience in professional baseball — an average of 21 years each. They had 184 years in the majors, and most of that was with the Dodgers. So there really is a Dodger way of doing things. But it’s not just in teaching the fundamentals of baseball. I guess the Dodger Way comes in how people are treated. That’s the Dodger Way. That comes from the top. That comes from the O’Malley family, and that’s what’s been passed on all these years.
The Dodgers have tremendous continuity and stability. Since 1954 the Dodgers have only had three managers, four general managers, three farm directors, three scouting directors. People love working for the Dodger organization because it’s a caring organization.
The Information Business
We’re really in the information business. It’s our job to know everything we can about every top amateur and professional baseball player in the world. Computers play a huge part in gathering that information and making it available to the scouting director, myself, and the general manager. Most of our staff and scouts have laptops. When they go out and see players, they input the reports right on the computer, and we have them instantaneously in the office.
Here’s how it works. Our Albuquerque team, for example, plays in the Pacific Coast League. Our staff has to send in reports not only on our players but on every player on every team in the Pacific Coast League. We put that information in a player profile form. It tells the player’s date of birth, what school he went to, where he lives, his career statistics as a professional. It also has the reports of every scout, instructor, coach, or manager who’s seen him since he started playing professional baseball. We grade each player’s physical tools: how he hits, runs, fields, throws, and catches, and what his makeup is — his poise under stress. Does he have any “off-field” problems? When we make a trade, either at the major or minor league level, we have information on every player who puts on the uniform.