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An Afternoon at Wrigley With Veteran Nick Kamzic

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"This stuff is like an FBI file," says Nick Kamzic about the papers on his lap. "I'm like a secret agent. I can't tell anyone exactly who I'm looking at, or why. Today is just another baseball game. Let's just say I'm looking at both clubs. The less I say, the longer I'll last as an employee. Scouts hate to get their name in the paper. There's lots of jealousy in baseball. GMs get jealous as hell."

It's a hot and muggy afternoon at Wrigley Field, and the Cubs are clobbering the Phillies 15-2. Phillies shortstop Dickie Thon takes his turn at bat.

"I signed him for the Angels in 1975, when he was playing in South Dakota for the Puerto Rican team in the American Legion World Series," says the gray-haired Kamzic from his seat a few rows directly behind home plate. There is a trace of pride in his voice.

Thon flies out and the pride turns slightly defensive. "You know, of all the National League shortstops, he hit the most home runs last year."

Sweet-faced Nick Kamzic might have played big league ball himself--if his minor league career hadn't been interrupted by World War II and a couple of war injuries. But as a scout for the California Angels for the last 30 years (he was one of Gene Autry's first employees), he's made some everlasting marks on the game anyway.

Working out of his home in Evergreen Park, Kamzic is responsible for scouting the National League East for the Angels, recommending good trading material whenever the California organization finds itself in need. He spends a lot of time at Wrigley Field, but he can be called away at a moment's notice to scout the American League, the minor leagues, or colleges and high schools for the draft. "I'm still punchy from the draft," he says. "I sat in the office from May 29 to June 5. There were 400 players and we talked about all of them. We drafted 54, and we'll sign 15 or 20."

Over the years, Kamzic has played a part in signings or trades involving Mickey Rivers, Rich Dotson, Nolan Ryan, Brian Downing, Rick Reichardt, Bobby Bonds, Jim Fregosi, and many other super- (and not so super) stars. "At the moment," he says of the major-leaguers, "I've got the book on most."

What Kamzic does is fast-paced and mysterious. He sits in his seat with a few sheets of plain white paper and a stopwatch, which he clicks on and off. The lineups are listed on separate sheets with the starting pitcher and reliever(s) on the back side. His scribbling is indecipherable. Still, he slyly covers the paper with his hands so nosy onlookers can't see. He doesn't have to, because he writes in secret code.

"What's my purpose for being here today? Well, what would happen if our center fielder suddenly got hurt? We'd have to know who could replace him. We always know who's available and what they have to offer.

"Lots of clubs fall out of contention by August, and they want to trade for future prospects. And clubs who want to win the pennant go for good established players. It's up to a scout to make recommendations to his general manager. You talk a lot of trades during the playoffs and the World Series, too, and at winter league in Puerto Rico. There are always a lot of pending trades until spring training. First, scouts will talk trades with other scouts. Then we take the messages to the general managers.

The average fan doesn't know when a utility infielder comes into a game it can be a dead giveaway that he's being put on display for a scout, who may want to make a trade to get rid of a surplus pitcher, let's say. Sometimes an average player will play an outstanding game, in order to clinch a trade."

At those times, says Kamzic, rival scouts have to rely on all their records--and their instinct.

Already this season, Kamzic has recommended six trades--to no avail. "They want your diamonds for their brass," laments Kamzic. "Their asking price--our players--is too high. But then, you know, scouts for the Phillies, for example, or the Cardinals--they have their own opinions on the players."

Nick Kamzic says that for scouts, baseball is a game of time and inches. His tools are his eyes and ears.

"You need good ears in this game," says Kamzic. "I can tell by the crack of the bat where a ball is going to go. If I hear a thud, I know it's a foul.

"That sounded good, didn't it?" Kamzic asks, and sure enough, Ryne Sandberg hits a home run.

Occasionally Kamzic relies on a digital gun (it resembles a blow dryer) that measures the speed of a pitch. But he says if he sits on the sidelines, he can tell the speed of the pitches just by sight.

Two other scouts around him are using guns today. A scout from Seattle has one that measures both the speed the pitch travels the first seven feet from the mound, and the speed it's traveling when it arrives at the plate.

"I want to know what a batter's hitting, not the pitchers arm strength," says Kamzic. "A gun can tell you what kind of a pitch it is based on the speed. A curve travels in the mid-70s [miles per hour], a slow curve in the low 70s, a hard-slider in the low 80s, a fastball over 85."

Today Kamzic is using his stopwatch to time runners to first base, throws to first base, and the time it takes to make a double play. Basically, he just confirms what he already knows about who's playing--but he's always on the lookout for a player who may be slipping, or one making a dramatic improvement.

"It takes four to five years for a ball player to establish himself," he says. "Some of the young kids are just a flash in the pan. A guy like Sandberg--he's a steady Eddie--but the average life of a big-leaguer is just four years. A time comes when they just can't improve. They hit a level and they have to look for another job--it's time to cash in their college educations."

Just then, Shawon Dunston hits a single. It takes 4.1 seconds from the crack of the bat until he reaches first base, according to Kamzic's stopwatch. Nothing new about Dunston to note. Kamzic says the average player takes a few fractions of a second more. An average double play takes 4.3 seconds.

All of Kamzic's data is compiled daily and called into his home office, where it is computerized. He fills out scouting reports, which he and the team use as baseline data year to year. (Other scouting reports are filed by advance scouts who study the team their team plays next. Their reports on times and distances, styles and outcomes from last week are used by the managers to make decisions moment to moment this week.)

Kamzic's reports show a player's position, years' experience, height, weight, age, batting side, hitting type (spray, power, line drive, etc), running speed, and fielding arm. Players are rated on a scale of 1 to 5, and are gauged as to whether they would make good prospects to help the team.

Pitchers are rated on delivery, speed, control, etc, on a scale of 20 to 80. "Gooden--now he's an 80," says Kamzic.

Kamzic says he believes the data he collects should be available to the fans. "Why don't teams advertise running speeds and pitching speeds?" he asks. "They should sell stopwatches right at the park, they could sell [speed] guns, too--it'd be a great business. Why shouldn't the fans know these things? They pay the freight. Baseball fans shouldn't be kept in the dark. Football lets everyone know what's going on."

Kamzic turns to a rival scout in a nearby seat, and asks him what he thinks about this idea. The guy laughs nervously, as though he doesn't quite understand why any fan would be interested in the tools of the scouting trade.

"You see," says Kamzic. "This guy's been doing this all his life and even he's amazed at my statement."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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