Always one more highway, one more flight, one more baseball player to chase
The eastbound lanes of Interstate 20 are dominated by 18-wheelers after dark, and Kris Kline deftly feathered his rented Nissan Altima among them as 9 p.m. flew by and 10 p.m. approached, the sun long since set behind him. Three baseball games cluttered his rearview mirror, too, back in the suburb of Hoover, Ala., and as he crossed the Georgia state line, another hotel room, another pre-dawn wakeup call, another flight and three more baseball games awaited him. He was tired.
Above: The ACC tournament in Greensboro was just one more stop in a busy week for Kris Kline, who heads the Nationals' scouting department.
Kline’s last trip home to the Phoenix suburbs had been . . . well, wait. When was that? “Couple weeks ago, I guess,” he said. Unimportant, really. What mattered was the first baseman from Kentucky and the four at-bats Kline just saw. What mattered was the bed at the Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway, a 5:15 a.m. alarm, a tram through the darkness to the terminal and Delta 1543 to Greensboro, N.C. What mattered was the next day, the next ballpark, the right-hander from the University of Maryland and the reliever from the University of Virginia that waited there.
“The hardest part of this job is getting to the job,” Kline said. “Once I’m at the ballpark, I’m kind of at peace.”
Kline wore jeans, a Columbia PFG fishing shirt, an Under Armour baseball hat, reading glasses when he made notes, wraparound shades when he didn’t. “Total slob,” he said. Only his title is fancy: Washington Nationals Assistant General Manager and Vice President of Scouting Operations.
Cross all that out. He’s a scout. During this time, in late May, there are no more important people in the Nationals’ organization — not Stephen Strasburg, not Bryce Harper — than Kline and the 17 full-time scouts, plus two part-timers, he oversees. The Nationals played that night in Pittsburgh, earning their millions. The amateur draft was two weeks off, so Kline drove east into the night, searching for more players.
During the season, major leaguers live baseball day-to-day, and each evening can bring with it exhilaration — a rally-killing strikeout, a walk-off hit, a victory, with everyone lining up to high-five in front of 30,000 or 40,000 in the stands and hundreds of thousands more on their couches.
Scouts live that same grind in the shadows. The exhilaration is subtle and would scarcely be recognized by people outside their insular world. No one knows about all the trips to Weather.com, wondering if a high schooler’s game is going to be rained out, if itineraries must be juggled midstream to make sure no day passes without seeing a game. No one knows about arriving at a college campus on a Friday with the singular goal of seeing the closer then waiting all weekend before the manager finally decides to use him on Sunday. No one knows about the time Kline was with the Arizona Diamondbacks on a one-year contract, fighting for his job. He rented a hotel room in Texas for a month, drove to see players all over the state, then headed up Interstate 55 toward the Arkansas-Tennessee border.
There, a tractor-trailer truck rear-ended his Crown Victoria, the company car. He dusted himself off, tied the trunk shut with a shoelace and got it to a shop. He rented another car, and kept driving. Days later, the phone rang. It was his boss, Mike Rizzo, then the scouting director in Arizona, now the Nationals’ general manager.
“Where are you?” Rizzo asked.
“Kent, Ohio,” Kline said.
“What the hell are you doing in Kent, Ohio?” Rizzo said.
Well, there was this right-hander, you see, a kid named Dirk Hayhurst, who played for Kent State. And he has a teammate, too. We probably should see him.
“Get your [butt] home right now,” Rizzo ordered.
Kline hardly realized it, but he’d been gone for almost two months. Most scouts have a story like that. Kline has 1.2 million Marriott points. He once called Southwest wondering whether he had enough miles to buy his daughter a roundtrip ticket; the agent told him he had enough miles for 35 roundtrips. The profession does not marry ideally with self-preservation, nor does it marry ideally with, well, marriage.
“I missed a lot,” Kline said, thinking of his 24-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter. “A lot.”
And yet: “People spend their whole life trying to find the one thing you love doing. I’ve found it. I don’t need to do that.”
He is 52, long divorced, and in January quit chewing tobacco after 30 years. Almost immediately, he added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame. He can flip through his iPhone to show a grandfatherly allotment of photos of his grandson, nearly 3, smiling broadly at each one. His next trip home would come on Saturday morning, to be there for his daughter’s birthday.
But before then, there were still 60 miles of interstate to cover in darkness, still another flight to catch. Other scouts from other clubs would see the right-hander from Maryland, the reliever from Virginia. Kline had to get there, too.
Kline heads down Interstate 20 on his 160-mile drive from Alabama to Atlanta to catch a plane early the next morning for North Carolina -- a typical travel day as the draft approaches.
Tournaments a goldmine
There wasn’t a cloud in the high sky above Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, and the seats behind home plate at the Southeastern Conference tournament filled with scouts wearing broad-rimmed fishing hats, scouts with wet towels draped over their necks and white zinc smeared on their faces, maybe 60 guys in all. “I’m smokin’,” Kline said. Sweat ran down his neck.
Kline got to the ballpark at 8:30 a.m., an hour before first pitch. When Kentucky and Florida took the field late in the afternoon, he left Mark Baca, another Nationals scout, in the seats behind the plate. Kline needed to get another look at Kentucky’s designated hitter that day, a power-hitting junior named A.J. Reed who normally plays first base. Because Reed hits left-handed, Kline took a seat along the left-field line, a better vantage point from which to see his swing.
“I hope A.J. strikes out four times,” Kline said. “I really do.”
He didn’t want other scouts to learn what he already knew. “He will hit,” Kline said, “and he will hit for power.” But the general managers from the Marlins and the Diamondbacks were each down the left-field line as well, not by coincidence, and they were joined by scouts from the Yankees, the Tigers, on and on. Kline already knew what he thought of “the player” — that’s scout-talk. Late one night when he was home in Arizona, he flipped on one of Reed’s games he had recorded on his DVR. Reed jacked a massive homer clear over the batter’s eye in center field at Tennessee.
“I turned it off,” Kline said. “That was enough.”
So these trips, late in the process of evaluating players for the draft, are about fine-tuning, reinforcing what scouts already thought or raising doubts where none existed. Kline usually feels comfortable that he knows a hitter if he sees eight at-bats. In the first inning, Reed foul-tipped a 2-2 pitch into the glove, a strikeout on a 93-mph fastball. Kline didn’t flinch. Add it to the file.
“People will think this is silly, but as a player, you get in the season and get in a groove, and the game slows down,” he said. “That happens to me. The first week in a hotel, and you’re back at it. You’re watching a player, and you get into that rhythm. You’re like, ‘I know that guy. I like that guy.’ You know.”
He looked around Hoover Met, dotted with scouts.
“We’re all locked in,” he said. “We all know who we want. We all know who we like.”
Baca scouted Reed in high school, three years earlier. “A kid I’ve always been drawn to,” he said. Scouts begin building their books on the next year’s draft class the summer before, when high school kids appear in massive “showcases” and college kids spend time in elite wood-bat leagues. In February, the scouts hit the road, five or six or seven games in a week, Miami one day, Oklahoma City the next.
The college conference tournaments in late May are smorgasbords, so many players in just one place. It’s why Kline and Baca got back to their hotel at midnight on a Tuesday after a full day of games and were on site for Vanderbilt and LSU on Wednesday morning, then Arkansas and Ole Miss just after noon, then Kentucky and Florida with Mississippi St. and South Carolina still to come under the lights.
“You have to love it,” Baca said. “You have to have a passion for it.”
Baca and Kline have worked together since 2001, when Rizzo was the scouting director in Arizona and hired Baca away from the Montreal Expos. Baca’s title is “national supervisor,” but he is what’s known in the industry as a “cross-checker” — a scout who could go anywhere at any time, following recommendations from area scouts about players he needs to see. He filters information to Kline, and by this point in their lives, they’re “like brothers,” Kline said, or even an old married couple.
“He’ll say, ‘Why are you in such a bad mood today?’ ” Kline said. “And I’ll just say, ‘It’s not you. It’s me.’ ”
So they argue, talking four or six or eight times a day by phone. Baca and Kline are unafraid to share their opinions on players with each other, with the Nationals’ other cross-checkers — Jeff Zona, Fred Costello and Jimmy Gonzales — and with Rizzo. That’s what they’re paid to do.
“The player will tell you what he is,” Kline said. “They always do.”
When Reed stepped into the box for his second at-bat, Kline needed to complete his opinion of him. What did it mean that he swung through a high fastball for his second straight strikeout? What did it mean in the fifth, when Reed drove the first pitch he saw high off the wall in right-center, a double that would have been a homer in almost any other park?
By the time of Reed’s fourth at-bat, the lights had flickered on at Hoover Met. “I’m fading,” Kline said. But he had to see Reed one more time, this against Florida lefty Kirby Snead. And here came one more bit of confusing information, Snead with a pair of back-to-back change-ups, Reed with a pair of flailing swings, his third strikeout in four at-bats.
“I have to figure that out,” Kline said as he got up. Where does that one game fit into the whole picture of the kid? How does he “profile,” as scouts say? When he finally got to his computer the next day, Baca scrambled to look up Reed’s splits against left-handers in case he had a glaring weakness the Nationals had overlooked.
When Kentucky beat Florida, only one player remained for Kline and Baca to see, a reliever from Mississippi State. Kline knew, though, what awaited: the drive across I-20 to Atlanta, the flight to in the morning. He knew, too, there was no guarantee the kid would even pitch. “I’m just trying to be realistic,” he said. This, though, ran counter to every instinct he has. See more. Dig deeper.
“If I’m not at a game, I feel like I’m always going to miss something,” Kline said. “I hate that feeling. I hate it.”
Yet by 7:40 p.m., he walked through the stadium parking lot and pressed the fob on the keys to his rental car, hoping the Altima would honk and let him know where he parked it 11 hours earlier. The hotel was 160 miles away, the draft in two weeks. His back was sore. His legs ached.
“Hit a wall,” he said. He fired up the car and drove into the Alabama night.
Kline fills up the tank on his rental car before returning it at the Atlanta airport. Once, in a company car, he was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. He tied down the trunk lid, took the car to a shop, rented another car and kept driving. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo finally had to call him and demand that he return home for a break.
Expect the unexpected
The next morning, when Kline settled into a seat at Gate A30, coffee and muffin in hand, he watched the line form to board: a scout for the Blue Jays, the Diamondbacks scouting director, another scout with the Rays. They know each other, all these guys, some for most of their lives, and it can be a catty community filled with inside jokes and shared information, old women in a quilting circle.
“I won’t talk about players,” Kline said. “But if someone else wants to talk about them, I’ll definitely listen.”
He has, though, talked the business to death. In 1983, he was an infielder in the Angels’ chain, trying to make it in pro ball. His roommate that summer in Peoria, Ill., was an infielder from Chicago named Mike Rizzo. Neither had a major league future. Rizzo hit .247 over three minor league seasons, Kline .262 over four. Yet they’d finish their own game, then head to a bar in hopes of finding one on television. They talked about teammates, about opponents.
“Neither of us really had any other interests,” Rizzo said. “I often ask him, ‘What would you do if you weren’t in baseball?’ He has no answer for it. I have no answer for it.”
So they set off as baseball nomads, Kline as a scout for the Angels, Rizzo for the White Sox. Each served initially as “area scouts,” responsible for a specific geographic region. That job is filled with tedium: calling coaches for pitching schedules, driving countless miles to high school games, talking with families and friends to learn players’ histories, their other interests, their favorite ice cream flavors. Rizzo made $11,000 his first season, the first of 12 in which he served as an area scout. Now, those scouts make around $30,000. Rizzo calls it the most important job in the scouting chain.
A scout’s week
The lives of scouts are defined not only by the players they evaluate, but by what it takes to get in position to make the evaluations. Here’s a snippet of one week in the life of Kris Kline, the Nationals’ vice president of scouting operations, leading up to this year’s amateur draft.
Tuesday, May 20After watching two high schoolers Monday in the Atlanta suburbs, Kline drives to Birmingham, then makes it to the SEC Tournament for two full days of games beginning at 9:30 a.m. He stays through the late game between Mississippi State and Georgia in hopes of seeing a reliever, and gets to his hotel after midnight.
Wednesday, May 21 Kline and Mark Baca, one of the Nationals’ “cross-checkers,” arrive at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium around 8:30 a.m. to watch infield prior to the early game between LSU and Vanderbilt. At 4:30 p.m., they settle in for their third game of the day, paying particular attention to Kentucky junior A.J. Reed, a left-handed power hitter. Kline takes a seat along the left-field line. At 7:15 p.m., Kline has a decision to make: Stay to potentially see a reliever from Mississippi St. or drive to Atlanta, where he has a flight to catch in the morning. At 7:35 p.m., he calls Baca, who’s sitting behind the plate, where it’s better to watch pitchers. “I’m bailing,” he said, and heads to his car. At 10:55 p.m., he pulls into the rental car return at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, dropping off his Nissan Altima. He takes a tram to the Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway, and trudges directly up to his room.
Thursday, May 22Kline’s alarm goes off at 5:15 a.m., and he’s in the lobby a half hour later. Another tram takes him to the terminal, where he must check his large suitcase because he’s been gone from home for more than two weeks. By 7 a.m., he’s through security, grabbing a breakfast of coffee and a muffin while making his way to Gate A30 and his 8:09 a.m. flight to Greensboro, N.C. He is early, but he couldn’t risk missing the flight, because he couldn’t miss the next game. At 9:25 a.m., he landed in Greensboro and headed to NewBridge Bank Park and the ACC Tournament, where Maryland and Virginia played in the first game of the day at 11 a.m. Kline and fellow Nationals scout Jimmy Gonzales watch Maryland and Virginia, then Duke and Georgia Tech and finally settle in for Miami and Clemson, which begins at 7 p.m. They eat lunch at the concession stands. In the late game, they watch Miami lefty Chris Diaz as well as several Hurricanes who will be draftable next year. But by the fifth inning, they’ve seen all they need to and head to a downtown Greensboro restaurant for a burger and baseball discussion. By 10:30 p.m., Kline is back in his room at the Fairfield Inn and Suites.
Friday, May 23 Kline and Gonzales again take in three games, ending with Virginia and North Carolina. They get to see Virginia closer Nick Howard, who Kline had wanted to evaluate the day before — but he didn’t pitch against Maryland.
Saturday, May 24 Kline flies home to Phoenix for his daughter’s birthday. He will remain there until Wednesday, May 28, when he leaves for Washington to begin assembling the Nationals’ board for the 2014 amateur draft. firstname.lastname@example.org
“It’s a lot like the territorial salesman, where you have an area that you control,” Rizzo said. “You run it. You need to know every in and out of that area — every high school coach, every college coach, every player and every player’s family. You have to be a self-starting type of guy, and you have to be willing to spend a lot of time alone. And then you pack your car up for about a month at a time, and you just drive.”
The area scouts, in industry lingo, raise a flag to get the cross-checkers in to see players, a process that takes all spring. But when Kline pulled his rental car into the parking lot outside NewBridge Bank Park in Greensboro for the ACCtournament, he thought he knew who he wanted to see: Maryland right-hander Jake Stinnett and Virginia closer Nick Howard, whose teams would face each other in the day’s first game.
Kline met Gonzales in the concourse behind home plate. He bought a 32-ounce soda. “I got to go home so I can get some new clothes,” Gonzales said, and they went over notes from the games Gonzales had seen the day before.
When Stinnett took the mound, a couple dozen radar guns rose in the seats behind the plate. Kline doesn’t carry one, because he can always find someone to help him out. He poached Stinnett’s first fastball off another scout: 94 mph.
He pulled out a small notebook from his pocket. Since he began his travels in February, Kline had written reports on more than 150 players, all of whom he believed could play in the majors. Going back generations, scouts have graded on a 20-to-80 scale, with 50 being an average for a major leaguer. Pitchers will be graded on their delivery and specific pitches, with notes about whether they throw easily or with maximum effort. (The former is preferable.) Hitters are graded on the five basic tools: hitting for average, hitting for power, defense, arm and speed.
Kline never rates anyone as an 80, unless it’s on pure speed, like former Nationals minor leaguer Billy Burns, who has since been traded to Oakland. He rarely hands out a 70, with the arm of current Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa an exception.
“If I put a 60 on a tool, I’m saying he’s going to be above average,” Kline said. “If he exceeds those expectations, great.”
By the seventh inning, Maryland held a lead over Virginia, and the scouts’ chances of seeing Howard were dwindling. Kline peeked at the radar gun a couple rows up after another Stinnett fastball: 89. He was tiring. Two innings later, Maryland’s closer struck out a Virginia hitter for the final out of a 7-6 victory. Howard never made it off the bench.
“Oh well,” Kline said. “There’s always tomorrow.”
Duke and Georgia Tech played next. The Blue Devils don’t traditionally provide many players for the draft, and the Yellow Jackets endured a bit of a down year. Dozens of scouts left the stadium, maybe catching a break before Miami played Clemson in a sexier matchup at night. Kline grabbed a cheeseburger from the concession stand (a “30” of a burger on the scouting scale, he said) and he and Gonzales took seats behind the plate. Who knew what they might see?
“Rizz is always on us,” Kline said. “ ‘There are big leaguers out there. You can find a big leaguer in the 30th round. Go do it.’ ”
By 6 p.m., he wore his reading glasses over his shades, checking his phone and his notes. And in front of him, a Duke pitcher named Drew Van Orden stifled Georgia Tech, taking a 6-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. “Finish it up, big boy,” Kline said. When Van Orden did, allowing five hits without a walk while striking out eight, Kline and Gonzales had added something to their file they didn’t have when the day began — a senior right-hander with slightly above-average major league stuff, working his way up their draft board.
“Learned something today,” Kline said.
Nats get their man in draft
The Nationals’ war room sits on the field level of Nationals Park, down a concrete corridor from the Presidents Club and around a bend from the home clubhouse, a converted conference room that normally hosts pre- and postgame news conferences for the manager. At 8:30 p.m. on June 5, nearly two dozen Nationals staffers sat behind eight tables. The only sound came from one of the three televisions, all of which carried the first round of Major League Baseball’s 2014 draft.
Kline and Rizzo sat at the front table, their backs facing the room. On the wall in front of them hung two whiteboards, each carefully constructed. On the left were the Nationals’ top 100 players, ranked in order, each with his own magnetic card. On the right, a breakdown by position — right-handers in order, left-handers in order, infielders in order, etc.
Kline wore a purple dress shirt and tie, and the jacket from the only suit he owns hung on the back of his chair. Folded in his wallet was a single sheet of paper from the desk at the Courtyard by Marriott/Navy Yard. Kline, Gonzales, Zona, Baca and Costello had all been holed up there for more than a week, walking from the hotel to the war room, from the war room to the hotel, and back again (though Baca left town before the draft to attend his son’s high school graduation).
Three days before the draft, Kline scratched two names on that sheet of paper and tucked it away. He always did something like this, a test of how well he knew the draft. The Nationals picked 18th in the first round.
“In your mind,” Kline said, “you know who you’re going to take.”
When Kline and the other scouts arrived in Washington on May 28, each had his own draft board in mind. But they had to build a single list, one that would serve as their unwavering guide not just through the first round, but through 40 rounds over three days. Because of that, Rizzo delivers a message before they even walk into the room: “Leave your ego at the door, and have a thick skin.” Stick up for the players you believe in, but be prepared to hear pushback, and more.
“I’ve had guys go nose-to-nose, and we’ve had punches thrown,” Rizzo said. “All that stuff happens.”
But by the time the draft began, at 7 p.m., the arguments had petered out. “Your board is your board,” Kline said, and they would follow it. The entire front office filled the room — Doug Harris and Mark Scialabba from player development in one corner, assistant general manager Bryan Minniti and director of baseball operations Adam Cromie at another back table, Gonzales alongside Harolyn Cardozo, Rizzo’s take-care-of-everybody special assistant. When Arizona picked at No. 16, there was nothing above a whisper. The only thing that separated the Nationals from their pick — the pick Kline and his staff had worked a year to make — was the Kansas City Royals. The TV screen showed an image of Art Stewart, a longtime scout with the Royals who represented the club in New York, where the draft was held.
“Whaddya got, Art?” Rizzo said, standing up. Kline peered over his reading glasses. And then the room filled with the voice of Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball. Selig announced the Royals would take lefty Brandon Finnegan of Texas Christian University, then said, “The Washington Nationals have the next pick, and they are now on the clock.” Before he finished the sentence, Rizzo was walking to a phone across the room, calling New York with his pick.
Kline, in the light blue shirt -- he calls himself a 'total slob' -- stands next to Rizzo at the batting cage at Nationals Park before a game against Philadelphia. For Kline, home is the Phoenix suburbs, though he's rarely there for long stretches. 'If I’m not at a game, I feel like I’m always going to miss something,' Kline said. 'I hate that feeling. I hate it.'
Everyone in the room knew who the Nationals would take. But only when Selig made the announcement — Erick Fedde, a right-hander from UNLV who underwent Tommy John surgery two days earlier — did Rizzo spin around in his chair, belt out, “Very good,” and begin a round of applause that briefly filled the room. Rizzo then walked over to Kline, still seated, and rubbed the big man’s shoulders.
More photos: Life on the road
At the ACC tournament, Kline (bottom right) and Gonzales, next to him, fill a few of the seats behind home plate, generally an area where scouts sit, together but apart. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
“He doesn’t sleep much, and he thinks of nothing else until the third day of the draft,” Rizzo said earlier, “and then he’ll collapse.”
Kline eventually got up and fist-bumped Rizzo before shaking hands around the room. “Congratulations,” Harris said. Cardozo, who overlooks neither a person nor a detail, began tossing ice cream sandwiches to scouts and front office members, a junior-high-style celebration. And Kline reached into his wallet for that piece of paper from the Courtyard.
The first name read “Freeland,” left-hander Kyle from the University of Evansville who had gone eighth overall to the Colorado Rockies. The second name: “Fedde.”
“I knew he was going to fall to us,” Kline said.
Howard, the Virginia closer, went with the next pick to Cincinnati. Reed, a first-round talent in Kline’s mind, fell — but not far enough for the Nationals, because Houston took him with the first pick of the second round. The next day, in the fifth round, with the 154th pick in the draft, the Nationals took a right-hander from Duke named Drew Van Orden.
And on Sunday, Kline flew home to Phoenix. He watched a movie on the way and said he’d decompress for a week. He was kidding himself.
“I won’t be able to,” he said. “I get too stir-crazy.”
So the plan was to see the Nationals’ minor-league affiliates, evaluate his own work from previous drafts. Then an endless list of games, the Cape Cod League and the Area Code Games and more. The 2015 draft was almost exactly a year off. The work, though, begins anew, because there’s another flight to be boarded, another car to be rented, another player to be seen. Always.