Under the hot July sun, 70 young men gathered at Wheaton Regional Park for a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The sounds of baseball filled the air: the pounding of fists into gloves, the cracks of the bat and the inevitable shouts of "hey now" and "awright" that outfielders call to remind you they're still there.
The young men swung bats at imaginary fastballs, kicked the infield dirt and unfurled pouches for a new wad of chew, warming into the afternoon for their one shot at the pros.
Under the watchful eye of Joe Consoli, head scout for the Pirates on the Eastern Seaboard, the young men were tested for Consoli's formula for success: "guts, gift and gab." Pitted against Consoli's big league standards rather than against each other, the players ran, threw and hit in drills designed to test potential rather than performance.
The players, age 16 to 25, mostly were from Maryland, the District and Virginia. But Randy Lydick, 17, came with his father from Home, Pa., a 200-mile drive, because "I want to be a pro," he said.
The players came longing for a privileged spot on a major league club. Some would settle for a free ride in a minor league dugout and others came just for the love of baseball. Rob Travaglini, 25, the oldest in the crowd, took a day off from his job at a chemical firm in Gaithersburg because he hadn't played in such a long time. His khaki pants and tennis shoes drew smirks from some players. The guys with "D.C. Cardinals" and "Ramada Inn" emblazoned in reds and blues and greens across their chests were the ones the scouts came to see. But everybody got an even shot.
"I signed Woody Fryman when he was 25," Consoli said. Fryman is in his 18th season as a major league pitcher and has won more than 140 games.
"If a guy comes to camp, I believe in 'im," Consoli said. "He's not afraid to put the goods on the line. He doesn't have an excuse. He'll amount to something no matter what he does." Just showing up embodies the "guts" that Consoli is looking for.
Fernando Palacios, 18, wearing shorts, slid into second base twice to show his guts. Another player was hit in the back by two fast balls and dodged another before hitting the fourth pitch into the outfield for a double.
Throughout the day, Consoli and his assistants displayed the "gab" that constitutes a real ball player. They told tales of signing Al Kaline at a tryout camp when he was 18, of Roberto Clemente throwing strikes at home plate from the right-field fence and giving Al Oliver, last year's National League batting champ, one more chance because he had the right attitude.
"Pittsburgh has signed more big league players than any other team in baseball," Consoli boasted, "and one in every 100 of you boys is a major league player." A major league player--if you've got the "gift."
To Consoli, the gift means you don't choke when the pressure is on. It means you're quick with your mind and feet.
The tryout began with running drills. A 60-yard dash in seven seconds is major league speed. On a Thursday at 10 a.m., most of the young aspirants lacked major league speed.
After loosening their arms, the players were tested for accuracy and distance. The outfielders threw twice to third base and twice to home plate. Consoli considered this a generous drill because in a game you get only one chance. The infielders scooped ground balls to throw to first base. One third baseman took a hard hop off the shoulder and suffered from a sore arm as well as a bruised ego. Consoli transforms baseball from a pastime to a workout.
"We find out what a boy's potential is," Consoli said. "We check the accuracy and velocity of the arm, body control, fluidity and motion. We study a batter's approach to hitting.
"We're like doctors of baseball. We diagnose your case and provide a therapeutic remedy."
With a whining but authoritative voice, a World Series ring and "Pirates" stretched across his chest, Consoli commanded the day's events like a seasoned veteran. He and his assistants gathered up their information and statistics on all the players at the end of the tryout without making any final decisions.
Next week will see him through another camp in another state. But for the hopeful players in Wheaton, hanging on every word from the "doctor," it was the closest we'd ever come to being a pro.