Hardest Workin' Scout in the Biz--
You Got It?
Don Lyle is
like a jazz musician on the sandlots. Listen to him speak in that cool-jazz, silky voice, and
immediately Coltrane or Miles comes to mind with improvisational rhythms flowing this way and that,
and always punctuated by his favorite phrase, "You got it?"
to the next riff.
Donnie Lyle—the spindly kid from Sacramento's inner city—is talkin baseball. MLB-style, as in,
"I'm lookin' for the next great player to help my ballclub, the Indians. You got it?"
nearly 20 years driving up and down the interstate from Bakersfield to the Oregon border, and
miles of back roads in between, Lyle has signed more than 50 prospects to major league
contracts. Ten have reached the Big Leagues, with several more in the pipeline. That's a
success rate near 20 percent, which is "a great ratio," according to Ron
King, former scouting supervisor for the Pirates and Dodgers.
best known Sacramento-area signing is Derrek Lee, who recently was traded from
the Cubs to the Braves. Lyle signed Lee out of El Camino High School to a Padres contract in
with the Cleveland Indians scout at a
mid-summer showcase sponsored by Hard 90 Baseball Academy of El Dorado Hills, one learns that he
is sizing up players just by the way they walk on the field to begin practice. "That
(athleticism) puts me on the radar."
Lyle trains a radar gun on a
pitcher at a summer
Hard 90 Academy Showcase.
another intangible: sincerity. Lyle is looking for those who take the business on the field
seriously. "Geoff Jenkins did that," the Indians scout remembers about the
Cordova High star who recently retired after a journeyman career and a World Series championship
with the Phillies.
players begin tossing the ball, Lyle is looking for those with good fundamental arm action and
strength in their throws. Eventually, when they heat up, he'll instinctively know if he got it
right. Even if the arm action "…is not exactly like I want it, but the velocity is there, then
I'm buyin' in," Lyle beams. "You got it?"
a ball game, the Indians scout is timing runners to first base, pitcher's release to home with a
runner on base, and the catcher's throw down to second to nab a base stealer. All standard for
the profession. But Lyle is watching the batter even before he steps in the box. He's checking
the prospect while in the on-deck circle, his approach, his sincerity, again seeing if the
player is "challenging himself to get that pitcher on the mound. You can see
will also move to the opposite sideline to view the prospect through his binoculars. "I'm
watching him on the bench to see how he is watching the game. Does he want to go up there with
the game on the line? Not, when he's at the plate. Once he leaves that circle, it's about his
Surprisingly, this scout's biggest pet peeve deals with player's uniforms. "Straight
brim, no curvature (to the cap). Long Beach State started that. I hate it. Bend your hat, man.
You got it?"
Growing up an inner city kid in Sacramento, Lyle capitalized on any adult interest in his athletic
abilities. He relishes the memory of when Mr. Bean, the postman who lived on his
block, took him and a friend to their first San Francisco Giants game. Lyle recalls Orlando
Cepeda—the "Baby Bull"—hitting a home run that day, which ignited his passion for
His Oakridge Little League
All-Star team forced Airport Little League into extra innings before losing to the Dean
Stotz-led club that made it to Williamsport (the first of only two teams from Sacramento to
reach the Little League World Series).
skinny senior second baseman at Sacramento High, Don Lyle was not heavily recruited by colleges
nor drafted. He says he led the area in hitting until the final week when he finished with
a .459 average. Cordova's Jerry Manuel, longtime MLB player-coach-manager (now managing the New
York Mets) hit .467 and was selected "Player of the Year." Although Lyle didn't make All-City
(he was picked Honorable Mention and made All-Metro League), he was selected for Sacramento's
first Optimist All-Star baseball game in 1972.
nary a sniff from area scouts, the following season he played at Cosumnes River College, where
admittedly he was "the worst one on that team." But midway through the season Lyle improved, won
a starting spot, and helped Jerry Conway's club win the Valley Conference. Not
good enough, however, to get drafted or merit a scholarship offer from a four-year
Don Lyle was the
sole African American player on the 1973 Cosumnes River College
Valley Conference Championship team. That's Don standing under the scoreboard's 2nd
Coach Conway is at the end of the Middle Row.
young for his class, that summer he was eligible to play on the Post 61 American Legion team,
which won the local district and competed for the state title. With one year of college ball
under his belt, Lyle starred in Yountville; snaggin' home run balls over the fence and generally
creating mayhem on the basepaths. His performance garnered the attention of Dodgers scout, Ron
King. But before King could talk to him, Lyle dropped off the sandlot
left with three friends to attend electronics trade school at DeVry University in Phoenix.
Studying by day and working at night in a factory packaging contraceptive pills, Lyle heard the
siren's song when the Cincinnati Reds held an open tryout camp. He went with only his glove,
dressed in shorts and sandals. Admittedly rusty, Don impressed Dick Howsam,
Jr., who signed him the next day to the minimum $500 bonus.
Meantime, his mother told him Mr. King had been leaving messages trying to reach him.
Unbeknown to Lyle, the Dodgers scout was ready to sign him to a contract with a $5,000 bonus.
When Lyle finally connected with King, it was too late. He'd already signed with the
Rookie League ball at Billings, Lyle played the outfield and hit .333. He worked hard the next
three years climbing up the Reds system, known at the time for its "Big Red Machine." During
spring training, he suited in hand-me-down wool jerseys once worn by Reds' legend,
Johnny Bench. Despite the letters being removed, the imprint of the name
"BENCH" was visible across the shoulders, Lyle remembers.
Florida League, he made a circus catch in the outfield in the ninth inning to preserve a
perfect game for the Tampa Tarpon's pitcher.
1978, in his fifth year of pro ball, Lyle was sent to play at Double-A Nashville (Sounds) of the
Southern League. He became the first professional African American player in the Sounds'
history. Although he heard his share of racial slurs in the stands at visiting parks,
Nashville's fans were "great," with the exception of one person in
Lyle accepts the Reds Organization Double-A
Player of the Year Award for the 1978 season.
the ballclub's equipment workers named "Rags" was an 'old southern boy' who wore his racial
prejudice openly. Midway through the season, he warmed up to the idea of sitting with a black
player. One day, "Rags" and Lyle found themselves alone on the bench, wallowing in the shared
disappointment of a losing streak.
know why we're in last place?" Rags asked.
thought he knew, but asked anyway "What do you mean, Rags?"
need more of you," Rags said, meaning black players. "If we have more of you on the team, no
white men want to get beat out by no black men. It'll make you play harder." No doubt a tough
concession for the Nashville resident.
him over," Lyle says, with a proud smile.
Lyle in spring training 1976 wearing
hand-me-down Johnny Bench jersey
following season, the Reds promoted Lyle to Triple-A Indianapolis but he batted just .252. In
1980 he raised his average to .272. Throughout his minor league career, Lyle always suffered leg
injuries around June, the time when scouts are sent out to check on minor league players for
possible trades. "That was always my time to break down," Lyle concedes.
Consequently, he was
marked in scouting reports as DNS—Did Not See or DL for Disabled List. "There wasn't one single
season that I didn't go on the 40-day DL," he sighs. Lyle shakes his head at the 'what-if'
although the Reds never waived or traded him, Lyle saw a limited future, despite hitting .280
over seven seasons. At spring training in 1981, Lyle knew he was the odd man out. Decided to
hang up his cleats, he trudged across the Reds compound, with tears in his eyes, knowing it was
finally over. "It was the longest walk of my life," Lyle reflects. "I was the old man at 27. But
if that was today, I'd be over at the RiverCats making that $10,000 per month—you got it?" he
says, using Sacramento's Triple-A franchise as an example of the change in baseball's
learned an important lesson from his minor league days: the club will always give more chances
to the higher draft picks. "Money follows," he says in a short-handed expression that is an
inside baseball term. And since he was initially paid a pittance, Lyle knew the odds were
stacked against a non-drafted player.
In 1992, just after he got his first scouting job with the San Diego Padres a former teammate told
him, "'I always knew you'd be a good scout, because you were always watching the game like a
scout,'" Lyle recalls. He also learned the baseball truism that scouts tend to take players that
remind them of their playing styles. His friend cautioned him, "'But be careful—you didn't play in
the big leagues.' You got it?"
Don was injury prone, he now steers away from players with a certain body type because he
projects those prospects might have the same kinds of leg injuries he had.
Don Lyle scores a player ultimately he is trying to determine whether that player is ready to
play in the big leagues today. "Only 1 percent (of the prospects) do I want right now," he
admits, but marks others with a notation to "follow." He frequently recommends those players to
college scouts, hoping they have an opportunity to continue developing, and become major-league
ready in time.
The primary gauge in measuring a player's skill level against those now playing
in the major leagues is scouting's 20-80 scoring system, with a 20 being the lowest score and 80
reserved for the All-World players at their peak. "Even with Barry (Bonds), I
would have had to grade him at 70," Lyle laughs about a fictitious scoring of one of his
all-time favorite players. "Give him an 80 and there's no upside."
evaluating a high school talent—notably the bat and the arm—Lyle will score a range rather than
a pinpoint number. "You fudge a little bit. If (the prospect) makes it to the majors, and his
arm is a 50 now, he'll probably be a 60 in the majors. I'll put it down as a 50-60, since I
expect it's going to be better." The running score, he says, "stays what it
Scouting is not unlike being a stock broker. You evaluate the talent or product and
then project whether it will produce big dividends. Lyle says it's tough to look at a
17-year-old high school player and project him three to seven years down the road. The prospect
may be a talent now, compared to other high schoolers, but numerous questions surround a
possible draft selection: will his body continue to grow; will he continue to improve or has he
already hit the ceiling of his talent level; will he continue to work hard in pursuit of a
long-term major league career; will a big signing bonus affect his attitude? All of these
questions are factored with the player's statistics and scouting reports.
that mature so early can fool you sometimes, because you think you're getting the full package,
and then they don't understand when they hit a wall," the scout says. "I always try to tell
parents when I go in their house. 'I know you think your son is all that right now. And he is
very good. But he needs to get to the next level.'" Some never vault past the
area scout has found the next major league star, he must convince his supervisor—usually an
organizational cross-checker—to make time to see the prospect. If the player shines on that
particular day, chances improve that he'll get a positive recommendation to the organization's
top brass. If not, they may drop interest, letting another team take a shot at him.
says a scout's judgment and opinion of a prospect can be affected by how they feel that day: how
long of a drive to get to the ballpark; did they get proper sleep the night before. That's why
when he invites his supervisor Paul Cogan on a scouting trip, he always drives
to ensure "my guy is fresh" and focused on the player they came to watch. He has served under
Cogan in the Indians organization for nearly a decade. Both men admit to enjoying each other's
company and having an unusually close personal relationship.
brotherly thing, a deep friendship thing," concedes Cogan about his
with Lyle. "We look out for each other, personally. I think that's what makes it work. He cares
about me more as a human being than he does some kind of supervisor. When you care about somebody
that deeply, you're gonna go above and beyond to do the best you can."
Don Lyle (left) with friend and
supervisor, Paul Cogan at the Professional Scouts camp.
to describe Lyle as a scout, Cogan unabashedly says "Best I've ever seen, without a doubt.
Unequivocally." Cogan supervises five area scouts, including Lyle, in the Western
has an instinct—we say he has the soul for
it—because he sees the world a different way," Cogan confides about his protégé. "He's able to
project and see down the line, take the family dynamic and catch the underlying thing about the
kid, and put it all together. It may sound abstract, but we communicate so well and speak the
language. He communicates to me and I communicate to the front office, and what happens is a
whole lot of major league players (result from the process) because of his ability to do
says Cogan is an excellent writer and they've discussed co-writing a book together on
this past summer, Lyle has been busy, as usual. Told that he could lay claim to the title,
Hardest Working Scout in the Biz, he laughs and
says "Many people believe that! I just work." Summer showcases, like the Hard 90 and the
well-known "Area Code Games" take up much of his time. But when asked to help out at a camp for
young players at Sac State he appears, along with several other area scouts and former pro
players. First and foremost, he believes it's in the best interest of the kids. But Lyle also
knows he will have a leg up if one of them eventually develops into a pro prospect, as the
memory of meeting a professional scout will last a lifetime.
Little Leaguers listen intently inside the Sac State dugout as Don Lyle
explains the importance of proper diet, good health and a passion to play the
sport at a free baseball clinic sponsored by NewFaze.
summer, Don Lyle spearheads his own baseball camp for young teens as another way to "give back
to the community." Marketed under the banner Nationally Concerned Baseball Scouts, up to 100
kids—many of them inner city youths—pay a modest $20 fee to attend the camp. There they receive
instruction and encouragement by other local area scouts who gladly assist Lyle in this
hope the interest we show them will help spark some of these kids to go on to play at the next
level," Lyle says of the program. He estimates that 15 of his former pupils have already gone on
to play college baseball, an encouraging sign the program is working.
up until Christmas, Don Lyle will continue canvassing ballparks throughout Northern California
in hopes of identifying and channeling top pro prospects into the Cleveland organization to make
the Indians contenders once again. Regardless of his success rate, Lyle will do it diligently,
with a smile on his face and cool jazz in his silky voice.
According to his supervisor Cogan, "The day is always better when Don Lyle is at the
ballpark, there's no question about that."
Cleveland Indians scout Don Lyle instructs on the
importance of pitch selection at his baseball camp held over the Labor day weekend at Sacramento
High. A dozen local professional baseball scouts joined Lyle in providing instruction to
youth league and high school players from the area.
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