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by Editor Rick Cabral
           

Indians

DON LYLE

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?" 

Then on to the next riff. 

But 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?"  

Do we ever. 

In 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. 

Lyle's 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 1993. 

Sitting 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_Hard_90
Lyle trains a radar gun on a pitcher at a summer
Hard 90 Academy Showcase.

Next is 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.  

When 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?" 

During 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 it." 

Lyle 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 set up."  

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 baseball.

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).

A 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. 

With 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 school.  

Cosumnes_River_College_1973

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 Inning.
Coach Conway is at the end of the Middle Row.

Always 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 radar. 

Lyle 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 Reds. 

In 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.  

In the 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.

In 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 particular.  

Lyle_Double_A_Award

Lyle accepts the Reds Organization Double-A Player of the Year Award for the 1978 season.

One of 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.  

"You know why we're in last place?" Rags asked.  

Lyle thought he knew, but asked anyway "What do you mean, Rags?" 

"We 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. 

"I won him over," Lyle says, with a proud smile.  

 

 Don_Lyle_Cincy

 Lyle in spring training 1976 wearing a
hand-me-down Johnny Bench jersey

The 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' possibilities.  

And 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 compensation system. 

Lyle 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?" 

Since 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.  

When 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." 

When 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 is." 

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.  

"Guys 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 wall. 

Once an 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.  

Lyle 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. 

"It's a brotherly thing, a deep friendship thing," concedes Cogan about his

 Don_Lyle+Paul_Cogan
Don Lyle (left) with friend and supervisor, Paul Cogan at the Professional Scouts camp.

special relationship 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." 

Asked 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 states. 

"Don 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 that." 

Lyle says Cogan is an excellent writer and they've discussed co-writing a book together on scouting. 

Over 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. 

 

Lyle_New_Faze_Dugout

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.



Each 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 worthwhile activity.  

"We 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.

Right 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." 

You got it? 

Pro_Scouts_Camp_Lyle

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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Updated 09/05/10
All contents © Rick Cabral, 2010 

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