Thursday, December 15, 2016

December Hot Stove

Walked in the door to the Tallant Baseball Museum and was greeted by a stranger in a red UGA pullover and his father. The stranger was the night's speaker: Levi Hyams, the Braves 19th round draft pick out of UGA in 2012.

Levi started his talk by praising his father, for getting him started in baseball by tossing a tennis ball for the toddler to smack with his big plastic Mark McGwire bat. The elder Mr. Hyams instilled in Levi he drive and work ethic to succeed. His humble father, retired from the military, sat beside Levi and occasionally brought up topics for Levi to discuss. Host Johnny Tallant, who knows everybody, told stories of Levi's mother, an all-state high school basketball player in north Georgia back in the day.

Hyams briefly recapped his career, which has included stints in Danville, Lynchburg, Rome, Pearl, Greensboro, and Gwinnett. Stories of his host family in Mississippi: the bearded, gun-toting father and the breakfast-cooking mother, whose meals put 25 pounds on Levi's roommate, a pitcher from Australia. The booster club rising early to feed the team breakfast before road trip departures, and taking requests for each player's favorite snacks and lunches.
He praised excellent managers John Schuerholz Jr, Randy Ingle, and Brian Snitker ("so easy to play for"). Of bouncing around from team to team with just a duffle bag of five outfits, at one point having two cars parked in two different cities while he was playing in a third. Bunking on an air mattress in the living room in the apartment shared by Matt Marksberry and Terrell Jenkins. His brief spring training stint with the major league club, grounding out in his first at bat but then hitting a single, then standing on first all fired up inside - thinking "I'm batting .500!".

Levi mentioned the joy of getting to wear his pants legs long for the big club. This sparked discussion among the entire group. Us older gentlemen preferred a more traditional look, but Levi pointed out how comfortable it was not having the elastic of the pants leg bunched up around his knees - which can adversely affect performance. At this point our second speaker of the evening piped up. Former pitcher / current Rays scout Milt Hill seconded Levi's claims, and mentioned how the Rays' ownership changed their policy to allow their minor league clubs to wear uniforms the same way the big league club does - even allowing reasonably-trimmed beards.
Hill spoke at length about a variety of topics. He played four seasons with Reds, Braves, and Mariners. Graduated from Redan High, then played for Dekalb Community College and Middle Georgia College. Milt signed in 1987, right when the minor leagues added a pension. His time as a scout counts toward his pension. Next year will be his 30th season in baseball, making his pension one of the highest in history. Says he still loves baseball with a passion.

He pitched with the Reds' Nasty Boys. Redan boasts more MLB players than any other school in the state, including Wally Joiner and Brandon Phillips. Also kickers Kevin Butler and Chris Gardocki, receiver Terrance Mathis, and a few NBA players as well. The players he played with and against over the years have become trusted contacts throughout the Southeast: high school baseball coaches and the like. Whatever name someone mentioned, Milt was familiar with him.
The life of the scout: watching as many as three games in a day: perhaps a junior college game at 1 pm, a high school game at four, and perhaps a larger college at night. Levi and his dad had excused themselves after his talk. Later in the evening Milt was asked what Levi should do if he remains stuck in the minors - would Milt recommend scouting? Milt answered the question, but added that Levi should keep playing as long as possible. For the record: Levi had mentioned that after 2017 he would be eligible for the Rule Five Draft, where another team could steal any player who'd been in a team's minor league system for five years.

Says these days travel ball is "watered down" - "so many teams." Says Perfect Game is well organized. Some other tourneys might have incorrect rosters, making it impossible to scout players when he doesn't know their names. These days there may be only five or six summer teams worth watching, since good players play together, like on the elite East Cobb teams. Says kids playing 100 baseball games a year in the South may "flatline" / plateau - have a lower upside, while players in the north may play several sports due to the cold weather allowing for less than 40 baseball games. Said playing football on Friday nights under the lights before big crowds can help a player develop later on down the road when they out away from home for the first time, facing adversity in a minor league filled with players just as good as he is.
Last year local star Seth Beer skipped his senior season at Lambert High School and enrolled early at Clemson. He was the first freshman to win the national player of the year award. He was 19, so had he played another year in high school he would've been the oldest player out there. Milt said he'd made the right decision - had he stayed in high school all the other teams would've walked him every time. Milt said he will be a high number one draft choice.

Said the Mississippi State baseball stadium was nice. Several of the old guys looked at each other, saying they'd need to take a road trip. Milt said to buy their tickets early. The MSU head coach had the season ticketholders agree to be in their seats 15 minutes early, or their seats could be re-sold.

Thinks the Braves are making the right move building in Cobb County. Heard Mike Plant speak at a Braves alumni golf tournament. The decision wasn't made on a whim, but after years of study - and numerous development proposals all turned down by the city of Atlanta. When he played for the Braves, Hill would carpool downtown with Smoltz and Greg McMichael, meeting up with them on Haynes Bridge Road.

Didn't disagree with the trade of Terrell Jenkins, who is "at best a 5th starter or long reliever - not an impact player." Said the same thing about Aaron Blair. Praised last year's Rome rotation - all six starters are "top tier guys - number one, two, or three starters.

Milt told about his days playing for Calgary, when he was in the Pirates organization. During warm-ups the temperature would be 65. The team would go back to the clubhouse, then come out for the game and the temperature would be 40 degrees. Hill was on the Giants the year they were threatening to move to Tampa. Fans were livid. At the last game of the season the relievers were told to run from the bullpen in right field across to the clubhouse behind third base the second the game was over. Fans were cussing and throwing beer bottles at them.

Told a story about a minor league team with both young Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford in the same outfield. There was a roster spot open, so the team signed an undrafted free agent out of the fine Mississippi State program by the name of Shane Kelly. After just a few days Kelly showed up early at the coach's door, holding his folded up uniform. He was quitting, because "I'm nowhere close to as good as Hamilton and Crawford." Neither was anyone else.

Once when Milt was backing up the batting practice pitcher Hamilton begged him to let him throw a pitch with the radar gun on. To avoid trouble, Milt said no. Hamilton hadn't even warmed up. But when Milt turned his back, Hamilton jumped onto the mound and fired a pitch - 96 mph. Few knew that early on Hamilton was injured in when a dump truck hit his car. That's when he became addicted to pain killers, which turned into a drug addiction.

Both Levi and Milt had attended hot stove meetings in the past. Milt laughed about two other players who'd showed up at Hot Stove in the past: pitcher Ryan Farnsworth from Milton High, and catcher Glenn Sutko - neither ever mistaken as Einsteins. Sutko, who appeared in 17 games for the big Red Machine back in the early 1970's, was married there in the Tallant Baseball Museum by justice of the peace Johnny. After the ceremony Sutko dug in his pants but couldn't find his wallet to pay. Johnny told him he didn't charge big leaguers. Milt said one time he was pitching in the minors. His catcher Sutko would put down a sign for a slider, then fail to catch the pitch because he was expecting a fastball - having completely forgotten the pitch he'd called for.

Attendance (17) was only slightly off from the November meeting. One of the hot stove organizers told how he'd mentioned to Milt he'd be attending a game in Tampa, and Milt set him up with primo seats.

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