Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Book review: 'Prophet of the Sandlots'

Tony Lucadello may be the best-known scout in the history of baseball. He signed Mike Schmidt and Fergie Jenkins. The tragic end of his life caused shockwaves through the game. He’s very worthy to be the subject of a book. He’s worthy of a dozen books.

But Mark Winegardner’s “Prophet of the Sandlots: Journeys with a Major League Scout” fails more than it succeeds.

I wrote about this briefly a few weeks ago, but it’s worth repeating: Winegardner’s excessive and gratuitous use of first-person writing really takes the reader out of this tale. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

“Prophet of the Sandlots” is a non-fiction “novel” that tells the story of the last year of Tony Lucadello’s life. Lucadello worked for the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies, mostly in the era before the amateur draft, and in his career he signed 52 players who eventually made it to the majors - believed to be, by far, more than any two scouts combined. (There’s a comprehensive list of those players here.)

And he didn’t do his job like other scouts. He didn’t carry a radar gun or a stopwatch, he didn’t sit right behind home plate (Lucadello roamed the stands, seeing the players from different angles), and he evaluated prospects differently. While other scouts were quick to dismiss a player based on one or two glaring negatives, Lucadello looked for pluses, and could spot how small changes could erase those negatives. This is how Lucadello found so many “sleepers” the other scouts passed on.

Lucadello was also known for preaching fundamentals over power and flash - something Lofflin and I have endorsed on this very blog. Lucadello believed baseball was dying because American kids didn’t practice fundamentals anymore. His vision was to have the father of every young boy in the country build a four-feet-by-four-feet concrete wall in their backyards. Then, each day, the boy could go outside and throw 100 balls against the wall, and also field those 100 balls. Then their dad could toss plastic golf balls for the boy to bat against the wall. When in practice, Lucadello saw dramatic results.

Winegardner got the great idea to follow Lucadello around for a year on his annual scouting trip. It just so happened that the scout died tragically shortly after the trip.

I admit it’s an interesting book. And I don’t want to harp on it, but “Prophet of the Sandlots” is chock-full of flaws. For instance, much is made of Lucadello’s signing of Mike Schmidt, but we hardly hear anything about how the scout signed Fergie Jenkins. And Lucadello’s death was just touched upon. I was craving more details.

(I found those details in this great article on ESPN’s Web site.)

And then there are the first person issues. Winegardner grew up in Ohio, the heart of Lucadello’s scouting region, and he’s often making irrelevant references to his own life. He goes on for a paragraph about how the radio station Lucadello listens to is the same one he listened to as a kid. Winegardner notes how one of the fields Tony frequents is “in the shadow of where I saw my first rock concert.” And there’s a whole chapter where Winegardner takes a trip by himself to Phillies training camp to meet some of Lucadello’s signees, but Lucadello is hardly mentioned in the chapter.

But maybe I’m like the baseball scouts who dismiss a player because of a few flaws. In fact, I know that’s right; a few years after he wrote this, Winegardner penned one of the most interesting baseball novels I’ve ever read, “The Veracruz Blues.” I’ll be reviewing that one later.

If for nothing else, the story of Tony Lucadello’s life makes “Prophet of the Sandlots” a worthwhile read.

--Matt Kelsey

1 comment:

  1. my name was tony corcoran and jason myers was one of my best friends. I was on his team and I found Tony Lucadello lying in the grass. I rolled him over and found the hand gun trying to keep him breathing. Jason took off to find help while I turned him over, back and forth to keep him breathing. Email me for the real story. Tperez@WOH.RR.COM