Bip Roberts: Kid with a Motor Up His Ass

Baseball Prospectus recently republished Kevin Kerrane’s classic (ranked by Sports Illustrated as the 52nd best sports book of all time) on scouts and scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle. I was fortunate enough to help edit the new version and can tell you it is a fascinating read that has changed the way I think about baseball.

Although Kerrane wrote this about the Phillies scouts he shadowed during the 1981 season, his words touch on many with ties to the Padres, including Larry Bowa, Joe Carter, Mark Davis, Tony Gwynn, Mike Ivie, Chris James, Randy Jones, and Kevin McReynolds. The following excerpt features Rich “Goose” Gossage and Leon “Bip” Roberts.

To learn more about Dollar Sign on the Muscle, including what experts are saying, additional excerpts, and how to buy the book, click here.

In the Philadelphia scouting files I found an old report, dated May 27, 1970, and stamped WILBUR H. JOHNSON. It was Moose’s description of Richard Gossage who, before he became famous as “Goose,” had been a skinny high-schooler (6’2″ and 175 pounds) from Colorado Springs. The report read:

A tall, lanky RHP. Possesses a plus arm with a loose delivery off a good body. Delivers his FB off a low ¾ and also sidearm—with his CB from ¾ but will probably have to resort to a hard slider. His FB moves into RH-hitters and with a sinking effect. But with added weight of 20 pounds or so as he goes into manhood, he could develop a wicky FB with even more movement. His body can easily take the added weight. His potential is promising. Only a fair or borderline student—so should sign.

On Saturday and Sunday the scouts spent twelve hours discussing 175 more players who had been categorized as High A ($16,000 to $30,999), Mid A ($6,000 to $15,999), and Low A ($300 to $5,999). Another 77 players were listed on a sheet marked WNS, pronounced winnis, which stood for “Would Not Select.” Some were there because their skills didn’t match any known position on a baseball field. A high-school outfielder named Gregory Morhardt was described in Dick Lawlor’s reports as having “Pete Rose desire and a showcase arm.” But he was a bean, 6′ and 160 pounds, who lacked speed as well as power. Told that Morhardt’s best time at 60 yards was seven seconds flat, Jim Baumer said simply, “Winnis him.”

Jeffery Carl, a college shortstop from Wisconsin, was winnised because he was 22, 5′ 10″, and wore contacts. “That’s three strikes,” Baumer said. Joey Meyer, a high-school first baseman from Hawaii, was winnised because he weighed 270 pounds. “He’s 6’4″ and might slim down,” Goldsberry said, “and I’d like to take a chance on him, because his home runs go halfway to the mainland.” “Winnis him,” Baumer said.

But most players were winnised because they couldn’t be signed, according to area scouts, at any figure near what the Phillies thought they were really worth. They expected a bonus commensurate with Group One talent they didn’t seem to have—like Mark Gubicza, a High-A high-school pitching star in Philadelphia. Or they had their minds set on a college program whose scholarship value the Phillies weren’t ready to match—like Robert Fingers, Rollie’s nephew, a pitcher about to enroll at Arizona State.

Gordon Goldsberry liked player 97 on the High-A list but noted that his own evaluation ($14,500) made this prospect Mid A. Jack Pastore suggested calling him “Upper Fair.” The player was Joe Nemeth, a senior first baseman at California State. “He reminds me of Jason Thompson,” Goldsberry said. “He’s a left-hander with power, which we need, and his hands are okay. He could get drafted surprisingly high—say by Minnesota on the third or fourth round.” Asked his opinion, Brandy Davis used his strongest expletive: “It was windy as heck the last time I saw him, so I’m not sure I got the best look. But I’ll stick with my fifteen thousand on the power.”

Davis was more animated than on Friday, maybe feeling that his opinions on A-level players would carry more weight than his rankings of prospects in Groups One and Two, and he did a nice job of selling Mel Williams, a black outfielder from David Lipscomb College. The area scout, George Farson, had put $12,000 on Williams, and Randy Waddill had put only $8,000; Davis had Williams in for $33,000. “He can run and throw above major-league average, and that’s ten thousand right there. But I also saw him hit against James Winn, and he looked fine. He’s wiry and strong, 5’11” and 175, and I don’t see any bad holes in him.”

I was hoping that someone would give as strong a sales pitch for Leon “Bip” Roberts, a black high-school shortstop I knew only from reading through a stack of computerized reports on one of the tables. The Phillies categorized Roberts as Mid A, but Eddie Bockman’s reports were like messages in bottles, trying to get someone in the scouting hierarchy to take this kid seriously. The problem was Roberts’s size (5’7″ and 150), because the Phillies have traditionally been committed to big players. Back in 1965 Bockman had finally been allowed to sign a small, undrafted shortstop—Larry Bowa—only by pestering Paul Owens, and even shooting home movies of Bowa in action and making Owens watch them projected on a motel room wall. In his movie review Owens said that Bowa was too little, but just to get some peace he approved a bonus of $2,000. Now Bockman was writing editorials about Bip Roberts, noting that Roberts’s slowest time at 60 yards was 6.5, and concluding in the style of an urgent telegram:

Little in stature but plays big. Same lines as Joe Morgan at same age. Not much to him, just a pip, but sure can play. Arm will limit him to second base, but does have quick release from shortstop. Good range, no matter where you put him. Weak point—suspect with bat; could make left-hand hitter out of him. Strong point—can run, likes to, can steal base. Dedicated boy, is all baseball. Can play, forget size, judge on plus marks. Can run, play defense, play baseball. Don’t sell him short.

Goldsberry visualized Roberts for the other scouts as a switch-hitter with bat speed from both sides, and as a kid with a good attitude (“a smiling black with a motor up his ass”), but he didn’t try to generate enthusiasm. “He’s really a Pittsburgh-type draft,” Goldsberry said. What is a typical Pittsburgh draft? “Fast, black, a high-school kid,” Davis told me. “Doesn’t matter much if he’s small or his bat’s suspect. Howie Haak would like Leon Roberts.”

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  • Axion

    BIP ROBERTS STILL OWES ME AN AUTOGRAPH FROM SPRING TRAINING IN THE EARLY NINETIES

  • I’m really enjoying this book. Great history lesson.