Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The updated "Dollar Sign on the Muscle"

The re-release of "Dollar Sign
on the Muscle" features the story
of how the Royals landed Tim
Collins, the little lefty shown on
the cover.
Away back in 1981, a college instructor named Kevin Kerrane spent the year burrowing into the world of baseball scouts. He delved in depth into the Philadelphia Phillies scouting system, and branched beyond the Phillies to get other perspectives from some of the game's most storied scouting veterans.

It took a couple years, but Kerrane turned his material into one of the best baseball books in my collection, "Dollar Sign on the Muscle," published in 1984. I got my paperback copy in '85, and for years revisited it regularly.

The book has been long out of print, and I stopped rereading it some time ago, fearing that its description of the scouting world was no longer relevant in the age of "Moneyball" -- another insightful look into the mysteries of player evaluation, and itself based on a season more than a dozen years in the rearview mirror.

Well, the book is back in print under the auspices of Baseball Prospectus. Kerrane rewrote and updated the conclusion and added a new chapter on the current world of scouting -- going in-depth on Pat Toomey, a scout for the Kansas City Royals (a profile that demonstrates that the colorful scouts aren't completely gone) and on the Washington Nationals' and St. Louis Cardinals' overall approach, but also touching on a Twins area scout, Jack Powell.

One of the conflicts in the original was the romantic individualism of the old-school scouts vs. the organizational bureaucracies, represented by the draft, scouting directors, cross-checkers and "the Bureau," a centralized scouting organization. (It's worth remembering that in 1981, the draft was only 15 years old, and the old-timers like Leon Hamilton and Hugh Alexander missed the days when, if they found a prospect, they could just sign him.)

That particular battle has been decided, if only by attrition (to a man, the old-timers profiled in the original have died in the intervening decades). The Bureau in 1981 included a majority of teams, but not all; today it is run by the commissioners' office and every team is part of it. The draft, for better or worse, isn't going away. The money involved puts the amounts scouting directors fretted over in the early '80s to shame, upping the need for organizational control.

But, as Kerrane makes clear, there remains room in the mysteries of scouting -- in the task of looking at a 17-year-old and deducing what his athletic future holds -- for the obscurities of "the good face."

"Dollar Sign on the Muscle" remains not only a good read. It remains relevant to the baseball world of today.

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