Images by Bogaerts, Rob / Anefo National Archives and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands.
Chapter One: Seeking Fresh Talent
He sat next to the gate, scrolling for a free WiFi connection to check his fantasy team. He had his phone, passport, a one-way plane ticket, some extra clothes and enough money to get two people off the island and into Mexico, which he had been told would take almost everything he had.
He tried not to think about all of that at once, since it brought flashes of terror and doubt surging through his body which were followed by acute nausea and panicked breathing. He tried to fixate on the wonderful, glittering spot in his mind. The thing that he had been chasing to this point and would, he hoped, realize itself in fame and fortune once he caught it.
Marshall was a baseball scout, or he was supposed to be. In his view, he was embarking on a scouting trip for the best teams in the world, all of which would recognize his work on their behalf when he returned. There was a good chance for an enormous contract offer, part of which would be Marshall’s. He did think about the money, but what really drove him to this point at the airport was the vision of his future self in the stands, greasing contacts, meeting players. Seeing in them something that nobody else could, possessing a respected authority, deciding who had the talent to take a shot and who should hang up their cleats. All with a major league logo on his collared shirt. Validation was the main thing in the glittering vision and thoughts of acclaim and adulation for his work and natural skill were what made it flash.
It’s hard to say when exactly Marshall began seeing himself as this scrutineer of athletic talent but without a doubt it had started with a love for the game. As a Little League player, he devoured baseball like many kids do, but his childish fascination only grew with time and it attached itself to those who played the game with the utmost grace and power. As Marshall, a moderate athlete even at his best, began to fall physically short of baseball greatness, his enterprising passion drifted to those players that did justice to the game. Eventually, his passion grew so bold and his dreams so lofty that only the world’s top talents could be worthy of benefitting from them. Marshall’s pursuit of baseball perfection belonged only at the highest level, to be acknowledged by the trappings and glory that came with it.
* * *
Marshall had spent his first year out of school working for a low-level minor league club in the South. When he went in to interview for a scouting position, they thought putting him in the marketing department would make better use of his communications degree. He took notes while his boss negotiated advertising deals, set up interviews between the players and local newspapers and got to watch home games from the bullpen tunnel if he was free. Every day he had to wear a tie and they didn’t even make one that had the team’s logo. As promised in his interview, he did at least get to work in the same building as the players. He would appear in the manager’s office, unannounced and hoping to talk shop, but the coaching staff wasn’t open to his ideas. Marshall found the team to be grossly behind the analytics movement and when he mentioned the term “park-adjusted” or used any acronym beyond RBI, he was quickly ushered back to his desk.
He left that job and found one that was all baseball, all the time. He moved to Maine and became an assistant general manager for a team in the Northern Country Baseball League. The players were mostly college cast-offs but they loved the game and Marshall had the chance to show his eye. His voice was heard, he traveled the Northeast watching batting practices and games, he had a say in the front office and the team made the playoffs that season. But he had to buy his own gum, help load the equipment onto the bus and he knew he would never make it to the big leagues that way. His boss had been working for one NCBL team or another for over thirty years. His self-assumed right to a major league job made this all a frustration to Marshall.
After the season ended, he decided that all he needed to finally grasp the elusive star in his mind was a tip. What an unquantifiable, evocative, terrifying thing the baseball scouting tip turned out to be. His big break came as hearsay from a veteran scout who had once worked for a big league team and had semi-retired to the NCBL. He was from the Dominican Republic, raised in Florida, old-school and still relied on letters in the mail from Caribbean contacts for information on the latest prospects, which were few. It was October, crisp and well below playing temperature the night Marshall talked to him. They had been attending a league-wide post-season meeting in one of the coastal small towns called Old Orchard Beach. The commissioner spoke in a hotel conference room and teams aired their individual grievances, financials or lack thereof were discussed, mostly it was a self-serving pat on the back and reminder to Marshall of how inconsequential that league was compared to the bigs. Marshall had tried to pull the old scout aside during the meeting but he was always talking to one manager or another and left before Marshall had the chance.
After a few hours of searching the dark and empty town, Marshall tracked him down to one of the small bars. He saw the man he was looking for hunched over a beer through the window, glancing up at a television above him. When Marshall walked in, a rush of warm, stale air burst from the door. It opened to a hallway that ran parallel to a row of stools in front of a brief counter. Beyond, the room blossomed into four tables, a jukebox and dartboard. The furniture and floor were a stained brown, the walls were emerald green with nets and crabs and fishing junk on the walls. The old scout, Frank, was sitting there watching sports highlights and a bartender was talking on the telephone. Frank had the "look" of a stereotypical scout down so well, Marshall thought that maybe he had invented it. Panama hat, thick gray moustache, protruding belly from eating on the road and tan, wrinkled skin after years in the sun.
“Is this seat taken?” Marshall asked as he pulled a stool out and sat down.
“Hey kid,” Frank glanced sideways at him. “Tough break this year. I thought you all had a real shot at the pennant.”
“Yeah, so did we. Nobody would listen, but I always had a problem with that order we put together.”
“I guess you never can tell what you’re gonna get until they take the field.”
Marshall paused for a second at this. He thought about agreeing with the old man, maybe buying his next drink and then asking if he knew of any prospects that had a shot at making it. But he couldn’t do it. He had to let his conviction pour forth. He had to find out if Frank really believed what he had said or if he saw scouting for talent the way that Marshall did, because he wasn’t entirely sure if anyone else could.
“Well of course you can,” Marshall said. “Of course you know what you’re gonna get. It’s not just dumb luck. You might not see it on paper, but it's there in the guy’s eyes when he’s tracking the ball or in his voice when he talks about the first game he played in. If you know what you’re looking for then you can tell what you’re gonna get. And more than that, you can feel it. I can feel it anyway.”
Frank looked away from the television and right at Marshall for the first time. He hadn’t really seen the kid before. He took in Marshall’s delicate frame, the skinny arms and torso that would have served him well in youth ball but not far beyond. He glanced over the close haircut and clean shave of his face, economical, aspirational and stretched thin like a blank painting canvas. He looked square into Marshall’s huge brown eyes and saw that they were intense and searching, at once open wide to new movement as they were baleful and scrutinizing.
Now that Frank really looked the way he knew how, he saw something in Marshall, something that tugged at his sense for potential hidden beneath misguided use and undernourished character. He saw there was something there to shepherd the game and its players, though the kid didn’t yet understand his passion. What the old man saw in Marshall wasn’t concrete, but it didn’t take much for him to give up this last and unwieldy tip. If this kid wanted his chance, well he could have it.
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