Baseball Scout Epy Guerrero Looks for Rough Diamonds Amid Hunger and Poverty
updated 04/10/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/10/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
The youngster, nicknamed Cabeza because his head was so large when he was a child, lived behind the fence with his 10 brothers and sisters in a tin-roofed house that was sometimes struck by home runs. Cabeza was known by all the scouts who came to San Pedro. He was the shoeless, shirtless tyke who would take as many ground balls as you had the patience to hit him—using, as a glove, a milk carton fashioned with string. The kid was so good he would have been a pro prospect, but he had bad knees and couldn't run. Only Epy Guerrero dared say to him, "Your father is blessed, because when you grow up, I will sign you."
They say now that Epifanio "Epy" Guerrero has "the eyes"—that he can see the future major leaguer in a young ballplayer the way the visionary poet claimed to see a world in a grain of sand. For Cabeza, as any Toronto Blue Jays fan will know, grew up to be Tony Fernandez, whom many consider the best shortstop in baseball. Epy, Toronto's chief scout in Latin America, signed Tony to a pro contract in 1979, but not before arranging for surgery to remove painful bone chips from his knees and, oh, yes, clocking his time down the first-base line. In addition to being a seer, Epy's no fool.
The Dominican Republic is a poor country where nothing much seems to work. In Santo Domingo most of the traffic lights are turned off because of a shortage of electricity. Jobs are scarce, and the government hands out food along the highway. Dominicans are crazy about the game they call pelota, both as a sport and as a way out of poverty.
In such a country, Epy Guerrero is a legend: the keeper of the keys. "When he enters a ballpark, there is a buzz in the stands," says Luis Rosa, top scout in Latin America with the Chicago Cubs. Indeed, Epy not only saw greatness in Cabeza, but in George Bell, the American League's most valuable player two years ago, whom he got the Blue Jays to draft from the Phillies in 1980. Most scouts are happy if they can place a kid or two each year on the big club. Not Epy. Over the last two seasons, he had 14 players in what Dominicans call the gran carpa, or big show.
With funding from the Blue Jays, he runs his own year-round camp in the sticks just outside Santo Domingo. Now that the D.R. rivals Puerto Rico as the top producer of baseball talent in the Caribbean, most big-league clubs have established their own camps. But Epy was first. He built his place a decade ago, shortly after taking wing with the Jays. With a loan, he bought 18 acres plus cinderblock buildings for $9,000 from a man with a gambling debt. He oversaw the pouring of concrete for the stands and dugouts and personally drove the tractor to level the field. "All my life," he says, "I have it in my mind to have my own ballpark."
He says this on a late winter day, at home plate. The tropical sun is beating down with its usual midday conviction, but the 47-year-old scout has the flu. No matter. He puts his shoulder into the grounders he's slapping at the dozen or so youngsters arrayed before him, three deep at each infield position. Some of the kids will be staying on in the camp, where they will be groomed for the Dominican Summer League; the others will soon be heading north to join minor-league clubs.
It's easy to pick out the new recruits. They're the ones who stumble through the demanding pas de deux known as the double play. They're also the ones with their bones poking through their shirts. Education is compulsory in the D.R. only through age 14. These kids, who are 17 through 19 years old, have already been working for years—most of them catch-as-catch-can, fabricating gypsy cabs out of old auto parts, or cutting sugarcane. "For some," says Al Javier, one of Epy's coaches, "it's the first time they ever have their own bed, or eat three squares a day." Ask Jimy Kelly, who signed at 14, if he likes the comida (rice, Creole chicken, etc.) served up by Dona Rosario, Epy's wife of 24 years, and his eyes ignite like the scoreboard in The Natural. Or consider Syl Campusano. When Epy found him, the kid was living in a shack with a dirt floor. Syl gave his father his $3,500 signing bonus to put a new roof on the shack, which had recently been smashed by a hurricane. He then borrowed shoes and a glove before reporting.
The scout works his kids hard—batting, fielding, running—six or seven hours a day, five days a week. Over a two-year period, he is likely to change everything about them but their names. For openers, he turns almost all of them into infielders, and for good reason. Most Latin kids are smaller than their gringo counterparts and sometimes can't hit as hard; they must win preferment with their gloves. For much the same reason—because they must make a virtue of speed and consistency—he also converts them into switch-hitters, making sure they hit down on the ball, as it is unlikely that anything they put up in the air will clear the fence.
The scout may have worked his most complete sea change on his own son Sandy: The oldest of four boys and currently the property of the Milwaukee Brewers, Sandy was always lefthanded. That is, until he turned 15 and it became obvious he would have to play the infield. It was then Epy told the kid to put the glove on the other hand. Six years later, Sandy still groans when he talks about it: "I was throwing a rubber ball against a wall hundreds of times a day, until I got some action in my arm. I don't even want to think about what it was like trying to catch with my left hand."
The scout himself was introduced to hard work early on at his father's grocery store in Santo Domingo. During his teens, he and his older brother, Ramon, would unload trucks filled with 250-pound sacks of sugar. "That's why I am so strong," he says. "When I'm 18, I work 8 to 6 in my father's store. From 7 to 10 I go to school. I come home and sleep until 3, when I get up to march around in Trujillo's army. Ever since, I only need four hours sleep."
Somehow there was time for pelohi. At one point Epy and his five brothers all played on the same minor-league club, which was sponsored by their father and was actually named the Guerrero Brothers' Team. In 1960 he made it up to the gran carpa. He hung on with the Atlanta Braves for two years as a catcher-outfielder-third baseman, then played in Mexico and Canada for another four before finally packing it in and discovering his true calling. Epy became a scout in 1967 under Pat Gillick, his present boss at Toronto, who was then with Houston.
Over the last 20 years—working for Houston, the New York Yankees and Toronto—Epy has created his legend as the scout with the marvelous eyes. The fanàticos will tell you that he discovered Damaso Garcia—who has played 10 years in the bigs—at a soccer game, and that Damaso did not even know how to put on the glove Epy handed him when he gave him a tryout on the spot. They will tell you that the man is utterly dauntless. "He'll give a kid a tryout in the rain, in the street, with bare feet," says Tony Fernandez admiringly. Once, stalking a kid in a remote part of the country, the scout put a mule in the back of his truck. After the tryout, he climbed onto the animal and rode into the hills to get the boy's father's permission to sign him.
Epy's most famous adventure took place just three years ago in Nicaragua, where he was seeking a 17-year-old outfielder named Brant Jose Alyea Medina. The Blue Jays had glimpsed the kid the year before at the World Youth Baseball Tournament in Saskatchewan and liked his power. The trouble was he was considered a national treasure. The Sandinistas are as zealous about baseball as they are about revolution and often seem to confuse the two. The stadium in Managua is named after the soldier who in 1956 shot dictator Anastasio Somoza Sr. Chances were they'd name a sliding pit at least after the guy who popped the guy who dared to tamper with Brant Alyea.
Fortunately, Epy had been to Nicaragua some years earlier with the Dominican national team. "I knew officials who remembered me as a friend of their baseball," he says. "I told them I was coming in to run some clinics and got a visa easy. My first night in Managua these pipe bombs went off and blew out all the windows in my hotel. I want to tell you, I never been so scared in my life." The next day, going to the kid's house to negotiate with his grandmother and aunt, the scout donned a Sandinista-style beret and a camouflage outfit given him by his brother-in-law, a retired general in the Dominican army. "If they heard me talk, they'd know I wasn't from there, and I'd be in big trouble. So all I said to people on the street was, 'Compañero, compañero—friend, friend,' and pretended to be sick."
Epy and the ladies settled on a $6,000 signing bonus. Last year Alyea, no longer with the Jays, hit .300 and had 25 homers for a farm club of the Texas Rangers.
It is later in the day, and the flu appears to be making inroads into Epy's good nature. He has just come back from talking long distance to Toronto and found the kids having too much fun in batting practice. He marches the offenders to an auxiliary infield and hits them grounders increasingly out of range, causing them to hurl themselves in the dirt.
This seems to make him feel better. Pretty soon he is his usual expansive self, rapturing on about how he has everything he ever wanted. About how, in the D.R., "people like to say that every 10 years God throws an angel to the world," and any one of these could turn out to be the next Cabeza.
As if for emphasis, he whacks the ball deep in the hole between short and third, and a rangy-looking kid from San Pedro dives in the air and makes an impossible grab. "That's good," says Epy, ignoring the gasp of admiration from the other players. "But now you got to get up and throw the man out at first. Or else you never make it up to the gran carpa."
This said, the scout walks over, wipes the dirt from the kid's face and shows him how to do it.