A current shining star of the Braves organization is 71 years old, speaks fluent Cowboy and spent much of last week watching teenagers take batting practice in Lubbock, Texas.
A man has to truly love what he does to be that age and still working the corner of Hot and Dusty.
“What did (country singer) Mac Davis say: ‘I thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in my rearview mirror?’” laughed Gerald Turner. Friday’s high in that garden spot was 106 degrees.
But you can never know on what green field in which brown town the next prospect grows. Having spent decades traveling the two-lanes of Texas and Oklahoma scouting baseball talent, Turner has learned not to think of any map speck as insignificant. Or as he put it better and more succinctly: “You got to know where the rocks are to turn them over.”
After all, it was in Odessa, Texas — “Not a lot of (scouts) like to go to Odessa,” he said — where the Braves regional scout shook hands with a burly catcher with a bizarre back story.
Evan Gattis almost crushed his hand, that big bear paw grinding Turner’s fingers against the ring he was wearing. “Almost brought tears to my eyes. When I shake with him now, I make sure I’m not wearing a ring,” Turner said.
It was in Altus, Okla., where Turner went to a Western Oklahoma State showcase and saw a shortstop “making plays that normal people don’t make.” By the time the 2010 draft was two rounds old, Turner was making his fevered pitch to the Braves to take Andrelton Simmons.
Stack those finds atop the fact the Braves made one of his guys — Oklahoma State pitcher Jason Hursh — their top pick in the recent draft, and Turner is on a scouting hot streak of DiMaggio proportions.
“He’s on a roll right now,” Braves director of scouting Tony DeMacio said.
And, by the way, Turner still really likes this Matt Lipka kid, playing center field for High-A Lynchburg, who the Braves drafted first in 2010. “An old school kid who can really run. His work ethic is off the chart,” Turner said.
Old school would be the defining quality of the scout as well. Based in Dallas, Turner has a seven-decade relationship with the territory he mines. He played high school and tiny college baseball in Dallas and coached high school ball in Texas for 32 years. Turner began doing a little scouting for Kansas City in the mid-1980s, went full-time in 1997 and came over to the Braves in 2005.
He is not much of a believer in any of the fancy new metrics used to measure a ballplayer. Heck, he doesn’t even put much stock in a radar gun beyond giving him some kind of number to write down on his report. He trusts the tools of his eyes and instincts and experience. “The hitter will tell you how good the pitcher is,” Turner said.
“The way he works is old school,” DeMacio said. “He goes to places nobody else wants to go. He’s a digger. He has been around a long time, and he has a lot of contacts.”
Turner mostly anonymously works his territory of northwest Texas and the whole of Oklahoma, spending at least a third of the year away from home while putting 45,000 miles and more on his car.
A scout can go years sometimes without his team drafting one of the prospects he recommends, but Turner was going to have his fingerprints all over that 2010 draft.
He has been getting a little bit of pub lately, some of the overflow from the Gattis story getting on him. Turner had an inside track on Gattis, having stumbled upon him in high school while scouting one of his teammates, a pitcher. It was the big guy who was catching him, though, that made Turner’s senses tingle. He remembered Gattis as being a man playing among boys.
Gattis went off on his prolonged walkabout of self-discovery, working odds jobs at ski lifts and golf courses and janitorial services while seeking enlightenment. And Turner, like the rest of the baseball network, lost sight of him.
Until he got a fateful call from the coach at the University of Texas-Permian Basin, Brian Reinke, a long-time acquaintance. The conversation began with, what to a scout, is a musical refrain: “You gotta see this guy.”
Meanwhile, Turner had plenty of company scouting Simmons that same year. Western Oklahoma State Junior College might seem like witness protection to a kid from Curacao, but there really is nowhere to hide once word gets out that you can throw a ball quite rapidly.
“They were hearing how my fastball mileage was getting up. I had topped out at 92 back home. In a year being (in Oklahoma), working out, practicing constantly, I hit 98. I guess that really made them want to see me. And they saw me play shortstop while they tried to see me pitch,” Simmons said.
Turner was on him from the beginning as an everyday player, telling the Braves during their draft meeting, “You can’t find many people who can play on the dirt like he can.” The Braves, who had some reservations about Simmons’ hitting, originally announced they had drafted him as a pitcher. But Simmons balked at that. The Braves promised him he would get his shot in the field.
Gattis was the true hidden treasure. It was pretty much between the Braves and Tampa Bay as to who would draft a player with so many eccentricities in his past.
To Gattis, Turner seemed “like your favorite uncle,” the nerves he had meeting the scout for the first time quickly fading.
As for Turner, he was enthralled by the catcher’s raw strength and convinced by his college coach that Gattis had come to peace with his sometimes rocky relationship with baseball.
As that 2010 draft ground on to the later rounds, where there was more room for improvisation and risk-taking, Turner began beating the drums harder for his guy.
“This guy is going to make a believer out of you. He’s already made a believer out of me,” Turner told the Braves’ brass. The team took him in the 23rd round.
The 26-year-old Gattis made the big club this spring as a non-roster player and quickly became a cultish figure with a cool nickname, El Oso Blanco. Out since mid-June with a strained oblique, Gattis was still second on the team in home runs (14) and RBIs (37) entering the weekend.
Turner has enjoyed every twist and turn in Gattis’ wild ride. The team brought him in from the field to Atlanta to see the major league debut that was highlighted by his guy homering in his second at-bat. Turner estimates he only high-fived everyone in the park.
“I think he appreciates it. It’s a reflection of him, too. I’ll be eternally grateful for Gerald,” Gattis said.
The scout takes the connection to a blood level. He’ll always remember Gattis finishing his paperwork at a Mexican restaurant in Dallas, breaking down and crying simply for the opportunity to sign for a $1,000 bonus. “He is like having another boy in the family, a newborn child you get to watch grow,” Turner said.
Some fellow scouts have begun joking around with their older counterpart about scouting golf-club cart barns or office cleaning companies for his next star. He gives it right back to them. “I tell them they just don’t know what janitorial schools to scout.”
And whenever they do a movie on Gattis’ life, Turner suggests they get John Goodman to play him.
As for the bonus that comes with making such a find: “You get an ‘Attaboy, now go get another one,’” he laughed. Which brings us back to the roasting fields of Lubbock and the eternal search for the next player who might make an old scout sit on the edge of his bleacher seat.
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