Eric Gagné of the Los Angeles Dodgers had many fans in the stands as he took the mound to pitch against the Montreal Expos in 2001. Two fans hold up signs proclaiming their support for the Quebec born pitcher. JOHN KENNEY / GAZETTE
Forget Groundhog Day; ignore the vernal equinox. Everybody knows the real first sign of spring is happening right now.
Major League Baseball has just thrown open spring training camp gates, and shouts of ‘Play Ball’ already echo loud across the land.
I managed to get a jump on the ball season this year. In late December, I spent a baseball afternoon with St.-Lazare’s Claude Pelletier at Hudson’s Café Brulée.
Pelletier is a professional scout for the New York Mets, or to be more precise, he is the Mets’ supervising area scout for all of Canada. He is the person who makes the final call whenever the big league club is pondering whether or not to sign Canada’s next ‘sure thing.’
Always a baseball fan, Pelletier’s deep interest in the game came to the fore following retirement, when he chose to trade in Quebec’s cruel winters for Florida sunshine. He landed in Vero Beach, near the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring training facility. And that’s where his scouting adventure began, hanging around dugouts and sharing baseball gossip with passers-by.
In due course the gregarious Pelletier met up with Dodgers’ pitching coach Ron Perranoski and it soon became customary for them to meet on occasion and compare notes.
“Perranoski knew his stuff,” said Pelletier, “and after we got to know one another better he suggested I consider becoming a scout.”
That conversation led to a meeting with Dodgers’ scouting director Ben Wade, and in short order Pelletier found himself signing a part-time scouts contract: starting assignment, Quebec.
Pelletier’s first real prospect was Marc Griffin, a Quebec City native whose positive reports from the freshly-minted scout led to a Dodgers minor league contract.
Griffin enjoyed moderate success in minor pro ball from 1989-1994, first with the Dodgers and then the Mets. Today, he remains active in Quebec baseball circles, working in two languages – and on both sides of the microphone.
Pelletier’s most significant discovery; that of the Dodgers’ overpowering right-handed reliever/Cy Young winner, Eric Gagné, came a few years later.
“Eric had something special,” Pelletier recalled. “I decided to follow him from his first days in Quebec to his time at Seminole State College in Oklahoma. He always impressed me.”
Less so the other scouts who had checked out Gagné, for when draft day came and went the young protégé was still unsigned.
Shocked, Pelletier set out to plead Gagné’s case with the Dodgers’ head office. “I persisted, telling them to sign Eric; he was absolutely a ‘can’t miss’ prospect.”
When a skeptical scouting director asked, “Why should we sign your free agent, none of our guys liked him?” Pelletier fired back: “Because I like him.”
And the rest is history. Gagné signed with Los Angeles for $75,000 and by 1999 he was a regular in the Dodgers’ line-up, making the Cy Young Award top-10 list three times, and winning it in 2003.
In 2000, in recognition of his efforts, Pelletier was honoured with the Toronto Sun’s annual award for amateur scouts.
However, by then the New York Mets had signed him to a permanent scouting position
“I like being a scout,” he admitted. “I like working from home. And I like the way scouts function as a group, always coming together at events like winter meetings – though we keep our professional concerns to ourselves.
“But mostly, I like the challenge of helping young men develop as baseball players – and good citizens. When it comes to the tough stuff we can help, but never as fathers. That’s the hard part; when kids have to stand on their own two feet.
“Still,” he added, almost wistfully, “I think the real reason we keep doing what we do is that we’re always on the lookout for the next superstar. He’s out there. Somewhere.”
It happened once; it can happen again.
Bill Young is a long time resident of Hudson.
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