Welke eyed Hamilton, Feliz, other stars
Rangers GM Daniels: When Don says 'special,' we do all we can to acquire a player
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Don Welke lexicon is well known inside the offices at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. And when the 68-year-old speaks, the 30-somethings in the Texas Rangers' front office listen.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and his young staff know from Welke's body language and voice inflection how he feels about a player. But there's one word from one of the club's chief evaluators -- he has the title of senior special assistant to the GM, scouting -- that gets their attention more than any other: special.
"When Don says 'special,' we do all we can to acquire a player," Daniels said. "Obviously, there are checks and balances, but Don knows what he's doing when it comes to talent evaluation and if he likes a guy, we take that seriously. He has his own grading scale. When he's big-time convicted on a player, you know it and you trust it."
Some of those "special" players include, among others, Dave Stieb, John Olerud, Jim Abbott, Pat Hentgen, Josh Hamilton and Neftali Feliz. In his own way, Welke played a large part in getting those players for his organization.
At first glance, it seems a bit odd to see Welke walking around the back fields at Surprise Recreation Campus with colleagues who could be his kids. But as you see Daniels, assistant GM Thad Levine and others interact with Welke, it's apparent he's jelled with the staff.
"He has a young personality," Rangers professional scouting director Josh Boyd said. "He likes the practical jokes, the corny jokes. He's funny. He has an ability to fit in and be this young soul of a guy that goofs around with the guys in the office, but when it's time to do business, he's a very serious, very passionate baseball man."
Welke's fingerprints are all over these current Rangers. Daniels and his staff make decisions as a team and they utilize the strengths of various members to do that. And they rely on Welke's experience and impressive track record to help them make those decisions.
When the front office was discussing a possible trade of Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton just before Christmas 2007, Welke was pounding the table for Hamilton, who three years later collected hardware as the 2010 AL MVP. It was a difficult decision for Daniels and his staff, considering the organization was lacking in pitching prospects heading into the 2008 season.
"I had seen him in spring training with the Reds a lot on the back field and I thought he had superstar potential," Welke said. "I wasn't the only one, of course. But because of his past, some guys wondered. One question I like to look at is: Does a guy have something to prove? He had a lot to prove. He has tremendous, God-given ability. This was a superstar possibility."
It's very possible that Feliz, the AL Rookie of the Year in 2010 and a possible future member of the starting rotation, would not have been a part of the Mark Teixeira trade without Welke. As Daniels navigated that trade market, the Braves came up as a possibility. Welke immediately thought of the young kid he'd seen a year or two earlier with the hard fastball and easy motion.
"I was with the Phillies and went to see a rookie league game with Atlanta and I saw this tall kid with a live ball," Welke said. "I said, 'Wow, I like that.' I liked the ease with which he threw. I went over to the [person with the] scorebook and I said, 'Who's that catching for Atlanta?' But I didn't care who was catching, I just wanted to get the name of the pitcher in the scorebook. I saw the name. So I had that name, Feliz, on my radar from that day. We monitored him and I saw the last start that he made before the trade deadline in Danville and we got him."
Welke also has a good feel for timing when it comes to a player.
"He'll pound his chest and he's always talking about the heart of a guy," Boyd said. "That's another dimension to Don."
Welke was convinced that Milton Bradley could give the Rangers some solid production in 2008 despite some past issues. He felt manager Ron Washington could handle Bradley and that Bradley was motivated. The slugger ended up on the All-Star team and offered valuable protection for Hamilton, hitting behind him in the lineup during the 2008 season.
Most recently, Welke pushed hard for the signing of Adrian Beltre.
"I knew him from the Dodgers," Welke said. "He's as good a defensive third baseman as there is in the game. He has tremendous character and leadership. He has power. He helps defense. We didn't get the pitchers that were out there like [Cliff] Lee, [Zack] Greinke, Matt Garza. So the next move was to get defense to help the pitching."
Welke is quick to point out that he wasn't the only one who was in favor of the various trades and acquisitions the club has made the past few years. But his opinion is held in high esteem in the room as coming from someone who is reliable and trusted by his younger peers.
In a way, by sticking out, Welke fits in. He isn't afraid to poke fun at himself and seems to take pride in the fact that the youngsters cut up at his expense. He orders a salami and peanut butter sandwich for lunch sometimes, claiming he likes it. But the reality is he loves the looks he gets from the staff.
"One day your phone will be missing," said Jake Krug, assistant director of player development. "If your phone is missing you know who has it. Sometimes he'll just sit at your desk and won't move for 20 minutes."
Perhaps more famous than Welke's scouting acumen is his inability to put on clothes that match. Levine describes it as a cross between "Welcome Back, Kotter" and the Mr. Drummond character from "Diff'rent Strokes."
"It's cutting edge," Levine said, chuckling. "He's not encumbered by what's current, hip or what fits."
Welke's lack of fashion sense is apparent even when he's asked to dress up. He wore what he calls his Denny Crum red blazer -- a piece of clothing older than Daniels -- to a black-tie affair in New York in January. As part of the event, Pat Gillick, who worked with Welke for nearly two decades, was honored by the Baseball Writers Association of America's New York chapter for his upcoming induction into the Hall of Fame. Gillick had Welke stand up and after praising his longtime friend and scout, Gillick couldn't resist calling attention to his jacket. Gillick said he wasn't sure why Daniels would allow Welke to moonlight as an usher at Lone Star Park, the horse track down the road on I-30 from Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Welke just laughed with everyone else.
"His fashion problem got worse when he found some clothes in Louisville in a storage closet," Krug said. "Things really went south after that. He thinks that the clothes he wears now will eventually come back in style."
What remains in style is Welke's ability to judge baseball talent, cultivated over decades on the job. Welke's career on and around the diamond started in 1965 as a part-time scout with the Cincinnati Reds. He played baseball at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., but wasn't drafted out of college.
"I knew the scouts and they knew me," Welke said. "I was helping out, going to see amateur guys and telling them what I thought."
But it didn't pay the bills. So Welke was also a coach and administrator at Concordia Lutheran Junior College (now Concordia University) in Ann Arbor, Mich.. He coached basketball and baseball and claims, despite his short stature, that he could dunk.
He was offered the chance to join the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977, when the team was formed, and he jumped at the opportunity to get into baseball full-time. It was there that he met Gillick, whom he calls one of the most intelligent baseball men he's ever been around. Gillick organized a group of area scouts and they covered a large territory.
"I had North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio," said Welke, who ended up owning two Plymouth Reliant K cars and put 250,000 miles on each. "It was really, really exciting and interesting. We would talk each day to Pat and he could tell by the inflection in your voice how you felt about the guy you watched that day."
Welke developed a knack for hard work and sound judgment.
"Don has an ability to take one look at a guy and decide quickly if he's a player worth following or if he needs to move on," Gillick said. "Few guys can make that decision as quickly and correctly as Don can."
Welke convinced the Blue Jays to draft Stieb, a center fielder at Southern Illinois, as a pitcher. He recognized how good Abbott could be before anyone else did, but was unable to convince the pitcher, born without a right hand, to sign.
"He was not on any other list in the country and we got him in the 36th round, but he went to Michigan," Welke said.
A few years later, Abbott was taken eighth overall in the country by the Angels. Welke remains a close friend of the family.
Welke is tenacious when he finds a player he likes. Olerud is a prime example. Gillick told Welke to scout Olerud in the late 1980s and Welke followed his summer team to Hawaii and Alaska and saw every game, about 25 of them.
"I never saw him swing and miss for the first 17 games," Welke said.
Olerud's story made national news as he was dealing with a brain aneurysm. Conventional wisdom was that Olerud wasn't going to sign to play professional baseball, yet, and was certainly a health risk. Welke went to all of those games and barely spoke to Olerud. He stayed in the background, took notes (which he says he still has somewhere) and waited for the right time to reach out. Late in the summer, he asked the young hitter if he wanted to go to dinner.
"John could really eat and we went to the Denny's on Waikiki beach," Welke said. "I remember looking up at him and asking, 'Do you think you could take Fred McGriff's job?' John's so humble he would never say that he could, only that McGriff had a good swing."
But it was Welke's way of letting him know how much he thought of him. The two talked baseball until 6 a.m., when Welke dropped Olerud off where the team was staying. The conversation convinced him that Olerud was hungry for the challenge of pro ball and that he would sign. Gillick trusted Welke's judgment and drafted Olerud in the third round. The slugger signed.
Welke continued to scout players with Gillick in Toronto and then Baltimore before heading to the Dodgers. It was there that he met A.J. Preller, a kid whose passion for baseball and knowledge impressed Welke.
"Every single night almost we would go to Jerry's diner on the beach and talk baseball 'til 3 or 4 in the morning," Welke said. "This was a bright young man who had a great feel for the game. He wanted to learn more. I was invigorated to know he's listening."
When Preller came to Texas, he convinced Daniels that Welke was somebody the organization needed. Welke first arrived in 2005 when John Hart was still GM, but ended up reuniting with Gillick in Philadelphia about a week after Daniels was named Hart's successor.
"A year later, I called Pat and said, 'We need him more than you do,'" Daniels said. "I asked him if he'd let us pursue him. He did."
Welke wanted the challenge of building a winner and knew that the Phillies already were well on their way.
"I could have had a championship ring there, but I plan on getting a few here," Welke said.
Welke, who says he feels 28 years old, still likes to spend as much time as he can on the back fields in Arizona. He was there this month, checking out the Rangers' prospects and watching their development. He has a keen interest in Tanner Scheppers, a player Welke is convinced has a bright future.
"He was first on my list that year," Welke said. "He was out with an injury, so the industry viewed him as a health risk. We got him as the 44th pick in the country and we were fortunate to do that."
Welke doesn't look like a guy ready for retirement. He's too busy trying to find the next Jim Abbott or John Olerud or Josh Hamilton. He can't wait for the June draft or what the Rangers do for an encore following the 2010 World Series appearance. And he's still got some practical jokes left to play.
"If you like this game and are around this game, it keeps you young," Welke said.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.
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