A scout's life in Colombia
Longtime baseball man tells how the Latin American country has a passion for the game
The Casa De Abuela, or "Grandmother's House," is a $60-a-night hotel in Turbaco, a community outside of Cartagena, Colombia. It is where Mike Toomey, the Kansas City Royals' special assistant to the general manager, stays rather than at a nearby Hilton Hotel for $300 a night "because I like to be among the people, I like to feel the heartbeat of the city."
Two months ago, Toomey looked across from Grandmother's House and saw a 10-year-old boy throwing an imaginary baseball during recess at an elementary school. Toomey introduced himself to the boy, videotaped his fluid pitching motion, then spoke to him on camera.
"Look at the arm speed, he's a great athlete," said Toomey, who smiled and said, "when he's 16, we're going to sign him. I can't tell you his name. I don't want anyone to know."
This is the story of a scout, and where scouts will go to find players. No team has found more good players in recent years than the Royals, who, many baseball men will agree, have the best farm system in the game. It also is the story of a scout and a country, and how they've grown to love each other during the past five years. Colombia, the third-largest country in South America, is located on the northern tip of the continent. It has produced a number of great major league players, including shortstop Edgar Renteria, the MVP of the 2010 World Series, shortstop Orlando Cabrera and reliever Ernesto Frieri. Another Colombian, pitcher Julio Teheran, is one of the game's best prospects, currently playing in the Atlanta Braves' system. He signed for approximately $850,000, played in the Futures Game last year and will be a big leaguer someday.
"Colombia is a late bloomer, it has developed later," Toomey said. "It doesn't have the history of Venezuela or the Dominican [Republic], but there are players there. They have passion and ability. We are opening doors there. Colombia is coming on fast as a place for baseball."
Toomey, 58, played baseball, then coached, at George Washington University, then managed in the minor leagues for two years before becoming a scout. He has scouted all over the world, from Panama to Japan to Italy. Eight years ago, he began learning to speak Spanish by watching Spanish TV shows and by reading books in Spanish. Now he is close to fluent. Twice a year for the past five years, he has traveled to Colombia to find players, run clinics and hold tryout camps. For roughly $25,000, Toomey signed right-handed pitcher Sugar Ray Marimon, who throws 95 mph. Marimon's mother "cried at the signing," Toomey said. "She was losing her baby." For approximately $40,000, Toomey signed second baseman Luis Piterson. The signing was held at the Exito, which is like a Wal-Mart in the United States. Marimon and Piterson have had varied success in the Royals' system; each has a chance to someday play in the big leagues. Toomey visited them, as well as Teheran, in November, "to make sure they're doing OK, see what they need, and are eating right."
Toomey, who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., laughed and said, "People have no idea. When I tell them I'm going to Colombia, they ask, 'How do you get there, Route 108 to 32?'" They think he is driving 35 minutes to Columbia, Md. Instead, he flies from Washington, D.C., to Miami, takes a connection flight to either Panama or Bogota, then takes another flight to Cartagena. It takes six hours to get there, and that's the easy part. Getting around in Colombia is not easy.
"Cars? No cars," Toomey said. "We usually take the bus. I'm talking about a bus that has [an image of] the Virgin Mary on the front. I've been on that bus for 2½ hours some days going to see a player or run a clinic. People are playing the guitar and singing and dancing on the bus. I've seen chickens on the bus. At each stop, people get on the bus selling their wares. A guy hangs out the window and collects money. Sometimes the bus doesn't go far enough, and we have to get out and take a cab. We jumped in a car once with a few guys that we didn't know, but they just gave us a ride. Sometimes, we'll take a three-seat scooter, it's like a bike with two seats in the back. It's beautiful. One time, to see a player in a mountainous area, a guy said, 'Come with me.' And we rode a mule the rest of the way."
Toomey goes everywhere in Colombia with his friend and colleague, Rafael Miranda, who is from Colombia, and has served in virtually every baseball role there, from player to coach to scout. "On every street in Colombia, everyone knows Raffy," Toomey said. "They yell out his name when they see him. He has a passion to help the kids. And when we go to a stadium together, everyone knows that the Kansas City Royals are in the ballpark. From each draft each year, one guy will go to the big leagues for sure. But you have to supplement the draft by getting good signings from the Dominican, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia. We've done that. And Colombia has come a long, long way with players."
But Toomey doesn't go to Colombia just to find players for the Royals; he goes there to teach the kids how to play, and the coaches how to coach. In late November, Toomey and Miranda ran a clinic for 100 kids in San Jacinto, a mountain town about two hours from Cartagena. The kids range in age, depending on the clinic, from 5 to 20. "Look at their faces," Toomey said. "They love baseball." When the clinic ended, the town sent over a Gita band -- drummers, a singer and a man playing an instrument that looks like a peace pipe -- as a sign of appreciation to Toomey and Miranda for coming so far to teach kids the game of baseball.
"So everyone is dancing, and one of the moms says, 'Miguelito, can you dance?'" Toomey said, laughing. So he danced. "They fed us, and when we left, they gave me a homemade, handmade hammock, in the colors of Colombia," Toomey said. "It's a beautiful country, and the people there are very proud of their country. They are great to me."
Toomey has had similar experiences in trips all over Latin American. In the Dominican, he visited a town and took video of kids who were so poor, they had no baseball, so they practiced the game by throwing a rock in the air and hitting it. "We organized a game there," Toomey said, "but we couldn't start the game until this nice lady who owned a farm got her cow out from the middle of center field."
Toomey was in the Dominican soon after an earthquake had ravaged neighboring Haiti in January 2010. He shot footage of Haitian people bathing in a river, with tents set up as temporary homes. "I saw a 60-year-old man carrying what had to be 200 pounds of supplies on his back, over the border, into Haiti," Toomey said. "Food supplies: sugar, rice and flour. I've never seen stronger people in my life. This was not baseball. This was survival."
There are similar situations in certain areas in Colombia. "I've seen seven to eight people living in a two-room house, or a one-room house," Toomey said. "I've seen a mom cooking a sancocho, which is beef stew in a pot of rice, to feed her entire family. This country is filled with passionate people. But they need help. I'd like to see Major League Baseball get involved and help keep the fields maintained. They need equipment, they need batting cages. They don't have as many major leaguer players coming back to help as some other countries have. The instructors they have are good, but they need more. The kids are hungry for baseball."
It is more of a soccer country, but baseball is still extremely popular and important. Colombia has a professional winter league, although this year, torrential rain washed out the league's all-star game and the second half of the season. But Toomey will continue to go back to look for players, and to teach kids how to play, saying "I'm the luckiest guy in the world to be able to go there." He said his dream is to someday build a baseball academy in Cartagena. Maybe that 10-year-old from the schoolyard will be able to attend.
"Some scouts have asked me, 'Why do you go there? There are no players there,'" Toomey said. "Yes, there are. In the last five years, the number of scouts who go there has doubled. They look at the place that I stay -- Grandmother's House -- and say, 'How can Toomey stay there?'" Toomey laughed and said, "I stayed there once and checked out the last day without realizing that they didn't take credit cards. I had to take a scooter into town to get cash. Now I know: When you go to Colombia, bring cash. I love going there. It's an experience. It's not just baseball. It's life."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.