By Stephen Perez
In baseball’s version of Oz, where rally monkeys have replaced flying ones, meet a member of the lollipop guild.
John Kazanas, a Gilbert resident, is a scout for the Chicago White Sox.
If there is a college or high school baseball game somewhere in the West Coast with a potential major league prospect playing, chances are good he will be there. He’ll be the guy in the stands sitting on the third base line with a pink towel draped over his left shoulder and a bag of lollipops next to him.
Baseball scouts travel countless miles to find that player that might become a gem in their organization.
“Tools are tools,” said Kazanas. “You’re throwing the ball, you’re running, you’re hitting. All those things still come into play. It doesn’t make a difference what level. If I can find a kid in tee ball who doesn’t hit the tee and just hits the ball hard, he’s got a chance.”
Scouts are invaluable to teams. The Arizona Diamondbacks employ nearly 100. Major League Baseball has its own scouts as well, suggesting the number in baseball overall surpasses 3,000.
And although improving technology and advanced metrics continue to infiltrate the game, many argue those tools can’t replace good old fashioned eye tests and gut instincts.
Kazanas typically arrives at the ballpark at 10 a.m. for a game that starts at 1 p.m. so he can see players from both teams stretch, warm-up and take batting and fielding practice.
“I watch them prepare for the game,” Kazanas said. “You want to see leadership. You want to see if he takes control of his team, and how he interacts with those around him.”
When the game starts, preseason research and preparation comes in handy.
“There are so many different variables, and you try to track them down,” Kazanas said. “ When we get to the big league game, it moves fast, you have to read and react. I want to see if they have instincts to play the game.”
Regional amateur scouts like Kazanas are just one part of a professional baseball team’s scouting machinery. The regional scouts are spread out across the country.
There are national crosscheckers, who are assigned to follow up on players identified as potential high draft picks. And there are professional scouts, whose job it is to keep tabs on players within other organizations to determine how they might fit in potential trades or waiver claims. And there are still more scouts in supervisory roles.
A national crosschecker’s main goal is to dive deeper into every aspect of a player’s game.
Of course, there are aspects of the game beyond physical talent.
“He may be punched out on a bad call, how does he respond?” Kazanas said. “Does he carry it out onto the field and make a mistake there because he’s worried about what he did at the plate?”
Once a game is over, Kazanas is off to his next location. Some days that might be to another part of the Valley. Other days, it means traveling along the West Coast.
Kazanas is in his 30th year as a regional amateur scout in professional baseball, his 27th in the White Sox organization.
After graduating from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Kazanas joined the school’s baseball staff as an assistant coach and spent seven seasons there before he was hired as head coach at the University of St. Louis.
After just one season at the helm, Kazanas decided in 1984 to make the trek to Arizona to assist at Scottsdale Community College, where his former college coach Fred Nelson was the head coach.
In 1988, Kazanas connected with Karl Kuehl, head of player development for the Oakland Athletics. Kuehl suggested he put his name in for a scouting job.
“(Kuehl) said one day, ‘I think there’s an opening. Would you have any interest?’ and I said, ‘yes’ before he even finished the question,” Kazanas said. “So he passed my name along and I got an interview. About a month later, they offered me the job.”
Kazanas believes his background as a coach is the reason the A’s hired him. Recruiting requires the same eye for talent.
As for the lollipops? Kazanas bought them to suck on during the games. They’ve become his calling card.
“It has to be 20 plus years,” he said. “I used to buy suckers for a buck, and I’d get one out once in a while, and then someone would ask for one.
“Over time, people had labeled me as the guy with the pink towel and the suckers.”
Scouts — even with lollipops — go mostly unnoticed by casual baseball fans, but they are critical to the game. A prospect’s journey often begins when a scout sees something special in them.
Sometimes talent is obvious. Sometimes it is just potential that catches a scout’s eye. Either way, it is a painstaking process to determine a player’s upside.
“Early in the year, you are going to break down the entire team and see who draws your attention,” Kazanas said. “From there, you can continue to follow the certain players that interest you and let them prove to you that they can play the game.”
There is no end to the work. Amateur baseball is a year-around endeavor for players, and scouts have to be there.
Interaction with coaches is another important aspect of a scout’s job. Coaches are usually the first people a scout approaches when they’re zeroing in on players.
As a former player at Central Arizona College and ASU, Brophy Prep pitching coach Josh Spence said it’s important for coaches to truly understand their role with players. His advice to players hoping to play at the next level is to learn from bad performances.
“You hear the cliche, it’s a game of failure, but really it’s just a game of adjustments,” Spence said. “Be in tune to the failure, because when you harness that, a lot of positive can come from it.”
The reward might even be better than a lollipop.