A Tryout camp is the baseball equivalent of going away for the weekend...
A Tryout camp is the baseball equivalent of going away for the weekend and telling your teenage daughter she can throw a house party. Anyone could walk through the door. At these camps you usually wind up with beer-league softball players thinking they can muscle a Pedro Martinez fastball out of the yard. As for prospects, there usually aren't any.
So you can imagine the shock when a 6-4, 210- pound left-hander named John Richards walked onto the field last week at PGE Park in Portland, Ore., home of the PCL Portland Beavers, the Padres' top farm club, and started throwing 92-mph fastballs, sharp breaking balls and terrific changeups, leaving scouts breathless.
Baseball is still a game for dreamers, and Richards' dream came true that day. The man from nowhere left his house in Coos Bay at 3:30 that morning for the four-hour drive. Jobless and living with his grandparents, Richards had to borrow gas money to pursue his dream.
He had already been turned down by the Mets, Braves, Orioles, Marlins, Royals and the Major League Scouting Bureau in other tryouts this summer, but he did not let that deter him. Eighteen credits short of graduating from college with a business degree, Richards was going to give baseball his best shot.
When he left the tryout that day, Richards knew he was throwing bullets because the mound and everything felt just right, but he did not know he had won a job. When he arrived back in Coos Bay, there was a message. The Padres wanted to sign him immediately to a minor-league contract. Richards drove back to Portland the next day, signed and was given the honor of throwing out the first pitch before the Beavers game. He then caught a flight to Ogden to meet up with the Class-A Pioneer League Idaho Falls Padres. That ended a whirlwind week for the 22-year-old that reads like some Hollywood script.
"You know, he kind of looks like Robert Redford, too," notes Beavers GM Mike Higgins. "I'm standing there thinking, ?I'm looking at The Natural.' "
One of the scouts who ran the camp, Rich Bordi, said he had conducted 30 such camps without ever having signed a player. These camps are done for public relations, but Higgins insists Richards' arm is the real deal.
"This whole story is pretty cool," said Padres director of scouting Bill "Chief" Gayton. "The kid has got the opportunity now that all those people who go to those camps dream of."
"When the Padres first called, I thought it was my friends playing a joke on me," Richards said from Missoula, Mont., where he made his professional debut Friday night, coming out of the bullpen in a bases-loaded, two-out sitiuation and striking out Scott Hairston. "The funny thing is the Royals called the next day. I still can't believe all this has happened."
The Mets and Yankees have open tryout camps, too; in fact, the next one is slated at the Mets' Binghamton Double-A club this Thursday. But even if you show up at a tryout camp with talent, it doesn't guarantee you'll get your shot.
Billy Bryk, a minor-league manager, scout and field coordinator for more than two decades, remembers camps he put together in Chicago a long time ago. Three times Bryk and the other scouts turned away an overweight young man. The third time Bryk told the kid he admired his persistence, but major league baseball was just not in the stars. Bryk was wrong about Kirby Puckett.
Who knows what will happen to John Richards? This much is known. Richards fell through the cracks after pitching at Southwestern Oregon Community College and traveling to Pulaski, Tenn., to pitch for NAIA Martin Methodist College.
Martin Methodist coach Jeff Dodson believes deeply in Richards.
"I've never had a player work harder than John," Dodson said. "He was coming off back surgery and he's just starting to reach his potential. All he needed was for someone to take a chance on him."
Sometimes that's all it takes for a dream to come true. That, and a little gas money.