Jeff Pearlman talks with Giants scout Brian Johnson about scouting, steroids & wanting to beat up Barry Bonds
Welcome to The Quazcast, a weekly podcast that brings listeners in on a frank conversation between myself and a random person from the world of sports.
These interviews are about digging deep and avoiding the cliché questions and answers that too often plague sports conversations. My guest could be anyone. I might speak with a 90-year-old NFL kicker one week, the manager of a Major League Baseball team the next, and a bull fighter the week after that.
This week’s guest is Brian Johnson, currently a scout with the San Francisco Giants. Originally drafted by the New York Yankees in 1989, Johnson, who quarterbacked Standford University for parts of three seasons, spent eight years in the Majors playing for the San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers and of course, the Giants. For fans in San Francisco, Johnson is most fondly remembered for the home run he hit in the bottom of the 12th inning in a game against the Dodgers on September 18, 1997. The walkoff home run not only won the game, but moved the Giants into a tie with Los Angeles for first place in the National League West. They’d go on to win the division that year.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation and a recording of the complete interview. As always, to get future podcasts downloaded straight to your listening device, you can subscribe to The Quazcast on iTunes.
Jeff Pearlman: With every game on TV, and every angle covered, and slo-mo, and double slo-mo, and people tweeting…I mean everything is covered a million times over. Why do I need Brian Johnson if I’m the Giants or any team? Why do I need a guy to be at the game and chart a game for me?
Brian Johnson: It’s a fair question and actually, it’s a good question. And with our industry, with the baseball industry, there was an influx- if you remember- there was an influx of ‘numbers’ guys. There was an influx of the young intern from Yael or Harvard that got into the front office as an intern , worked his way up and becomes GM. And so these guys are very talented, it;s not disparaging at all, but just telling the story of baseball, Major League Baseball, within the last 15, 20 years, that when these guys started getting the General Manager positions, they started asking the same questions : “Why do I need a scout? I’ll just have some video guy videotape everything and put notes down as far as what he sees, and so forth.”
And, sure enough, the pendulum went pretty far to where a lot of scouts lost their job, and the industry was kind of kicking out the old curmudgeon old guy, old crusty guy- that you know, was portrayed well in Moneyball. But what happened was they failed, and there was something unique that a true baseball scout brings to the table that you can’t get from somebody who’s never played before, and someone who’s never really put together a team in order to win. The big misconception- and I kind of say this in my comment here- the big misconception is that, as you see like with the Seattle Mariners when Jack first got there and he put together a team of ‘numbers’ guys, put together a team that, statistically, it made sense that all these guys should work together, and it was terrible. The Baltimore Orioles have done it a few times: You put together guys that strictly by stats, they should be fantastic, and they’re not. There’s more to putting a team together than just numbers and that’s what a scout is able to provide. Both the numbers analysis, because we do that, we’ve been doing numbers analysis for a long time, and the baseball analysis together- that’s why you need a scout.
JP: What do you see that most schmoes sitting on their couch don’t see? You’re watching a pitcher, you’re watching the mannerisms of a catcher, like what are you looking for that we’re not looking for?
BJ: The biggest thing that you will notice that I won’t notice- because if you see with me at a game, because I’ve done this with a few of my friends that are baseball fans that are coaching or played in the minor leagues, one guy played in the minor leagues, another guy played in Italy for a long time…good baseball people, and they like to come just sit with me and we talk baseball the whole game. And I’m describing a completely different game than what they’re watching. And they’ll give me feedback because I’d like to know what they see also and we kind of combine notes.
What I give you is a more intimate, more detailed evaluation of what’s going on and what does that mean? That means that I know what it feels like to be fatigued or to be overmatched or “I am dominating my teammate”- sorry, not my teammate…”I am dominating, I am winning the individual match against another player, against my opponent.” And you can’t notice that really unless you’ve been in it, unless you’ve seen it. So the little conquest that you have through the course of the game, I notice that.
On top of that, with the pitcher. The pitcher is like the most important ingredient when you’re watching the game because with the hitter, you see the hitter four times in the game, four at-bats. You see him make maybe three, four- if you’re the shortstop. maybe six, seven plays. A right fielder? He’s going to catch the ball maybe once or twice, three times a game. But with a pitcher, you get to see him throw 150, 160 times a game if you look at – because we’re looking both at the balls in play- and remember, he gets eight pitches in between for his warm-up pitches. Those are important to watch also. You can see all of his stuff by watching his warm-up pitches. So I’m getting a ton more information than you’re going to get on a TV, then you’re going to get from someone who’s never played at the major league level. And remember, its important not only to have played at the major league level, but to have won at the major league level. As a player, I was never a part of a World Series team, a World Series winning team, but we went to the playoffs four times. And so the hunt in September is the most important part of the year. If you haven’t been through that, where every second is action-packed and every second, every pitch you do means something, it’s hard to simulate that in any other career or industry, unless you have that type of background.
JP: You seem genuinely pissed off about [PED use in baseball]. Why is that?
BJ: Because they’re ruining my game. This is the game that I grew up with that I loved as a kid. My son grabs my iPad every day, or my computer, and he watches the videos of all the highlights from the the games the previous evening. I had to get up and read the newspaper, and I’d read the box scores, and I’d imagine in my mind, It was so exciting to see Ricky Henderson hit a double last night. It was so exciting to see Tony Armas going deep for a homerun.” It was because I’m imagining this stuff in my brain, and when I listen to Bill King old-school Oakland Raiders, Golden State Warriors and Oakland A’s folks from back in San Francisco and Oakland know of Bill King, probably one of the greatest announcers ever, he was so good at painting a picture for the fan. He was so good at all three sports: He painted a complete picture, and that’s who I grew up listening to. So for me, that’s the game, to watch this thing in your brain and watch it all play out in the field. What steroids did, when that comes into play, it artificially raised the level of play for everybody, and again, I mean artificially in that it’s fake. It’s not real. There’s a bunch of guys still fake today and it’s not real, so they’re a mirage essentially. Once they get off the stuff, which often happens when they get their big contracts, then you see who they really are. And often-times it’s a joke. So we’re being deceived. Another way to put it for me is that I feel I’m watching a lie, and that doesn’t sit well with me.
JP: I wonder what makes you more mad. The cheating ballplayer or the team that signs the cheating ballplayer saying, “Aw, let’s forgive it”?
BJ: You know, we’ve seen the same thing happen this year with Johnny Pelata. You know, I’ve watched Jhonny Peralta over the last few years and again, you asked me earlier what’s the value of having me watch a game? I could tell exactly when he ran out of his last shipment. I could tell, on the day, when Jhonny Peralta was off the steroids. Because I was like, “Wait a minute!” That step that has been quick is all of the sudden a half step slower. He’s not getting the ball- he’s never been a great range guy anyway.
I signed off on Melky Cabrera. I saw Mely Cabrera 17 times the year before we signed him I put my name on the line. In my report, I said, listen: He was a sprouting superstar in New York with the Yankees. He went to Atlanta and got fat and he was terrible. He resurrected his career in Kansas City and from what I’m watching I don’t see unbelievable power, I don’t see unbelievable speed. I see a guy that’s in shape, that’s lost 20 pounds, that perhaps is becoming the the guy the Yankees thought was going to be, and I don’t see any evidence of steroid use at this time. That was my report. So i’m excited as all and half way through the season I look like a genius. But then after he gets busted, I look like an idiot. So it really is frustrating from an evaluation standpoint , but here’s my point: You really… It’s hard to understand where these teams are.
I’m not mad at..well, would I like to have the teams not sign these guys? Yeah. But here’s the problem: It’s so easy to stay on this stuff now that it’s a lotion that you rub on your arm. And if you’re not tested within 24 hours, you’re not going to be caught. So there’s so much mass-incentive to cheat for these guys that are willing to cheat, that it’s just a part of our game. And unfortunately, it’s not been wiped out yet. Is it getting better? Absolutely? Are we the best sport in all professional sports? Absolutely, hands down. However, the chemists are still ahead of the police.
JP: Let me ask you: I saw a picture of you old teammate and buddy Barry Bonds the other day, and he weighs and looks about the same as I do, right? I mean, I actually think we have the same bodies at this point. And I want to ask you: Do I have your permission to kick his ass? Because I really… I really have this..I know it’s not cool and I know people are going to say, “Oh, you’re such a jerk.” I kind of have a strong desire to. I feel like now’s my shot. What do you think?
BJ: I do not condone violence. I do not condone violence. But, if there’s ever a guy who had a whole lot of people, or had a whole lot of stuff coming to him, based on the way he treated people throughout his career, it would be Barry. And I don’t have a problem with Barry. I like Barry. Umm.
JP: Now, I can always say Barry Bonds never did a thing to me, never one time. He was never rude to me, he sat down with me for a lengthy SI story. What I saw was a guy who treated people, fans, teammates, certainly the media, employees of the Giants, even the ownership of the Giants like dirt. And then even out here sometimes I would hear people say, “Hey, I kind of like Barry." Is that really possible, or were you just being a nice guy there?
BJ: Yeah, I think it’s a little impossible, yeah. I mean, through my two years with Barry…Well, well, for many reasons. And again, this is an attempt to be constructive; not to rip Barry Bonds because we’re on the phone with this. Umm, Barry Bonds is the type of personality type..redundant. Barry Bonds’ personality type is one that pushes people away. And everybody has one in their family. It’s that personality that is grumpy, that is not…Periodic compassion is there. He’s smart. Barry Bonds is very smart. Umm, but that loving touch is not there, that humanistic quality that we are attracted to humans by, regardless of their gender. You know, just the person that we’re attracted to, we want to hear more, we want to be interested in- he doesn’t have it. And he’s not the only one. Jeff kent was very similar with his personality.
Umm, so, were there many guys that truly liked him during my time there that I saw? No. A lot of guys were compassionate towards Barry because a lot of guys beat him up, a lot of people were criticizing, and a lot of it is rightfully so.
So, again, he’s a complicated guy. And for me he can be a good guy 10 per cent of the time. And I think that’s fair. The other 90 per cent, there’s a lot of demons going on there, there’s a lot of things in his self-esteem, there’s a lot of things in his make-up, like a rough family life. There’s a lot of stuff going on there that you talked about in your book. So we are made up of our life experiences and Barry is no different.
To hear the entire interview – including more on Bonds, what it’s like to be an exceptional athlete at every level except the highest, the pitcher/catcher relationship and whether or not a clubhouse mood actually exists – you can download the podcast here or listen below.
Jeff Pearlman is a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He is the author of six books including Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, The Bad Guys Won (a biography of the 1986 New York Mets) and Boys Will Be Boys (an account of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty from the 1990s). His newest book – Showtime (due to be released on February 11, 2014) - explores another famous sports dynasty: the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s.