Scout not surprised by Ross' rise as pro
Olander convinced outfielder to sign with Tigers out of high school
Jim Olander was in his second year as an amateur scout for the Detroit Tigers in 1999, when he saw a player from a high school in Carlsbad, N.M., and felt confident enough to list the player as a high Draft recommendation.
There aren't a lot of Major League players who have come from New Mexico, and there are only a few players in history who have reached the big leagues with the label of being a "wrong way guy" -- meaning, in scouting terms, bats right-handed, but throws left-handed -- but Olander was convinced the player he had spotted had the ability to reach the big leagues.
Olander was right about the player he had seen and believed in more than a decade ago.
The player is Cody Ross, who now has been discovered by all of Major League Baseball after winning the Most Valuable Player Award in the National League Championship Series while helping to spark the San Francisco Giants to a place in the World Series.
Ross, 29, is squarely in the baseball spotlight after battling all of his high school and professional career to show that he can perform at the highest level of the game.
He has played for five teams during seven big league seasons during a professional career than has spanned a dozen years.
Ross has been involved in just about every type of transaction that you can name. He was traded by his original team, the Tigers, to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a player who never went anywhere; swapped by the Dodgers to Cincinnati for a player to be named; purchased from the Reds by the Florida Marlins; and then, in August of this year, claimed on waivers by the Giants when the Marlins basically declared "claim him and he's yours."
Olander, who now scouts other Major League teams for the Tigers, thinks about all of the moves that have involved Ross, and wonders why teams didn't pick up on what he saw in an 18-year-old high school player from New Mexico.
"The thing that first struck me about Cody was his competitive attitude," said Olander. "He just played all-out all of the time.
"Even as a young player, he could square up on a fastball. He also was a really good center fielder in high school, and he had an outstanding arm. He was a left-handed pitcher when he wasn't in the outfield, and he could throw 93 or 94 [mph], and there were some teams and colleges that wanted him as a pitcher.
"The thing about Cody was that he made it clear he wanted to hit and he wanted to play every day."
Even with Ross' baseball skills, the thing that impressed Olander most of all was the attitude of the player.
"He was very competitive, but at the same time, he always was smiling," Olander said. "You could just see that he enjoyed playing the game."
Although Olander was in his second year as a scout in 1999, and admits he was just feeling his way in his new position, he knew a great deal about the game.
He had been a player who had been drafted out of a high school in Arizona, and he spent 14 seasons in professional baseball with less than one month spent in the Major Leagues in late September 1991.
"I certainly had been in the game long enough to know the type of makeup and determination it took to reach the big leagues," said Olander. "I saw all of those qualities that are needed to stay on track in Cody."
Based on Olander's strong recommendation, the Tigers selected Ross in the fourth round of the First-Year Draft of 1999.
"Cody had enjoyed an outstanding high school career, and both he and his family thought he would go higher in the Draft," recalled Olander. "It was a bit of a letdown, and Cody was being heavily recruited by Arizona State."
Olander said he drove to Carlsbad, and spent five days in a motel while trying to convince Ross to sign with the Tigers.
"I knew it was going to be a tough sell, but every day I would take him out and throw him batting practice and then take him to lunch," Olander said. "I went on walks with his parents and tried to convince them that Cody was ready to make the move to professional baseball. I even visited with Cody's grandmother."
On his fifth day in Carlsbad, Olander was at the home of Ross' grandmother when Cody drove up to the house driving a Toyota 4Runner truck that he had taken out for a spin.
"When I saw him drive up in that truck on a test drive, I knew we had a chance," said Olander.
Ross put his signature on a contract for $400,000 to start his professional career.
He has been driving in high gear ever since, through many ups and downs in the game, to finally arrive on Major League Baseball's biggest stage.
The world will be watching. And so will a scout who believed in a young player a long time ago.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving as Executive Vice-President and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.