This is the way it used to be, you might say. A scout walked into town — a small town in a quiet valley or a mill town — to watch a baseball game. The Braves scout, of course, was what we used to call a “bird dog,” meaning he was just sort of “sniffing out” the territory.
Gene Kerns’ territory consisted of five states in the Middle Atlantic and in some cases Cape Cod, one of the richest beds of amateur baseball “ore.” College prospects were putting some summer polish on their game, most of them playing for room and board and hopefully catching the eye of one of those free-roaming scouts.
But this was the Shenandoah Valley, one of the more artsy and craftsy regions of Virginia. In the town of Woodstock, where college players came to spend the summer practicing the art of baseball, the local team played in the Valley Baseball League, and so Kerns sat in the stands one night, just looking.
No telling what might pop up, though the Valley League was hardly known as a hotbed of major league talent. The team the Woodstock River Bandits were playing isn’t important. But as the game moved along to the ninth inning, the identity of the Bandits’ closer suddenly triggered Kerns’ attention to alert. He was mesmerized. One inning is all it took.
When the game ended, Kerns called the Braves farm director and told him about his find. The farm director — no longer with the Braves — told him there weren’t any openings for prospects right now and Kerns blasted back. “I don’t care if we don’t have any openings or not, we need to sign this kid,” he said. He was mov-v-v-ved, as they say.
The River Bandits were playing at Staunton the next night, and Kerns asked the manager if he might get another look at Brandon Beachy. He drove to Staunton, watched Beachy pitch another peachy inning, then met with him after the game.
Kerns asked him, “Do you have an interest in pro baseball?”
“I certainly do, sir,” Beachy told him. It was the “sir” that impressed Kerns. Here was a young man not only with talent, but with manners, too.
By the time they finished negotiations, Beachy settled for a $20,000 bonus and he was on the way to the Braves’ farm at Danville. (Remember, the Nationals had just signed a West Coast pitcher for $15 million who at the moment is recovering from arm surgery).
Beachy began working his way up through the Braves’ farm system — Rome, Myrtle Beach, Mississippi, Gwinnett — and then the strangest thing happened. He found himself starting against the Phillies in the hunt for the division championship. From the Valley League to the National League, and while he didn’t light up the horizon, Beachy was on his way — at a price tag about $14,880,000 less than the National had paid for Stephen Strasburg.
When Beachy starts, I go to watch. There is something about him that catches the eye. I would go any time he starts anywhere, but I don’t travel that much any more. Thank heaven for Kerns’ wanderlust. This week I located him at Cape Cod. If he comes up with another Brandon Beachy, I’ll keep you posted.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The long-time Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing as authored multiple books profiling major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodical columns for the Daily Post.