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July 29, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Cito Culver, Angelo Gumbs, and the Burden of Being a Tourist

by Jason Parks

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I have already convinced myself that Angelo Gumbs is a better prospect than Cito Culver, and it’s only the third inning. Neither player has produced a remarkable result thus far, but the overwhelming feeling brewing in my gut tells me that Gumbs is the player to watch on the field. I shouldn’t listen to my gut; I should focus on the shortstop. Shortstops with true defensive skills are valuable commodities. But Gumbs could be a very good center fielder. He’s currently playing second base, but he could be playing center field. At present, the position is occupied by Mason Williams, who is equally promising (if not more so), but Gumbs could handle the defensive assignment, given his plus-plus athleticism, a strong arm, and instincts. My gut seems more loquacious than normal. My journey to the park might also be playing a role in the stomach discussion. A German tourist might have poisoned me.

I’m in the “scout section” of the park, which is really just another social clique that some happen upon based on their seating assignment, while others only recognize the section from afar. I don’t always want to be in a specific section; I like to bounce around the park, frequently looking for different angles and perspectives. But sitting with the players tasked with charting the game and with your contemporaries in the industry can have its advantages, especially when your gut is chatty and perhaps poisoned.

The game is dragging, and the talent on the field isn’t exactly a plate of chicken fried steak with delicious cream gravy held close enough to tempt but far enough away to limit my accessibility. I continue to take notes and listen to the chatter in my section, but the gameplay doesn’t keep the conversations sharp or focused. The discourse drifts from baseball gossip to the standard hetero-normative observations that tend to occur in this particular world. I feel more uncomfortable with every passing moment. You can’t always wear your ideological preferences on your sleeve, and I elect to remain a silent participant. I turn my attention back to the field, anything to avoid the 80-grade masculinity escaping from the pores of the section. I’m trapped in my own paradox. Was the trip to the park even worth it?

Making the trek from my residence in Bushwick, Brooklyn, to Staten Island is quite an undertaking, especially from a psychological standpoint. It starts becoming hard to breathe when I take the first steps away from my building; I feel inauthentic, as if I’ve left my identity back on my kitchen counter. On the Hipster Highways of Brooklyn I’m often uncomfortable in my surroundings, suffering from the reality that I’m merely another solider of the crown, out to wear the costume of socio-economic motley to benefit from the hipster perspective. This is a privileged dream, as I still feel obliged to consume comfort foods that only exist in my anything-but-fraught reality. I need an iced coffee with French silk creamer and a healthy slice of banana nut bread containing equal parts walnuts and chocolate squares every morning. The iced coffee makes an encore performance a few hours after my first cup. I’m a big part of the problem.  

My face is basically in a paper bag by the time I reach the subway. It’s 3:30 p.m. ET, and I have plotted my course to Manhattan. I need a quick oil change at the local psychoanalytical service station before taking a few subways and a ferry to Staten Island. I’m not off to go a good start. Hopefully I can deposit enough money into my therapist’s account to shift the urban-colonialist guilt I’m feeling onto some familial relationships. My father drank coffee in front of me when I was young. That means something, right? I also assume he enjoyed healthy portions of banana bread, which is basically banana cake, but calling it bread makes it acceptable to eat during the day, whereas eating cake in the daylight hours just makes you sound piggish and lazy. If you told someone you wanted a piece of chocolate cake for breakfast they would probably judge you for it, yet banana bread with a superabundant amount of chocolate squares is labeled “breakfast appropriate” by most consumers and therefore acceptable. Guilt is shifting.

It’s funny how I use baseball as a shield to cover my vitals in this societal comic. I find it stimulating and beautiful, but also a respite from the agony associated with trying to exist as a tourist. Baseball wears many uniforms, but the skeletons underneath the clothes are all the same. In baseball, everybody is pure. When I find the lines of my reality obscured by what I consider to be inauthentic obstacles, I look to baseball as my ballast. On this particular evening, I’m off to re-discover my sanity by testing the very boundaries of it. First pitch is at 7 p.m. ET.

I’m walking away from my therapist’s office building near the Flatiron and over to Seventh Avenue to jump on the 1 train, a playful little subway line that always boasts a clever smell—something between old food, the chemical antidote for the spoils of public urination, and the general stench of indignation. In approximately 10 stops, the 1 line will dump me out near the entrance to the Staten Island Ferry, and if I’m lucky, I’ll catch the 5:15 boat. I’m deep in thought as stops pass and new faces join as old faces disappear. It’s like a moving version of Chat Roulette, complete with awkward stares, dissociative conversation, and the occasional blast of random male genitalia.

I’m deep in thought over my upcoming sojourn to Mexico City, a place I will call home for two weeks per month for the next year; I’m set to play human ping-pong, getting volleyed from my home in New York over the border net into my temporary residence in the Condesa district of D.F., which is a hip area full of European influence, progressive behavior, and a taqueria called “Tacos Gus” that is elite-level delicious. I can’t escape labels.

The point of my trip isn’t to see a fascinating matchup of short-season titans; those don’t really exist. It’s also not to catch a top prospect in the act of doing top prospect-like things, though I’m anxious to watch Cito Culver and Angelo Gumbs in person. The point of my trip is to push myself through the emotional barriers I erect to find happiness at the fields. I’m not what you would call “A guy who enjoys crowds, or the people that form crowds, or the necessary interactions that take place while in those crowds.” But I need to push myself to be more human, and this is as human as it gets.

Whitehall Terminal, the gateway to the ferry itself, encourages a bovine procedure; you often feel more like an animal than a man (so much for the human experience), moving steps at a time in a herded mass of tourists and the indigenous retuning from Manhattan to Staten Island. I negotiate the bovine procedure like an experienced bull, using my pattern-recognition skills (and height) to isolate and exploit sidewalks in the crowded mass. I find myself making first contact with the docked boat, in lockstep [unintentional pun] with a particularly pleasing gaggle of German ladies, headed up the starboard staircase and onto the outer rails, where cameras will click and eyes will widen at the spectacle that is the liquid iconography.

The ferry’s interior is outdated and defeated, with a bus terminal feel and an Overlook hotel design aesthetic. Any moment you expect to see Danny exploring the strangely uninhabited halls on his Big Wheel, or Scatman Crothers creeping some kid out with his communicative smile and pompous swagger over his shinning prowess. *On a side note, would you ever leave your child alone with a stranger who only minutes before performed an awkward “What’s up, Doc?” in your presence, and then followed it up with an invitation for some one-on-one ice cream time with your scared and confused child? I wouldn’t. I don’t have children, so take that into consideration.

The sound of the water slapping the side of the vessel slowly drugs my senses, and after only a few minutes I abandon the fear of the interior and focus my attention on the tourists taking pictures and the locals quietly judging them for doing so. It’s a great window into the lives of those that exist in a postcard. On that ferry, the indigenous representatives of Staten Island don’t really exist at all. They merely form shadowy figures on the periphery in the photographs of others. It’s both unfortunate and amazing. It makes me think about people who live next to EPCOT.

I find my ever-curious German gaggle and join them for a piece of the bench overlooking the water. I drift in and out of thought, hoping to find consciousness and stumble upon a few German smiles, perhaps a friendly conversation about Borussia Dortmund, and if I get really lucky, a more thorough and thought-provoking discussion on socio-economic reconstruction in post-war Deutschland. One of the German girls offers me a piece of candy in what looks like a homemade wrapper. I willingly take it and pop it in my mouth without a moment’s hesitation. It’s licorice or something equally unsavory, and I’m at the mercy of her German kindness. We make small talk and I let my English charm initiate diplomacy, but a wave of nausea throws me off course and I lose my chill. I’m pretty sure she just poisoned me.

The boat slows its roll 25 minutes later, temporarily disrupting my standard equilibrium with its bipolar attention to motion, encouraging yet another bovine procedure, and offering me a parting shot of anxiety. As I depart the vessel, I bid a fond adieu to the German stranger I took candy from, walk through yet another terminal, and exit it on my way to Richmond Country Bank Ballpark, which I can see from the clear doors I’m now passing through, only a few hundred yards up the pier. I could have flown back to Germany with my new friends with less hassle, but I’ve finally arrived at the home of the Staten Island Yankees. It’s time to scout some short-season baseball.

The game finds some momentum after the strike zone expands, which is a common occurrence after hour number two on a warm evening. My internal debate over Culver/Gumbs has chilled, with a muzzled stomach and a better perspective of the events at hand. I note that Angelo Gumbs is the better prospect. I have my reasons. I feel good about the process. I’ve moved to the first-base side of the park, where I’m observing the actions of the infielders and clocking runners down the line. I’m focused yet friendly, chatting with fans (of the team, not of my work), and existing in the world around me. I’m no longer wearing a costume, as I’m just Jason, sitting in the stands, doing my job and enjoying every second of it. This is the purity I was seeking. This is my therapy.

The game concludes and the journey back to Brooklyn takes center stage. From a distance, I see a ferry depart the terminal, and I know my attempt to leave the island will be delayed by an additional 30 minutes, as the frequency of service has slowed its pace. Here I am back in a terminal, grazing and mooing like the rest of the impatient herd, the majority of which possess a foreign tongue, so the moos in question tickle my ears with more distinction.

I’m attempting to return to my home, a place where I’m the foreign tourist standing at the rails taking pictures of Lady Liberty pretending like my family name is on the tablet. I’m a passenger and a participant, but I’m also a guest, and more often than not, I’m a burden. Enthusiasm and animated curiosity aren’t attractive qualities when you are the one standing on the shore, watching the crowded boats arrive.

With the evening sky upon the city, the final moments on the ferry are quite pleasant, with the downtown lights creating yet another postcard scenario, as the eager visitors line the rails to document the illustration. I join them, but only to drink up the environment one last time before heading underground to partake of the hospitality offered by the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The trip home is lengthy, but a good environment for decompression, as I use the drone of the subway(s) as my sonic backdrop. On the L train, I’m going over my scouting notes next to a hipster couple engaging in what appears to be a sex act, but could be performance art based on the comfort of public exposure. I’m staring at them like a kid watching late-night Cinemax for the first time. I learn something new each day living in New York.

The experience of travel pushes my focus to the next level, and I become engulfed in my notes when I finally arrive back to my apartment. The time is 11:30 p.m., and I’ve been away from home for over eight hours. I have five pages of notes in addition to the scorecard, which I updated with the fervor of a lazy minimalist. I normally don’t go crazy deep with the observations from one game, especially when I’m focused on position players; I prefer to watch a position player multiple times in multiple situations before offering an opinion. But the theme of the evening was the synthetic prospect battle I created between shortstop Cito Culver and second baseman Angelo Gumbs, and it fueled my desire to take copious notes based on a limited range of field data. Good times.

According to my notes, and I’m pretty sure my eyes still agree, Angelo Gumbs won the day, and therefore, won my admiration and support. It’s a subjective business we are in, whether people openly admit that or not, and I decided to give the nod in my forced battle of infielders to the Yankees’ second-round selection from 2010. Why Gumbs? Well, first of all, I like the way he moves, both in the field and on the bases. That’s not a direct knock on Culver, who is very athletic himself and can handle his position. But Gumbs looks good in a uniform and moves like a guy who looks good in a uniform, and that fact hits my eyes and burns an impression. There is more to scouting than finding impressive statues (insert something clever about sales and blue jeans here___), but in a small sample size, the physical observations form the skeleton of any report, and this is a small sample size report.

Based on the snapshot, Gumbs’ athleticism stands out, as I was able to see a few routine ground-ball executions, and one nice glove-side play where Gumbs was able to flash his first-step quickness and reactions. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that Gumbs wasn’t able to show off the full range of his physical abilities, as I was at the mercy of the balls in play, and Gumbs only touched the ball a handful of times. I would have paid extra to see him take flies in the outfield. His skill set belongs in the vast wilderness of center field.

At the plate, Gumbs looked more comfortable than Culver, with a natural feel for his swing and natural contact ability; it just seemed easy for him to pull the trigger, jump into the zone, and control the bat and barrel the ball with authority. Even the balls he fouled off were quality swings, as he was locked in most of the night. The statistical results of the evening run counter to my claims of quality, but he was putting good wood on the ball; he just wasn’t getting any help from the holes on the field. He also has more power potential than I realized. The kid has juice in the bat.

Coming into the game, I was led to believe that both Culver and Gumbs were raw athletes, equipped with the physical tools for the game but lacking the baseball skills to justify their lofty draft selection by the Yankees. What I discovered (based on a small sample size, of course) were two raw athletes, equipped with the physical tools for the game, both with more baseball skills than I anticipated, both with more game awareness/instincts than I anticipated, and both with more prospect-ness than I anticipated.

 Despite the fact that I anointed Gumbs as the better prospect (based on an arbitrary viewing window), both players more than justified their hype, and I’d welcome the opportunity to scout them again. In preparation for that eventuality, I’ve started brushing up on my German…  

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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