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August 2, 2013

Prospectus Q&A

Donald Pries

by Lee Lowenfish

Early in his career as a scout, he once threw batting practice to a high school phenom named Boog Powell. Later on he signed future All-Star outfielder Joe Rudi to his first contract during five years of scouting for penny-pinching Athletics owner Charlie Finley. He recommended highly that the Orioles draft a Los Angeles “high school catcher who couldn’t catch” who turned into Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. He played an indirect part in movie history by releasing Ron Shelton from the Orioles system, freeing the minor league second baseman to turn his energies into film-making that ultimately resulted in the classic Bull Durham. His work as a founding father of the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau and the first director of MLB’s Scout School has drawn universal praise. His youngest son Jeffrey was a no. 1 draft pick of the Yankees out of UCLA in 1984 (though a torn rotator cuff prematurely ended his career).

Meet Donald Pries, now enjoying his 68th year in baseball. The son of an American Legion and semi-pro coach, Pries has been in love with baseball for his entire life, a passion that will be recognized before the Orioles’ Friday, August 2 night game against the Seattle Mariners. Along with Roberto Alomar, Pries will be inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame, joining an eminent group of non-uniformed Baltimore personnel that includes former scouts Lenny Johnston and Walter Youse and general managers Frank Cashen, Harry Dalton, and Lee MacPhail.

Though Pries worked for Baltimore for less than 10 years, the experience was a highlight of his career. “You felt like you were an Oriole for life,” he declared in a recent phone interview. “Your bloodstream was in the organization.” It was all about winning, not just playing the game, Pries insisted, citing a famous dictum of manager Earl Weaver, who rose from the lowest managerial rungs of the Orioles system to have great success in Baltimore.

The secret to the Orioles’ success was brilliant leadership at the top and an organization sprinkled throughout with scouts, player developers, managers, and coaches who were all on the same page and working together to get the most out of the players. “They always had the right men in the right place,” Pries remembered. There was no back-biting between uniformed and non-uniformed personnel, the curse of so many mediocre and worse organizations.

“When I was farm director [from 1969 to 1974] I talked every day to scouting director Walter Shannon,” Pries recalled, sharing a fond memory of the man who was his first and most important baseball mentor. Before coming to Baltimore, Shannon spent 27 years in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, where he learned the game and the importance of attention to every detail from Branch Rickey. In 1951 Pries had his one encounter with Rickey and was stunned that the baseball wizard knew that six years earlier Pries had hit .315 for a Batavia, New York farm club.

Pries cannot give enough praise to Shannon, whom he says was years ahead of other baseball people in his advanced knowledge of baseball mechanics and the mental side of the game. “He was calling for the use of cross-checkers as early as the 1950s.” As farm director, Pries wrote three huge manuals of instruction that managers and coaches, players, and scouts were required to know thoroughly. Night sessions were held during spring training, and players were expected to know where they were supposed to be on the field on every play.

Pries looks back with pride on many of his successful recommendations to the Orioles. He urged the drafting of Eddie Murray in the third round of 1973. The “catcher who couldn’t catch” was converted into a switch-hitting first baseman by astute Oriole player developers, notably Cal Ripken Sr., and was on his way to the Hall of Fame. Pries also recommended that the Orioles draft USC shortstop Rich Dauer with the no. 1 pick in the 1974 draft. Dauer, who converted to second base, started on the Orioles’ World Series teams in 1979 and 1983.

Pries is also proud of his recommendation that the Orioles trade for the Expos’ switch-hitting right fielder Ken Singleton after the 1974 season. “I still remember the shock on Frank Cashen’s face when I told him to trade anybody but Brooks Robinson to get him,” Pries said. He had watched Singleton for a whole season in the National League and was convinced that he was a complete player on both sides of the ball. (Baltimore fans look back and sigh that if Singleton had only possessed average speed, he might be another Oriole in Cooperstown.)

All great scouts have strong opinions—that’s what they’re paid for—and Pries is not hesitant when asked about the One That Got Away.

He was a 16-year-old first baseman from the East Bay of Northern California whom Pries remembers as “a hard-nosed tough kid.” The scout knew that the Orioles seemed set with Boog Powell at first base (the player he had pitched batting practice to when Boog was still in high school). But projecting as a good scout must do, Pries envisioned that the teenager could handle left field capably.

Unfortunately, Pries’ biggest supporter, Walter Shannon, grew ill before draft day in 1968 and could not chair the climactic pre-draft meeting. The teenager went to the Dodgers in the second round and wound up with a .289 career batting average and 2715 hits, playing both first base and left field in a 22-year major league career. History might have treated him more kindly if he’d stayed in the outer pasture. His name was Bill Buckner.

If Pries’ asthma hadn’t acted up in the humid Baltimore climate, he says that he never would have left the Orioles. However, when a job opened up after the 1974 season to join Jim Wilson, a former Oriole scout and the first Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau director, and administrator Bill Murray, Pries accepted because it enabled him to work out of the more congenial climate of southern California.

He was assigned the important task of putting into computers basic information about the amateur talent pool. “What is the proper way of evaluating talent, and how can we put it on paper?” is how Pries remembers the assignment. He was certainly the right man for the job, given his exhaustive work in creating the Orioles’ organizational manuals.

When I asked Pries about the difficulty of projecting talent, he was emphatic in his opinion that the key was strength, regardless of position. He mentioned seeing skinny Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis as Los Angeles high school players and projecting that they would grow stronger as their bodies filled out.

When I asked him about evaluating pitchers and the controversial issue of pitch counts, he offered a fascinating reply. “Let me turn the question in another direction. I’m an advocate of pitchers bringing their hands over their head before they pitch. That way they get their whole body into the motion—hips, shoulders, hands, and then follow-through.” He felt that Don Larsen’s no-windup, which was made popular after he threw a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, affected pitching for the next generations.

Though he is firm in his opinions, Pries is open to the idea that there is always room for individual variation in baseball. When he was honored at the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation banquet in Los Angeles in 2012, Pries paid homage to his late father, who had instilled in him the love of the game. Proud that his two sons, Monty and Jeffrey, the former New York Yankees no. 1 draft pick, are both serving now as pastors, Donald Pries has served the game of baseball with the same kind of hard-working spiritual devotion. The Orioles couldn’t have picked a finer example of baseball instruction and inspiration than their latest Hall of Famer.

Lee Lowenfish’s biography Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman won the 2008 Seymour medal from the Society of American Baseball Research.

Related Content:  Baltimore Orioles,  Scouting,  Donald Pries

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