By Rob Rains
On one of the first days into his new job as an area scout for the Cardinals in 2017, Jabari Barnett made the short drive from his home in Houston to a nearby hotel to pick up scout Mike Roberts, then beginning his 40th year with the Cardinals, to spend their first day together on a two-week scouting trip.
Barnett, who has a masters degree in sport administration from Canisius College, didn’t know it at the time – but his education was about to begin.
Just as Roberts had done for Tom Lipari two years earlier, just as he had previously done for Dirk Kinney, as he had done for Matt Swanson and for countless other Cardinals scouts over the years, Roberts was about to transform Barnett’s car into a classroom where Roberts taught him not only how to scout but other life lessons that Barnett immediately knew were coming from a man that Kinney affectionally calls “everybody’s second father.”
Barnett also quickly learned, as had Swanson a decade earlier, that he was in the presence of someone special.
“He is about not only as phenomenal a man as you are going to find in baseball but just in life in general,” Swanson said. “I would say I owe a huge part of my career to him, his hand and his influence in shaping me. It’s hard to state the influence he has had on so many different people from scouts to executives to players.
“In our little scouting world, in a lot of ways he really is a larger than life figure.”
Swanson, who left the Cardinals in 2016 to become the scouting director of the Los Angeles Angels, has experienced the feeling of not having that time together in a car heading to a game with Roberts, who is known to all as “Lefty” because of his minor-league career as a lefthanded pitcher.
It’s the scouts who still work for the Cardinals – such as Kinney, Lipari, Barnett and all the rest – who are going to experience that loss next spring following Roberts’ departure from the organization after 43 years. Now 80 years old, Roberts’ contract was not renewed by the organization as they looked to cut costs because of the pandemic. His last official day as a Cardinal employee was Oct. 31.
“He was everybody’s second father,” Kinney said. “We talked about everything. He knew more about me than almost anybody. … He filled a void for me after my dad passed away. Mike stepped into my life pretty quick after that and filled a void that I didn’t know would ever be filled again … The man means the world to me.”
There is no accurate way to measure the impact Roberts has had on the Cardinals the past four decades, the lives he touched, the lessons he taught. One fact that is certain, however, is even if Roberts won’t physically be sitting in the front seat of their car, the lessons he provided the team’s scouts will live on.
A rolling classroom
Before Roberts even got in Barnett’s car that day three years ago, the two met in the hotel lobby – and Roberts handed Barnett a card that offered a glimpse into the lessons that he was about to learn in the scouting 101 classroom as it rolled down a Texas highway.
“When he gave it to me he said, ‘These are some things you need to do,’” Barnett said. “It kind of relieved some anxiety of, ‘Can I do this? Am I going to be good at this?’ To get that from someone who has been doing this for 40 years, if he is giving me this, it probably works and this is something I need to hold onto and cherish.”
The instructions, advice about how to do the job, were simple: Listen more than you talk. Be smart but don’t have to prove it. Go back. “That was a big thing for him; if you had questions, go see the player again,” Barnett said.
“You never felt like you were at the wrong ballpark when you were with Lefty,” he said. “Either you saw a good game or you learned something.”
Also on the card were notations to have fun; and not to love on a guy and have him ranked lower than the fourth round, “or you must not love him that much,” don’t lie and to be honest in your evaluations.
“A big one that helped me through a year like we just had was to make sure your feet hit the ground every day,” Barnett said. “In scouting every day is not great; you never know what you are going to get out of the day. That’s kind of what makes the job exciting.”
Roberts filled many roles in the Cardinals’ scouting department over the years, but one of his final duties was to serve as an unofficial mentor for the scouts, especially those new to the profession. Roberts likes to talk, and he liked to get whoever he was with to talk – filling that time in the car in a productive manner.
“Maybe the most influential thing I did was make the scouts say out loud what was on their mind,” Roberts said. “It was something I learned from Freddy (McAlister, longtime Cardinals’ scouting director). You can write a report up but I want you to tell me what you absolutely think.
“When we got in the car every morning I would say, ‘OK give me your list (of top players) as it is today.’ The whole purpose was I wanted him to know his list and be sure of it. Those were little things I guess I got from Freddy. He wanted to be sure I knew my list and understood it and why I had it the way I did. I didn’t think of Freddy as being your answer to guy, but you just had to have answers for him.”
Often during those discussions, Roberts would play the role of devil’s advocate, trying to draw more information out of the scout about the player they were talking about.
“We had a lot of those in-depth conversations,” Barnett said. “I learned more being in the car with Lefty than I sometimes did at the ballpark. You could always bounce a question off him; ‘What am I not seeing here? What am I missing?’ and he would talk you through it. He didn’t ever really give you the answer but he would make you see it yourself and steer you in the right direction.
“He just loved being in the car, talking baseball, but it wasn’t always just about baseball either. You could talk to him about anything.”
Kinney cherished his conversations with Roberts as well.
“I asked him everything, ‘Should I buy a house? Should I start my PhD? How do I get my son to stop crying?’ Kinney said. “You name it and it’s been discussed.”
Swanson still recalls the first time he picked up Roberts in Sacramento, Calif., to go on a scouting trip through northern California in his first year as an area scout in 2008.
“I really didn’t know the ins and outs of what it was to be an area scout,” Swanson said. “We spent 10 days together and now, his influence is still amazing. I vividly remember not talking much but he would tell stories about scouting back in the day, how he turned in reports on three-carbon copy paper and did expense reports in a ledger. It was pre computer, pre radar gun and pre stopwatch. In a lot of ways it was scouting in its purist form.
“Those 10 days really kind of laid a foundation for me and was formative in my understanding of scouting in general. It was a unique lens, how to look and assess players in different ways.
“Mike always taught you that you are getting paid for your opinion about a player – good, bad or indifferent. ‘Give us your opinion. That’s what you are here for.’ If we want the industry opinion we can just hop on the internet and make decisions off that but that’s not the right way to do things.”
“Kind of like I was teaching again”
Before he was hired to scout players in a 13-state area for the Cardinals in 1977, Roberts taught physical education and coached baseball at a high school near Kansas City. He turned down a track scholarship to the University of Missouri out of high school to sign with the Kansas City A’s, and he also pitched for the Cardinals and a couple of other teams in the minor leagues. His career highlight probably was the day in spring training when he was summoned to throw batting practice to Stan Musial.
After his playing career ended, Roberts earned his degree and started teaching before a couple of connections led him into scouting and he never looked back.
Forty three years later, Roberts believes he made the right career choice. He almost felt like he had come full circle in recent years as he transitioned to serving in the role of mentoring the younger scouts, “almost like I was back teaching again.”
It was in that role that Randy Flores saw Roberts shine after Flores became the Cardinals’ scouting director in 2016.
“He was a voice and a sounding board that I could count on as being impartial and free from the game of politics that sometimes exists when you are talking among staff members, and I will forever treasure that,” Flores said. “He’s everything that’s right about what embodies the Cardinals and scouting.”
Part of the reason for Roberts’ success, Flores quickly learned, was the respect he received from others and the way he approached his job.
“I don’t know what else I would have wanted to do except what I’ve done,” Roberts said. “Maybe that’s because it’s all I ever did. I never had a desire to be anything else. I thought about coaching in the minors for a while, but truthfully, I liked what I was doing.
“Am I satisfied with my career? Are there things maybe I would change about it? Why did I not have a desire to be more in a leadership part? I thought I was leading all the time. I was happy doing what I did.”
What Roberts loved the most about his job was signing players. He was instrumental in Albert Pujols being selected by the Cardinals. He saw Yadier Molina in high school, and drafted Tom Pagnozzi out of Arkansas. He tells stories about getting players to sign contracts on the hood of a car or on their front porch.
“If I couldn’t sign them personally I wanted to be part of the group that said yes, that’s our guy,” Roberts said. “I think it gave me a sense of accomplishment that I was giving a guy an opportunity to do something he wanted to do, just like I wanted to do.”
Go over the rosters of not only the Cardinals’ major-league players for the last 40 years, but the minor league rosters as well, and there won’t be many on the list that don’t have some connection to Roberts. That list includes Paul DeJong and Joey Hawkins, and those stories again point to the lessons Roberts passed on to other scouts.
“I’ve got a guy for you to see”
Lipari was in his first year as a scout in 2015 after working as a college pitching coach for years. The upper Midwest was his territory then and one of the names near the top of his list was DeJong, playing at Illinois State. Lipari placed a phone call to Roberts.
“I was really excited about Paul from the first time I saw him,” Lipari said. “I remember calling Mike and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a guy for you to come see.’ He was there in less than a week.”
Lipari’s scouting education began that day, with the class again taught by Roberts.
“The first thing Lefty did when we got to the field was track down the coach,” Lipari said. “I was able to sit and listen to the way Mike talked to him to get info about Paul. After those 10 to 15 minutes I felt like I could write a book about Paul. He asked certain questions I wouldn’t have thought of asking a coach. I definitely took those tips away moving forward.”
DeJong was catching that day. The next time Roberts saw him he was playing second base, and the next time Roberts saw him DeJong was in right field. When he went to see him at the Missouri Valley tournament DeJong wasn’t playing because of a thumb injury. That injury also prevented DeJong from participating in a pre-draft workout at Busch Stadium but he came anyway, and talked with Roberts, and the results of that conversation helped lead to DeJong becoming the Cardinals’ fourth-round draft pick.
“One element that Mike has is the human element,” Lipari said. “It might be kind of an old-school approach, but in a day of analytics it’s good to have a voice like Mike. Part of being a good scout is the relationships you make.”
One of the relationships Lipari saw Roberts make was with his two-year-old daughter Janie.
“Lefty came down to see a couple of games and we stopped by my house, planning on being there about five minutes before hitting the road ,” said Lipari, who now scouts Texas and Oklahoma. “He got ahold of my daughter and played for about a half hour. Every time I’ve talked to him since then he asks how she’s doing.”
Every time Lipari and Roberts talked, whether in the car or at a ballpark, Lipari came away from the experience believing he had become a better scout.
“One of the things he taught me was not to grade too hard on defense, because that was one tool that will get better in the minor leagues because players will work on it every day,” Lipari said. “I think Paul was one of those guys.
“Lefty made all of us (scouts) better.”
Kinney agrees, pointing to the lesson he learned one day when he and Roberts were at a Missouri State game when Hawkins, now working on the Cardinals minor league staff after a short playing career, was on the Bears.
“There was a song playing during batting practice and Mike was intrigued by it,” Kinney said. “He went up to Hawkins to talk about the song and they ended up talking for a while. I asked him, ‘What was that all about?’ and he said he just wanted to see if he was a good kid or not. He fanangled the song into being able to have a conversation with him.
“He just really taught me the finer details of the game. He would point out, ‘Did you see this or did you see that?’”
Roberts also taught Kinney and the other scouts about conviction.
“If he liked a player you were going to know,” Kinney said. “Sometimes guys get wishy washy. That never happened with Mike. He taught me that early on; if you like a player you’ve got to let everybody know you like him.”
That was one of many lessons that Roberts said he learned from McAlister. Maybe another part of Roberts’ success as a mentor is that he never stopped learning himself, from all of the people he worked with over the years.
“One scout told me one time, ‘Lefty, when you are watching the infield, if you can go behind first base and sit up as high as you can and watch from there,’” Roberts said. “’You will get a true picture of guys who can throw and have arm strength and guys who can’t.’ If somebody hadn’t taught me that I could have just sat behind home plate all the time and missed out. That’s something I can still pass on to other people.”
Learning from the misses
When Flores was hired and new to scouting, one area he wanted to learn about was why scouts sometimes aren’t right in their player evaluations; the reasons behind the misses.
“Evaluating and projecting is hard,” Flores said. “Mike was the first one who understood what I was getting at and did not come to the table from a position of batting 1,000. I was interested in learning about the mistakes, learning about the players who were missed.”
One of the things Roberts told him was, “The hardest thing for a scout to do is absolutely know the player as a person. You see them play, maybe quite a bit sometimes and sometimes you’re able to get close to them and sometimes you’re not able to get that close. Sometimes you don’t have enough time to get it right and you want to learn more about him – is he going to be a guest at Thanksgiving dinner or not?”
Roberts had similar conversations with Swanson over the years and watching him in action helped mold Swanson’s career, lessons that he is now trying to pass along to the scouts who work for him with the Angels.
“He’s just one of those people that when you meet him for the first time you can tell he is such a strong, caring, generous person that you know not only are you drawn to but who others are drawn to,” Swanson said. “You go to a game with him and you will see general managers and scouting directors and long time executives come up and talk to him. It speaks to his character and his professionalism. He’s had his hand on so many different people along the way. You can see the influence he’s had on you and so many people.
“Mike always stressed not to allow the interpersonal relationships to fall by the wayside. He always emulated perfectly the human element of scouting. He built relationships and he understood the intangibles amd what makes players tick. You think of what a good scout is and Mike is exactly that.”
One of the lessons Swanson learned that he is now trying to share with his scouts is the importance of forming an opinion about a player – and be able to support that opinion.
“He always drew out of you, ‘Do you like this player? You know he’s going in the first round and you sort of put him there, but do you really like him?’” Swanson said. “You tell him, ‘No I don’t like this or or this’ and he would tell you to make sure your report reflected that.’ You could have that conversation because it was rooted in trust and respect and there was no agenda attached to it. He just wanted the truth.
“In scouting in a lot of ways you are like a fortune teller or a stockbroker. You’re trying to make recommendations for three to five years and maybe in some cases 10 years down the road. That’s not an easy thing to do. There’s still a human element to the game, and so much can go haywire with players along the way. You’re going to be wrong sometimes.”
And sometimes, the fear of being wrong and worrying about making a mistake is a tough lesson young scouts have to learn.
“He conveyed so brilliantly to our department that you’re always learning,” Flores said. “To hear someone of Mike’s stature, who had been in the game for as long as he has, who has been with the Cardinals as long as he has, to say you are always learning is something that will be dearly missed.”
Not really going away
Roberts, who has lived in Hot Springs, Ark., for the last several years, knows he will go through a transition period as he moves forward but that baseball, and his relationships with the scouts, really isn’t going to go away even if he is not officially employed by the Cardinals any more.
“I’ve got a net behind the garage and I’m going to try to see if I can get my golf game a little better,” Roberts said. “Where I live there are about eight or nine golf courses and every one of them kicks my butt. But you can only play so much golf.”
A cancer survivor and now more than 10 years removed from that battle, Roberts said he never consider quitting back then, just as he always was convinced that he would win that battle.
“I’m pretty active for a guy that’s 80,” he said. “I can still think and talk about what I see. I’m happy for what I was able to contributed and happy I did something that I loved for as long as I have.”
Scouts like Kinney and Barnett aren’t going to forget about him.
“I’m going to miss seeing him at the ballpark and everybody gravitating to him, but I’m not going to say I’m going to miss his advice because I am still going to call him and get that,” Barnett said. “That’s not going to go away.”
Kinney intends to pick Roberts up at his house and take him with him to games, then maybe go to dinner afterward. Another lesson Kinney learned early in their relationship was that Roberts always knew the best places to eat.
One night a few years ago, he and Roberts were heading back to Hot Springs from a trip to southern Arkansas.
“It was late and we were in the middle of nowhere and he said, ‘Hook a right up here in about two miles and we’ll get dinner,’” Kinney said. “I said, ‘Are you out of your dang mind? I’m not eating down here.’ He said, ‘This is the best burger you’re ever going to eat.’
“It was the size of a plate. It was amazing.”
Kinney’s goal for most of the last 10 years was to find a place where Roberts hadn’t been. It happened once, in Fayetteville, “because it wasn’t that old.”
“If he is truly done with the game of baseball I’m sure I will have him with me often chasing down players,” Kinney said. “He will be right there, only now he will make me buy dinner. That will be the only difference.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of Dirk Kinney, Tom Lipari and Randy Flores