By Rob Rains
Spend enough time on the road – as the scouts for the Cardinals and all major-league teams do – and you are bound to have a story or two to tell.
It’s happened this spring to Randy Flores, the Cardinals’ assistant general manager and scouting director. It’s also happened to Matt Slater, their special assistant for player procurement – and area scouts such as Mauricio Rubio.
As the Cardinals’ staff prepared for next month’s amateur draft, their scouts crisscrossed the country to try to watch and evaluate players from the high school, junior college and college ranks as they look to find not only a can’t miss first-round prospect, but also those players who will be day three draft selections who someday might find their way to the major leagues.
Discovering that talent is what drives anybody in the scouting arena, and realizing that in pursuit of that goal there will be trials and challenges, is just a part of the job they have to accept.
For Flores, Slater and the Cardinals’ three national crosscheckers (Jamal Strong, Aaron Looper and Zach Mortimer), their stories often involve missed or canceled flights as they typically will move from watching one prospect to checking out another prospect the following day, sometimes in a different part of the country.
“I call us the 4 a.m. ers,” Slater said. “Usually we are getting up at 4 a.m. every day in the spring to get on a flight to go somewhere to see another prospect. It’s a horrible part of the job. You learn to sleep on an airplane.”
All that time on a plane this spring caused Slater to develop sciatica. When he had to go to Japan for the World Baseball Classic, he was told to get out of his seat every 20 minutes to stretch during the 13-hour flight. That came after he limped through Arizona, Texas and Louisiana to attend tournaments at the start of the college season.
For area scouts, such as Rubio, who is responsible for seven Midwest states from the Dakotas and Nebraska east to Wisconsin and Illinois from his home near Chicago, their time on the road is usually spent behind the wheel of a car. For Rubio, that created an unexpected delay this spring.
“I was coming back from Quincy, Ill., and sometimes you have to take country roads with no idea what the speed limit is,” Rubio said. “I was just kind of wandering around trusting that my GPS was good because my internet was coming in and out.
“I saw up ahead that there was a row of cars that was just stopped or pulling off. I had no idea where I was. I got about three cars away and I saw what the obstruction was – a large farming tractor was crawling along about five miles per hour. I got stuck behind him for about 40 minutes. I usually pass the time driving by listening to a lot of podcasts but they weren’t working. Sometimes you just sort of have to accept your fate. There wasn’t a heck of a lot I could do.”
Slater had much the same feeling on May 1, when he decided to drive from St. Louis to go see a high school prospect near Chicago. That happened to be the day a giant dust storm caused accidents on Interstate 55 that involved nearly 100 vehicles.
“I was eight cars behind the pileup,” Slater said. “I saw it and thought, ‘What is all that brown stuff in the sky?’ The next thing I know everyone is slamming on their brakes. Luckily nobody hit me, but the police wouldn’t let us get out of our cars and there was nowhere to move the cars.
“We were literally stuck there for six hours. It was ugly. Finally the police had us drive up next to all of the smashed cars and cut across to the other side of the highway so I could turn around and come back to St. Louis.”
A lost wallet
For Flores, his worst travel story of the spring happened to be when he couldn’t get on an airplane – because he lost his wallet. As it turned out, it was the first of two times he lost it this spring.
“Every year I lose something,” Flores said. “I’m absent-minded and I lose something, but it always finds its way back. One year I left my scout book at an airport but somebody brought it back to me. Another year I left my phone in a taxi. It came back to me.
“Every time I find the stuff I tell the scouts, ‘Look, I have a life-long rabbit’s foot around my neck.’ It’s another signal that we are going to have a good draft.”
Flores wasn’t so sure of that when he lost his wallet, for the first time, in March. He had a rare day at home and was taking his five-year-old son, Hawkins, to Shake Shack for dinner.
“I was supposed to fly out the next morning and in the hustle and bustle of piggyback rides, the bags of food and chasing him around, somehow I lost my wallet,” Flores said. “I woke up the next day and I couldn’t find it. I looked everywhere in the house and the car and couldn’t find it.”
Flores had to cancel his flight. He went back to Shake Shack and nobody had turned it in. Flores said he travels with a small wallet – using rubber bands wrapped around his ID, his credit cards and some money.
“I thought it might have fallen out of my pocket in the parking lot, but they said street sweepers sweep up everything every night,” Flores said. “If it was there, they said it was just gone.”
The local police station offered no help. Flores gave up, spent the rest of the day getting a new driver’s license and rebooking a flight. But he soon found out his troubles weren’t over.
“I go to the car rental place and they won’t let me drive away with the car because I don’t have a credit card that matches the ID – because it’s a new ID,” Flores said. “I don’t have the credit card because it’s a new credit card. I wind up having to Uber and bum rides with scouts. It went on for about 10 days.”
Back home, packing for another trip, Flores reached into his closet for a pair of shoes – and there inside one of the shoes was his wallet. It had apparently fallen out of the pocket in his pants and landed in the shoe, hidden from his view.
Happy and pleased with the sign that the Cardinals would now have a great draft, Flores headed back out on the road. When his travels soon took him to a game at LSU, he realized he didn’t have his wallet – again.
“I had to have left it in the hotel room as I was rushing to the game,” Flores said. “I had to beg my way into the stadium because the game was about to start. I didn’t have time to go back to my hotel.”
After the game, back at his hotel, Flores could not find his wallet. It wasn’t in the room.
“It has to be here,” Flores kept saying to himself. “I was going crazy. There’s no way I lost it again. I didn’t have it on me at the game. It has to be in the room, but I can’t find it.
“Out of desperation I go back to the parking lot where I parked originally and my wallet was there, lying on the concrete, where it had fallen out of my pocket.”
It took Flores a couple of weeks before he came clean to his scouts and told them the story of the second lost wallet.
“I didn’t want to admit right away that I had lost it again,” Flores said. “Ultimately I shared with the scouts that it’s meant to be that we will have a great draft, times two.”
A stuck car, and a stuck elevator
Slater has been scouting for 32 years, the last 17 with the Cardinals after first working for the Brewers, Orioles and Dodgers. He believes that part of a scout’s success comes from the relationships he builds through the job – and it isn’t always with the specific player he went to watch.
He also was at a game at LSU once which was played in a steady rain. He had parked in a grass field, and when the game was over and he got back to his car, he found it was stuck in the mud.
“I can’t get out of the field at all,” Slater said. “Then some nice LSU fans noticed what had happened and they knocked on my window. They hooked up some cables from their red Jeep to my rental car and pulled me out of the mud. A month later I hosted them at a game at Busch Stadium.”
Another time, Slater was at a game at Florida State, where his daughter is on the track and cross country team. In between games of a doubleheader, she took him and her brother on a tour of the school’s athletic facilities.
“I had left my bag with my radar gun and everything at my seat and when I got back there for the second game, it was gone,” Slater said. “Then a family I had been talking with came up and said they noticed I had left my bag, so they had taken it up to the press box. I walked up there and found it. That nice family was looking out for me.”
Later, Slater hosted that family for a game at Busch as well.
Sometimes, a relationship develops that won’t really have a tangible benefit until years later. Slater once scouted Adam Wainwright when he pitched in high school, then years later Wainwright was traded to the Cardinals. The Cardinals scouted Matthew Liberatore in high school before he was drafted by Tampa Bay, then later acquired him in another trade.
Slater remembered those stories this spring when he flew into Indianapolis to go see a high school outfielder, Max Clark. Clark is now generally considered one of the top five players in this draft class, so he will be off the board before the Cardinals make their first-round selection.
The Cardinals’ area scout told Slater the game was going to be near the airport in Indianapolis, but the team would not be taking batting practice. Slater’s flight landed about five hours before the game.
“His high school was about an hour and a half south of Indianapolis but since I didn’t have anything else to do I decided to drive to his high school,” Slater said. “Sure enough when I got there he was standing in the parking lot. He walked over and introduced himself. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you come with me to the back fields to watch me hit with my coach?’ I watched him hit, met his coach and talked for over an hour.
“Then I drove up to the game after that wonderful afternoon and walked to the field and there were 50 scouts there for the game. None of them had gone to his high school to see him earlier.
“You develop relationships with players that you end up not getting, as well as players in other organizations that you met during the draft process. Often you end up staying in touch with them.”
That trip to Indianapolis was more enjoyable for Slater than a trip there in 2022 – a day after he underwent reconstructive surgery on his elbow. He had to spend nearly a month scouting and traveling with a heavy brace on his elbow.
Slater also is involved in the international scouting world, spending a lot of time in Latin America, Japan and the Far East. One trip to Japan a few years ago is now paying dividends for the Cardinals.
“I was there and went to see a college game between Team USA and Team Japan in a really rural stadium south of Hiroshima,” Slater said. “I made it to Iwauni, the small city, and the train station was maybe a mile and a half from the stadium but I had no idea how to walk there. I asked a person walking on the steeet, showing them a picture of the stadium, and they told me to come with them, walked me to their car and drove me to the stadium. Alec Burleson was on that U.S. team, and I saw him hit a home run.”
This spring, Slater was in Colombia evaluating international free agents with international crosschecker Joe Almaraz. They went to check into their hotel, riding the elevator to the lobby on the fifth floor.
“I tried to tell the lady at the desk in my bad Spanish that something was wrong with the elevator, but she said it was fine,” Slater said. “I went over and pushed the button and it wasn’t coming. I told her again something was wrong. I finally got on it, with a stranger who only spoke Spanish and sure enough the elevator gets stuck between floors.
“We didn’t move for several minutes. We were pushing the button and sounding the alarm. I was very scared. Finally the door got close to the fifth floor, but still wasn’t level with the floor. I climbed up and got out of there. I took the stairs the rest of the time we were there.”
If the Cardinals one day sign a player that Slater saw while on that trip, the story of being stuck in an elevator could become more memorable. He did take a photo later that day with their top scout from Venezuela, Jose Gonzales, to remember the day.
Even if another player he saw on the trip becomes a star with another team, it will be something Slater won’t forget – like the time he, John Mozeliak, Moises Rodriguez and others made a trip to the Dominican Republic when the Cardinals were trying to sign international free agent Luis Robert.
“Bill DeWitt and Mo really went out on a limb to make an offer that we’ve never made before to an amateur player,” Slater said. “It was an extremely large offer. We did everything we could to get him.”
Before the Cardinals met with Robert and his agent, they had three videos prepared, including one of then-Cardinal Aledmys Diaz talking to Roberts about the organization and the city. The videos were loaded on an Ipad.
Mozeliak had the idea that at the end of the presentation to tell Robert that he could keep the Ipad.
“The next day I got a call from the agent who said, ‘That was very classy of you guys to give Luis the Ipad, but he wants the password,’” Slater said. “I told him there wasn’t a password, we had taken it off.”
It turned out Robert wanted the password to download games that were on the Ipad – and wanted to charge them to Slater’s credit card.
Slater told the agent, “We’re not paying for him to download games on the Ipad … maybe that’s why we didn’t get him. We didn’t pay for the games he wanted.”
Robert later signed with the White Sox.
It might not seem now like that was a successful trip, but one day in the future, who knows? That’s how the scouting business often goes.
“The key to traveling so much is to stay connected with your family,” Slater said. “I try to speak to my family multiple times a day when I am on the road. The support of the wives and family while you are gone is very important.”
So too is learning some tricks of the road. Veteran scout and former Rockies GM Bob Gebhard spent some time working for the Cardinals, and Slater will never forget what Gebhard did.
“He smoked cigars and when he got into a rental car and was checking out of the airport, he always said to the agent, ‘The car smells like smoke.’” Slater said. When the agent offered to get him another car, Gebhard always turned it down and said, “It’s OK, just mark it down on my record that the car smells like smoke.”
Gehbard would then pull out of the parking lot, not having to worry about what would happen when he turned the rental car back in – smelling like smoke.
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Photos courtesy of Randy Flores, Matt Slater and Mauricio Rubio