Van Proyen struck out on Albert Pujols

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Van Proyen struck out on Albert Pujols

Glen Van Proyen was a professional baseball scout for 46 years. He signed Ron Kittle and Mike Marshall. And by his own admission, if he hadn't made "the biggest mistake I ever made, maybe the biggest of all time," Albert Pujols would have been a Dodger, not a Cardinal.

Van Proyen, who retired as a special assignment scout for the Cubs in 2000, was scouting for the Dodgers in 1999 when he saw Albert Pujols playing for his junior college team, Maple Woods Community College of Kansas City, in a tournament in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

"He was the best I ever saw. I didn't recognize it then," Van Proyen said.

Pujols, who had graduated from Fort Osage High School in Independence, Missouri, only a few months earlier, was playing in a doubleheader against Jacksonville (Florida) Junior College.

"I watched him taking batting practice, then talked to him before the first game and my hand disappeared when he shook my hand," Von Proyen said. "He had a good swing but he didn't hit the ball. He had a great body but he can't hit so he can't play, I said to myself. And he was playing shortstop with size 16 shoes. There's no way he could play shortstop in the big leagues."

In the first game, Van Proyen watched as Pujols struck out four times and made no contact. In the second game, he struck out the first three times at bat. Then he came to the plate for the fourth time...

"I had already made up my mind that I didn't want him," Van Proyen said. "He hit a low fastball, a knee-high fastball against the center field fence. He hit it so fast. Bam-Bam. I had second thoughts. But his body and position still bothered me. And he had only one contact."

So, when all of the Dodgers scouts gathered to make their recommendations before the annual June draft, Van Proyen placed Pujols in the 13th round. "I didn't put a high recommendation on him," he said.

The Cardinals, picking ahead of the Dodgers, chose Pujols in the 13th round, the 402nd pick in the 1999 draft.

"If I had it to do all over again, of course, I would have signed Pujols," Van Proyen said. "It was the biggest regret of my life."

Van Proyen didn't miss on former Joliet Catholic pitching whiz Bill Gullickson. But he didn't sign him, either. The experience made for the Van Proyen's favorite scouting story.

In 1977, Van Proyen had targeted Gullickson, a hard-throwing right-hander, as a can't-miss draft choice. He asked Bert Wells, then the Dodgers' Midwest cross-checker, to make his own evalution.

After Gullickson threw his first pitch, Wells turned to Van Proyen and said: "Let's go get dinner."

Van Proyen was stunned. "You don't like him?" he said.

"When we pick, he won't be there," Wells said, obviously impressed at what he had seen in only one pitch.

Wells was right. Future White Sox star Harold Baines was the No. 1 choice in the 1977 major league draft. Gullickson was the No. 2 pick by the Expos. Interestingly, future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor was the No. 3 selection by the Brewers.

The Dodgers didn't do badly. Picking 20th, they signed pitcher Bob Welch, who went on to win 211 games in a 17-year career with the Dodgers and Oakland A's. He was a 27-game winner and won the Cy Young Award in 1990.

Van Proyen was a pretty good baseball player himself. Born in the Roseland community on Chicago's South Side, he graduated from Pullman Tech in 1948. He attended Western Illinois and signed with the St. Louis Browns after his junior year.

In an era before the invention of the radar gun, Van Proyen was a pitcher with only a 70 mph fastball but a devastating 12-to-6 curve ball.

"At that time, scouts looked for the same thing--pitchers missing bats and throwing strikes," he said. "I didn't even know I was being scouted. Scouts were hiding behind fence poles and light poles. They didn't scout in clusters. They tried to keep a prospect a secret."

Van Proyen said his biggest exposure to scouting was when the Cubs invited him to attend a month-long camp at St. Bede Academy in Peru, Illinois. "They talked about signing me," he said.

He never made it to the majors. In four years in the minors, he had a 22-22 record. He also was a pretty good hitter, batting .253 as an outfielder when he didn't pitch.

After he left the game, he began teaching and coaching at Fenton High School in Bensenville, then moved to Maine South in Park Ridge. He coached Maine South's baseball team to second place in the 1966 state tournament, then was hired to scout for the Dodgers.

Van Proyen and every scout who ever held a radar gun is always looking for a five-tool player--an athlete who can run, hit with power, throw, hit and field. But they can count on one hand the number of five-tool players they have uncovered in their scouting careers...players like Gullickson, Kittle, Marshall, Greg Luzinski, Dave Kingman and Cliff Floyd.

"If a guy has at least one-plus tool and two average tools, he is a big-time prospect. Hopefully, that one-plus tool is hitting, a guy who makes solid contact," Van Proyen said. "And the second best tool is his glove. Then a good arm would come with that.

"Pitching and hitting is the name of the game today. Speed isn't as important as it once was. The game has become more offensive-minded, more runs being scored. To be a good hitter, you must learn the strike zone. Great hitters have a natural thing. If you have strength and good eyes and good hand-and-eye coordination, you should be able to improve your hitting."

Van Proyen said he also looked for kids who loved the game, who really wanted to play and had ability. He always arrived at the park early to see who showed up early and who showed up late.

"If I saw kids come in late, the last kids on the field, I didn't like their attitude," he said. "In my mind, they weren't trying to be the best they could be. I'd even wait until after the game to see what a kid did after the game. Some would ask the coach to take extra batting practice or hit some ground balls. That's what I wanted to see."

As Van Proyen looks back on his years in the scouting profession, he notes two things have changed.

Area scouts don't have as much say in the evaluation of a prospect as they once did. In many cases, the cross-checker has more input than the area scout.

"I don't think that is a good thing," he said. "The cross-checker only sees the kid once while the area scout lives with him."

And there's always the question of signability. "Kids didn't used to ask how much they would get to sign, they just wanted to play. But now the first thing that a family asks is: 'How much will you give us?' A signing bonus is a big thing in signing kids. Some kids used to sign for 1,000 or 1,500. They just wanted to play," he said.

"But today, if a a kid has a good high school education and has a chance to go to college, the parents want their son to go to college for one or two years. There is so much talk about what the money is and what the college situation should be that parents are well-informed about the process. If they aren't bent on their son going to college, the kid always wants to sign."

That is one of the talking points for the scouts. Major league teams want to sign promising prospects as soon as possible so they can become acquainted with their system sooner than later.

"They have to realize that the window of opportunity is small," Van Proyen said. "On any given day in any given year, there are only 750 major league players in the world. If you want to be one of them, you have to jump at the chance. Teams would rather train a kid from 18 years of age on rather
21 or 22.

"Remember, there are only two chances to get into professional baseball. You have to be asked, you can't just apply. A college kid gets two or three years in the system to show what he can do. A high school kid gets a minimum of four or five years.

"Don't downplay the decision of a high school kid to go pro or to go to college. He needs to do some soul-searching. The decision has to be based on certain things. Do I feel I am ready? Am I confident I am ready? If not, he probably should go to college."

But some things haven't changed at all. Van Proyen thinks high school coaches in the Chicago area do as good a job as any coaches in the country who don't get to recruit.

Bears great Jay Hilgenberg to new C Cornelius Edison: “You deserve to be there”

Bears great Jay Hilgenberg to new C Cornelius Edison: “You deserve to be there”

The storyline has already been formed: If the Bears are forced to go with undrafted Cornelius Edison as their center, the 2016 season is lost.

“I mean, how ridiculous to think that an undrafted free agent could be the starting center for the Chicago Bears, and they win,” deadpanned Jay Hilgenberg, making less than no attempt to mask the irony in his voice.

With very good reason.

Because Hilgenberg himself came into the NFL as an afterthought, undrafted out of Iowa in 1981 and then going on to an 11-year career with the Bears, capped by a Super Bowl ring in 1985. Seven Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections.

Ridiculous.

Edison may come nowhere near the heights reached by Hall of Fame nominee Hilgenberg. Or of Hall of Fame Miami center Jim Langer, also undrafted. But Hilgenberg has a strong bit of advice for Edison, who started Saturday in the Bears preseason game vs. Kansas City and could be their starter on Opening Day, depending on health elsewhere on the interior of the Bears offensive line.

“I would say to him, ‘You’re in an NFL camp because you can play football,’” Hilgenberg told CSNChicago.com. “Don’t let how you entered that camp take anything away from you. You deserve to be there. You just need to prove it a little bit more than the first-rounders.’”

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It may not always be easy, of course.

Hilgenberg, who fought his way onto the final roster in 1981, once famously turned to then-teammate Revie Sorey on the bench during a blowout of the Bears in Hilgenberg’s first season, and said, “Revie, we’re the worst team in the NFL.”

Sorey, never one to duck the truth, nodded.

Hilgenberg added, “And I’m the worst player on this team.”

Again, no disagreement from Sorey.

“So that makes me the worst player in the NFL, doesn’t it?” Hilgenberg concluded.

Silence from Sorey.

Hilgenberg turned out to not be the worst player in the NFL, but not without epic struggles, and he knows what Edison will be going through. And how the young center can make it.

[MORE BEARS: Rookie class making much-needed impact]

“To be honest there is always a little insecurity in you,” Hilgenberg recalled. “I had confidence that I belonged but I had to fight every day. And the truth is, I wanted it more than anything else in the world. I was going to make it.

“I didn’t have Plan B. I didn’t want to go back to Iowa then, so I didn’t have Plan B.

Hilgenberg used teams’ not drafting him as motivation, and Bears teammates recalled him savoring facing supposed elite defensive linemen, No. 1 picks, and handling them. Beyond his attitude, however, was a method.

“I played against a lot of big, strong guys in the NFL, and I wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Hilgenberg said. “As soon as you learn how to play with the right fundamentals, you learn that there’s no Supermen out there. If you can play fundamentally and with good technique, you can block anybody… .

“Offensive line play is honestly all about how bad you want it. How much are you willing to do? How important is it to you? What does it mean to you?”

Edison is in the process of answering those exact questions.

Dwyane Wade's cousin shot and killed in Chicago

Dwyane Wade's cousin shot and killed in Chicago

On Thursday, Dwyane Wade appeared on an ESPN special for The Undefeated to talk about gun violence. The next day, Wade's cousin was shot and killed in Chicago.

Nykea Aldridge was pushing a baby stroller in the Chicago neighborhood of Parkway Gardens when she was shot and killed. Aldridge was 32 and a mother of four.

Police said she was not the intended target and one person was taken into custody as a result of the incident.

Wade's words during his appearance on the ESPN panel took on extra meaning after Friday's shooting.

"It's important for all of us to help each other, to go back and say 'You know what, where did this start, how did this start? Let's see how we can change there,'" Wade said on ESPN. "It's deep-rooted and this is something that didn't start today. This is something that's not going to end tomorrow. But this is something that we can start a conversation, we can start the work today and hopefully eventually we can stop it."

Wade tweeted after the shooting.

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – The “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants started at Dodger Stadium late Friday night, Cubs fans celebrating Kris Bryant’s two-run homer in the 10th inning and cheering on this entertaining comeback win.

Until Clayton Kershaw returns to full strength, stares down hitters from 60 feet, six inches and unleashes his entire arsenal, it’s impossible to know how the Cubs would stack up against Los Angeles in October. But it’s still safe to say this would be an epic playoff matchup between two big-market, star-studded franchises, with two iconic ballparks becoming the backdrop, celebrity row after celebrity row.

As a quiet homebody who happens to have his own billboards and marketing deals – but doesn’t do bulletin-board quotes or brag about his game – Bryant is not exactly a Hollywood personality. But this is also a goal-oriented individual who doesn’t shy away from the pressure and the expectations and absolutely wants to be the best at his craft.

The Cubs won this round with Bryant, who launched his 34th and 35th home runs in a 6-4 victory, an MVP-worthy season becoming the sequel to his Rookie of the Year campaign.

“It’s humbling,” Bryant said. “You grow up hearing that kind of stuff on TV. To experience it in real life is pretty cool.”

It became hard to hear Bryant inside the visiting clubhouse, because teammates chanted “MVP!” and sung along with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as “Nuthin But a G Thang” played on the sound system. But for most of the night, it looked like it would be a silent room postgame as the resilient Dodgers took 3-1 and 4-2 leads.

Until the eighth inning, when Bryant launched a home run off Joe Blanton that landed in the center-field seats blocked off for the batter’s eye. And then the ninth inning showed why manager Joe Maddon will want Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward in a playoff lineup.

In the middle of a frustrating offensive season where he’s felt the weight of a $184 million contract, Heyward led off by ripping a double into the right-field corner off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Heyward hustled to third base when new Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz couldn’t handle strike three against Jorge Soler. Heyward ran home to score the game-tying run when a Jansen wild pitch sailed toward the backstop.

That set the stage for Bryant, who brought up the fielding error he made in the fifth inning during his postgame interview on Channel 7 after hitting the game-winning homer off lefty Adam Liberatore. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo may set the tone in the clubhouse, but Bryant already brings tunnel vision and a high degree of professionalism to an 82-45 team, even at the age of 24. 

“He just doesn’t quit,” Heyward said. “He wants to be in every spot. He goes up there and has his at-bat – and that’s it.

“You can talk about why he’s been hitting the ball well, this and that, but he has a good approach. It’s that simple. Other than that, he works his tail off every day to try and go out there and help us win.

“When you have that gift – and you have that work ethic – the bottom line is a lot of good things can happen.”

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A resourceful $250 million team won’t fade away, even with Kershaw (back) not pitching for two months, one of 27 players the Dodgers have stashed on the disabled list, tying a major-league record. Los Angeles has cycled through 14 different starting pitchers, relying on depth, a powerful lineup and a strong bullpen to surge into first place and hold onto a one-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

“How about last year?” Maddon said. “We beat up on the Mets during the season, we go (into the playoffs) and we can’t even touch them. It’s such a different animal. People get hot or people get cold.

“I’m not going to diminish the fact I’m going to be paying attention. But things change. Trends can be so trendy, to quote Yogi. So I don’t get too far ahead, because things can change very quickly.”

Like Bryant going from a promising player with a few holes in his swing who looked worn down at times last season – to an MVP frontrunner with a .303 average, 89 RBI, 107 runs scored, a .982 OPS and the versatility to play third base, defensively shift across the infield and move to the outfield.

Kershaw vs. Bryant would be must-see TV in October.