The Excellence Tournament occurs annually in Puerto Rico, shortly before Major League Baseball’s amateur draft, as a showcase for the young men hoping to get recognized (and paid) by the many talent evaluators on site.
Joe McIlvaine, the legendary scout who helped build the 1986 Mets and later served as their general manager, attended the 2012 tournament as a special assistant to Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. He watched a skinny right-hander, “One-hundred fifty pounds soaking wet,” McIlvaine recalled late last week, throw a 92-mph fastball. And he wanted to learn more about him.
After the game, Mariners scout Noel Sevilla, who was based in Puerto Rico, first alerted the Mariners to the young man and cultivated a relationship with the pitcher and his family, introduced McIlvaine to Edwin Diaz, who is now the 2019 Mets closer.
“Joe said, ‘Let me see your hands,’” Sevilla recalled. “Edwin has long fingers. He can cover an entire baseball. That sparked Joe to say, ‘This guy’s going to throw harder.’”
“You can’t teach long fingers,” McIlvaine said with a laugh, confirming Sevilla’s anecdote. “Sometimes, guys with short fingers, it’s hard for them to throw a good breaking ball.”
Yet that wasn’t all that McIlvaine hoped to ascertain with his physical inspection of Diaz.
“I said to him, ‘Show me how you grip the curveball,’ because you want to hear the kid’s knowledge, how much grasp he has of pitching, what he’s trying to do,” he said. “I remember him explaining why he gripped the ball the way he did and how he threw the breaking ball. He explained it very well.”
Between Diaz’s biology and his intelligence, McIlvaine — a late bloomer physically himself who pitched in the minor leagues for five years — determined, “This guy’s going to throw 100 [mph] pretty quick.”
“I remember being in the draft room, and Joe McIlvaine was really, really talking about Edwin Diaz,” Zduriencik said. “Joe obviously had a lot of years of success as a scout. He kept pushing him. He was a little bit of an undersized guy, but he had a live arm and a really athletic body, how much are they going to develop physically.
“Obviously, Noel did his homework on him and made the recommendation.”
With McIlvaine’s strong endorsement, Mariners amateur scouting director Tom McNamara popped Diaz with the third pick of the third round of the ’12 draft, 98th overall.
It worked out very well for the Mariners. And if it works out as well for the Mets, they can thank the man who played a crucial role in putting together their last championship club.
— Let’s catch up on Pop Quiz questions:
1) From Scott Miller of Carlsbad, California: Name the actor from “Animal House” who played a mute batboy in the 1976 baseball film “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.”
2) From Michael Lombardo of Secaucus, NJ: Name the famous baseball manager, later inducted into the Hall of Fame, who appeared as himself in a 1964 episode of “The Donna Reed Show.”
3) From Gary Mintz of South Huntington: In the 1979 film “Escape from Alcatraz,” which takes place about 20 years prior to then, a question is asked about the status of a baseball team that has recently moved. Name the team.
— I recently saw a documentary not really about baseball, but executive produced by a baseball guy (Bobby Valentine) and focusing on someone with a few shares of the Mets: Anthony Scaramucci, who is of course best known for his forays into finance and politics. “Mooch,” which documents Scaramucci’s rise and fall, is a fun ride. It’s available on iTunes.
— Your Pop Quiz answers:
1. Otis Day (to clarify, he was known as DeWayne Jessie back in those days, only to change his real name to his character from “Animal House.” Love it!)
2. Leo Durocher
3. The Dodgers
If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at [email protected]
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