Baseball ain’t no beauty contest. I don’t know if some weathered old baseball scout ever said that, but I suspect he did.
If not, then Charley Kerfeld can take credit for it.
Kerfeld is a scout, but he isn’t old.
He does know something about aesthetics, though, and he’s learned that a guy who looks good in a uniform can’t always play the game. He’s also learned that a guy who resembles a sack of potatoes can be deceptive, too.
Take George Sherrill.
If Kerfeld went on appearances alone, Sherrill might be pitching for the New York Yankees right now. Instead, he’s one step away from a spot in the Seattle Mariners bullpen.
All because Kerfeld took a gamble on an overweight, short-arm-throwing lefthander he saw in an independent league.
All because he ignored how Sherrill looked and concentrated on how he pitched.
Wise man, Charley Kerfeld.
In Sherrill, the scout saw “kind of a dumpy body that a lot of people were afraid of.”
Not Kerfeld, though, who wasn’t exactly willowy when he played, but was a pretty fair pitcher for the Houston Astros.
Kerfeld first came across Sherrill at a tryout camp a few years ago. “He was real heavy,” Kerfeld said.
He was still packing some excess weight when the scout caught up with him last summer in the independent Northern League, where he was pitching for Winnipeg. A non-paid scout whom Kerfeld “trusts very much” had tipped him off about how well Sherrill was pitching and had described him as “David Wells in a uniform.”
I chuckled when Kerfeld made that remark.
“Yeah,” he said, “you and everyone else.”
Then he quickly reminded me that David Wells’ career record is “pretty damn good.”
That it is. For a big sack of potatoes.
Likewise, George Sherrill’s four-plus years in independent league baseball were pretty darn good. Used almost exclusively in relief the last three years, he was 4-4 with a 2.45 ERA for Sioux Falls (S.D.) in 2001, 3-5 with a 3.07 ERA for Winnipeg in 2002 and 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA for Winnipeg last year.
Then he got his break.
The Winnipeg team was staying in a hotel in the Chicago suburbs when he was awakened by a phone call from his manager, Hal Lanier, one morning last July.
Lanier told him that he was a “hot commodity,” that the Mariners and the New York Yankees were both looking at him. The Yankees apparently wanted to sign him right then and there and send him to Tampa in the Class A Florida State League.
Sherrill called his father to tell him the news. “Yeah,” his dad said, “sign with them.”
Sherrill called Lanier to apprise him of his decision. The manager said the Mariners had just called and wanted to send him to San Antonio in the Class AA Texas League. “All right,” Sherrill said, “I’ll take that.”
It wasn’t just a matter of better competition that attracted him to the Mariners.
Sherrill knew something about the history of the two teams, how the Yankees often went out and signed a free agent when they needed a player rather than promote someone from within the organization, while the Mariners – when it came to pitching, at least – were more willing to bring one of their own up from the minors.
Though he had to take a pay cut – he was making about $1,400 a month – he signed with the M’s. “I had never been in a (major league) organization before so I had to make the rookie $850 (a month),” he said, “but they did give me a little signing bonus.”
The gamble Kerfeld had made was about to start paying off.
Sherrill pitched in 16 games for the Missions, was 3-0 with a 0.33 ERA, struck out 31 in 271/3 innings and held opponents to a .198 batting average.
It’s been more of the same this season with Tacoma. Going into the weekend, he was 1-0 with four saves and a 2.08 ERA. Opponents were hitting .204.
So, Charley Kerfeld, what were you expecting out of Mr. Sherrill when you signed him?
“Not as much as we’ve gotten, I can tell you that,” he said in a jocular voice. “You see a guy with a quick arm who throws the ball like a catcher, out of his earhole. He doesn’t give guys a very good look at the baseball. They get a lot of late swings and not real comfortable swings.”
Coach Gary McClure tried telling scouts that they were making a mistake by not drafting Sherrill when he came out of Austin Peay State.
“I’m not a brain surgeon, I’m not that smart, but I’d tell these scouts, ‘You’ve got to draft this guy,’ ” McClure said from Memphis, where he was on a recruiting trip. “He’s got a great changeup, he could pitch inside, he competed his butt off.”
He also had an insidious pickoff move. Twice he came into a game and picked off a runner without making a pitch to earn a save.
And, yes, McClure admitted, Sherrill was “big.”
“But he was real athletic, he fielded his position well. They (the scouts) were looking at him and thinking, ‘This guy is a big tub of lard.’”
Sherrill, 27, has undergone a dramatic change. As McClure saw for himself when the Rainiers played in Memphis last month. The 6-footer has dropped about 20 pounds, and is down to around 228.
“He looks good,” the coach said.
Sherrill had his head shaved and wore a goatee before he signed with the M’s, but learned that the general manager at the time, Pat Gillick, had a rule “to grow the hair out and lose the goatee.”
“Now we’ve got (GM Bill) Bavasi, he’s got the bald head and the goatee,” Sherrill smiled through his own facial hair, the only hair on his head, “so he likes guys like me.”
He’ll like him even better if he comes up to the big-league team and continues this wonderful story that began less than a year ago. With the M’s bullpen as shaky as David Wells’ belly, the name George Sherrill has been tossed about as a guy who might possibly be called up.
Sherrill tries not to think about that, but admits it’s hard when players are being sent down from the M’s and someone has to be called up to replace them.
About that time, Hiram Bocachica walked into the Tacoma clubhouse and was exchanging hugs and handshakes with Rainier players. The day before, he had played an afternoon game for the Rainiers and then been called out of the shower to learn that the M’s were bringing him up. Now he was back to collect some of his belongings.
“It’s good to see teammates like him, the nice guys, get to go up,” Sherrill said.
They could be saying the same thing about George Sherrill before too long.