THIS IS VERY EDUCATIONAL watch the baseball scouts watch the baseball players. Everything they do is designed to hide what they are really doing, which has the unintended effect of making even the most subtle of their movements blatantly obvious. They also have another cute quirk: they all know each other but don’t want anyone to know why they’re here, which is an especially difficult feat when it’s a Border League independent game on a 95-degree Friday night, the air is humid. . enough to drink and Kumar Roker pitches in Troy, NY for the Tri-City ValleyCats. The scouts, and there are more than a dozen of them, are here for one reason only.

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Rocker is used to attention. For the second year in a row, the former Vanderbilt star wins the award no one seeks more than once: Most Notorious Player in the MLB First Year Draft. At 6’5″ and 245 pounds, he’s right-handed with a major league-ready arsenal: a 98-mph fastball, a wipeout slider, and a stiff, twisted ball that bends the knees of anyone looking for either of the other two. . His movement is smooth and easy, almost sloppy, and the ball leaves his hand from the three-quarter arm slot with a fluidity that gives speed an element of surprise rather than an easy feat as it comes from the defender’s body.

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Thus, the work of a scout may seem easy. A tough guy with great stuff, repeatable delivery and a history of competition at the highest amateur level. So what’s the catch? “Now he’s a big league indieball player,” says Pete Incavilla, ValleyCats manager who played the majors for 12 years. “If he’s not in the top five in the draft, then I don’t know who he is.”

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But among the many idiosyncratic accolades that Rocker has earned over the past few years, this is perhaps the most important: he managed to be both luminous and mysterious.

Various notoriety has come to Rocker since he was a 10-year-old roaming the world of baseball, where parents who were convinced their kids were major league buddies still managed to complain loudly that their little jewels must face this problem. big man beyond his years. Rob Friedman, a pitching analyst who has watched Roker — son of former NFL quarterback Tracy Roker, legendary Outland Trophy winner at Auburn and now Eagles defensive line coach — Roker to learn more. than a decade: “He was a giant 10-year-old boy and he dominated and people hated it. They acted like he was a grown man, and he wasn’t. a monster even worse. They treated him like an adult and it was easy to forget that he was 10 years old – he was ten. Years later, I asked him if it bothered him, and he said, “At first it bothered me, but I learned not to let it.”

By the end of his freshman year at Vanderbilt, as he threw 19 strikeouts with no hitters in the 2019 NCAA Super Regional against Duke and then became the most outstanding player in the College World Series, Rocker – charismatic and dominant – was as close as collegiate baseball is becoming a household name. One in three of those 19 strikeouts was on the slider, most of them in the mud, and the field is on the short list of the most devastating in college baseball history. Had he been drafted that summer, there is no doubt that he would have been selected first overall. But after the pandemic cut short his second season just as it started, his first year started off with a noticeable slowdown. The scouts found a wandering hand gap. However, strictly statistically, he remained a formidable force, with 179 strikeouts in 122 innings and a .934 KNIT.

Around this time last summer, the Majesty plunged headlong into the mystery. Rocker was drafted 10th overall in the first round and thrown into baseball purgatory when the Mets, citing what they called troubling post-draft reports about the condition of his pitching arm, decided not to offer him a contract. This chain of events caused a unique back and forth motion without hope. The rocker, represented by agent Scott Boras, was not part of a preliminary program that would have released his health information, including an MRI, to MLB teams. Boras, ignoring the concerns, says Rocker has been endorsed by “the best surgeons in the world.” Mets owner Steve Cohen, after facing criticism of himself and his team, tweeted a response that seemed to suggest that Rocker was just another line in the ledger: “Training time – baseball drafts cost clubs 5 times more than their slot cost. avoid investments that can bring me such income. With his future swirling and hazy, Rocker could have returned to Vanderbilt but didn’t, opting to work out in the offseason and join the ValleyCats to regain his draft status this weekend.

And now it’s the first day of July, with a little over two weeks left before the draft, and a couple of scouts have told me that their teams are approaching this as if they’re seeing the Rocker for the last time before the decisions are made. The rocker will meet Empire State Grace – 2-38 Empire State Grace – a group that got off a barn-era bus parked in one of the few shady spots in the parking lot. Rocker’s opponent, however, is irrelevant because each pitch, again, will be a referendum on his health, his attitude, and the quirks of his mysterious right hand. The scouts are ready. What can we learn from watching them look at him?

SCOUTS JUMP like flies in a jar trying to get a good look at Rocker as he prepares to take off. Preparatory work begins more than an hour before the game. As some of his teammates walk out of the club eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread, he sprawls in midfield, against the left center fence, and then closer to the left field line. He is alone for the first 25 minutes and then catcher John Giran shows up and they start playing ball, first with a weighted ball and then with a baseball. As Rocker moves towards the bullpen, a swarm of scouts moves with him. Some sit on a ledge above him, others stand lower to watch from eye level. The rocker starts by walking from the bullpen mound to a plate with something called a tide reservoir – a plastic contraption half-filled with water – on the shoulders. He lunges, crouches and twitches left and right. Despite all this, one lucky scout, a longtime friend of ValleyCats pitching coach Scott Budner, stands by the bullpen cyclone fence and talks to Budner the whole time. Just as the scouts pretend not to see each other, Rocker pretends not to see them.

About 30 minutes before the first pitch, Budner hands Rocker that night. Tri-City Bridges a jersey, part of the team’s Cultural Awareness and Diversity Initiative, and Rocker holds it with his thumb and forefinger away from his chest. This is despite the significance of the cause, dizzying turquoise, orange, gold and lime green. They laugh together, 22-year-old Rocker and 65-year-old Budner, a man whose sartorial flair seems to run the gamut from home white to grey.

Budner, a former Mariner pitching coach, retired after three years of “playing golf and drinking wine,” as he put it, to work with ValleyCats pitchers. He’s a hilarious laugher who looks like he’s spent most of his six-plus decades on the planet in direct sunlight. When it comes to Rocker, he says that he takes orders from Boras and the pitching experts hired by the Boras Corporation. In practical terms, this means that Budner did nothing but support Rocker and recommend that he use his replacement, the power pitcher’s paradox: a pitch that gives bad hitters a chance but suits good hitters. Budner is here at least to share this knowledge. “Kumar for me is a guy who will come to his senses sooner or later,” he says, “and he will need this change at the highest level.” In addition, Budner folds his arms in front of his chest and says, “I’m not here to change anything,” as if warding off the simple assumption that the thought had crossed his mind.

Budner and I are talking in the stands behind third base, on the Sam Adams Porch of Joseph L. Bruno Stadium on the Hudson Valley Community College campus. (“Joe,” in the local dialect.) Before I can get there, the scout hears about the plan and asks me if I can ask Budner a couple of questions. First, does Roker travel with the team even if he is not on tour? (Sometimes, but not always, and when he does, he sometimes volunteers to coach first base.) And secondly, how many shots will Rocker throw that night? (Maximum 75, which Budner hopes will get him through five innings.)

When Roker takes on the mound, it’s immediately apparent that his delivery is compact and concise, as if he hired an editor on his day off. He no longer has the exaggerated torque and fall to first base—the Bob Gibson kinetic spin—that he demonstrated at Vanderbilt. It’s a more reserved, controlled atmosphere, almost laid-back. “You just don’t see big, clumsy people who are so fluid and athletic,” says Incavilla. “A lot of times when guys throw hard, it’s max effort. It’s not the best effort with him.”

Not to be mean, the Empire State Grace is basically nine pairs of shoes spinning around in a dough box. Many of them, in repetitive acts of self-awareness, throw their bats in helpless surrender before the third strike even crosses the plate. The scouts, trying to see what no one else can see, watch Rocker from first base and third base. They take photos and videos. A couple of them – fewer than I expected – are training radar guns in each of his fields. They know what they’re seeing – tonight: 5 innings, 7 outs, 12 pitches at 98 mph – but they look like they’re human dowsers hoping to pinpoint an underground aquifer…