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Thurman has eye out for prize prospects

by: VERN UYETAKE - West Linn resident Mike Thurman loves getting off the road so he can spend time with his kindergarten-aged son Henry. It is easy to guess that Mike Thurman of West Linn is a baseball scout when you see him at a game.

He's the one holding the radar gun. He is also 6'4" ("I was 6'5" before I cut my hair off.") and still has that lean athletic look of a former professional athlete. You can find him on old baseball cards.

Now, Thurman is in the business of putting players on those cards, and he is doing it for the most glorious and demanding organization in sports — the New York Yankees, the team of the Bambino, the Iron Horse, the Yankee Clipper, the Mick, Yogi, Reggie and 27 World Series championships. Which, of course, leaves Thurman in a tough spot. The Yankees can either win the World Series or stink.

"It's a no win situation," Thurman said.

But Thurman wouldn't change his situation for anything. He loves baseball, he loves scouting and he still possesses the quiet competitive fire that motivated an unsung prospect from Corvallis into a career in the Major Leagues. He can even stand the Steinbrenner clan looking over his shoulder.

"It is very gratifying working for the New York Yankees," Thurman said. "I love giving kids the chance to fulfill their dreams. We're going to have four out of the top 80 picks in the next draft, and that's a big opportunity as a scout to have an impact."

Thurman is definitely a Yankee guy now, but it hasn't always been that way. As a rookie with the Montreal Expos in 1997 he was introduced to Yankee Stadium in the most un-heartwarming way possible.

"It was Don Mattingly Day and the place was absolutely nuts, it was just chaos," Thurman said. "Everybody was chanting, 'Donnie Baseball! Donnie Baseball!' "

While Mattingly was getting a hero's welcome, Thurman was getting the Big Kazoo as he warmed up for the game.

"While Don Mattingly was riding around the stadium, they were cursing me up and down," Thurman said. The Yankee fans were also urging him to go back to where he came from (Corvallis) with the greatest possible haste.

This experience only deepened Thurman's ill will toward the Bronx Bombers, a feeling he shared with a huge percentage of fans and players.

"I liked the Mariners and Phillies," he said. "I hated the Yankees. I wanted no part of them."

That feeling changed drastically when Thurman became a free agent in 2002. It was a bad year to be a free agent because the market was saturated, and Thurman was coming off a 2001 season in which he had a 9-11 won-lost record and an ERA in the 5.00 range. Thurman could only hang on until he got a good offer, and he finally got one from the team he loved to hate.

"I couldn't pass it up," he said.

Thurman pitched well in his first Yankee outing, a road game in Chicago. His first walk into Yankee Stadium as a player was like a mirage.

"The first guy I saw was Yogi Berra," Thurman said. "He said, 'Way to go, Thurm!' and slapped me on the shoulder. I started opening my eyes to what a class organization the Yankees were."

Thurman deserved a big thrill like that, because he had fought so hard to make it to the Majors. As a senior at Philomath High School he was tall and gangly and could put some spin on the baseball, but his fastball topped out at 79 miles per hour. Scouts were not impressed.

However, while pitching that summer Thurman was noticed by Oregon State University baseball coaches, who were impressed enough to offer to pay for his books if he came to OSU. He was on campus that fall and ready to begin his rise to the Majors.

"I improved all three years I was at OSU," Thurman said. "My velocity got up to 94 and 95. My breaking ball was sharper. I got drafted in the first round by the Montreal Expos. I was competitive but quiet. I didn't show a lot of emotion and that made some people perceive me as not being a competitor. But inside I was determined not to let anyone beat me. There are a lot of kids like that, and people are quick to judge that as a weakness."

Sooner or later, however, the arm of a pitcher wears out, and Thurman's flipper started to fade after he had been with the Yankees for only one season.

"I was struggling," he said. "My velocity was down. I was having trouble getting Triple A players out. I could see the writing on the wall. I was only 30 years old, but I felt 50 when I was out on the mound. As much as I hated to quit as a player, I had to do it. I shut it down on my own terms."

Thurman may have been finished as a player, but he quickly jumped into Phase II of his Big League career. He had made a good impression on Yankees manager Bucky Dent and farm system director Mark Newman. They said, "We would love to keep you on." Thurman soon was pitching coach for the Yankees farm team on Staten Island. He loved it. Plus, the team won its league championship.

"I didn't know I would enjoy it so much," Thurman said. "I was working with kids who were so eager to play, and I had a chance to shape them for years to come."

However, Thurman passed up his chance to continue as a coach because he wanted to move to West Linn and start a family. He couldn't do that if he was away all the time, so he accepted the option of becoming a scout. That keeps him on the road quite enough, and if he is gone too long it doesn't sit well with his 6-year-old son Henry, a kindergartener.

Thurman is now back home in West Linn after being gone almost a month following the San Francisco Giants on their strange and wonderful road to victory in the playoffs. No one was more surprised at the Giants winning the World Series than Thurman, who said, "They just weren't that good."

Soon, Thurman will be back scouting the players who can bring the World Series trophy back to New York, and as a well-seasoned scout he is being counted on to find the right guys.

For the daunting task of finding a future Major League Baseball player, Thurman has some strong views on what he wants to see.

"You can grade the tools," he said. "But it's hard to assess confidence, determination, and the ability to handle failure. The really hard part of scouting is looking at high school kids and telling whether they can take the toll of a minor league season or if they get homesick, even if they have the greatest tools I've ever seen. Very few players make it on talent alone.

"The common denominator for the great players I've seen is do they love baseball? Do they have a passion for it? I remember how guys like Vladimir Guerrero and Pedro Martinez (with the Expos) really loved baseball. Vladimir Guerrero loved to play so much that he was reckless sometimes. He could make the greatest throw you've ever seen or throw it out of a stadium.

"Next, you have to develop an extreme level of confidence in your ability. A lot of good players never got out of A ball because they never achieved this."

The next few years will show just how successful Thurman has been as a scout as the players he has scouted and signed reach the point where they get their shot at the big time.

"I saw a lot of good players," Thurman said. "I've brought in some good quality players, like Zack Vance. Hopefully, they'll end up being Big Leaguers and adding value to our organization."

Meanwhile, Mike Thurman plans to go on accomplishing his life's ambitions.

He said, "I want to be the best scout I can be, and I want to be the best dad I can be."