"Scout's Honor" Interview: Bill Lajoie

BravesCenter's Bill Shanks talked with many baseball executives when researching his new book "Scout's Honor." Here is an interview with former Tigers' GM Bill Lajoie, now a scout for the Boston Red Sox.

SHANKS: You were the GM for how many years?

LAJOIE: About 12.

SHANKS: Let me first ask you about the John Smoltz trade.

LAJOIE: When I visit Detroit I get heat from the writers and I said, "If you think that John Smoltz could be a Cy Young with this ball club you're badly mistaken."

SHANKS: That's the gamble you take with a trade like that and it worked out for the purpose you needed when you made the deal.

LAJOIE: Right. Exactly.

SHANKS: John's stats in AA were very ordinary, right?

LAJOIE: Right.

SHANKS: Did you catch a lot of heat over the years for it and was it accentuated since he was a Detroit kid?

LAJOIE: Well not necessarily. It's just one of those things that has come up from time to time. But it doesn't bother me. It did what I wanted it to do. I don't have any regrets on that at all.

SHANKS: Can you talk about working for John Schuerholz?

LAJOIE: Well I found John to be a very conscience of his employees. He takes great interest in the people that work with him, just like it's a family. There is no problem too big or too small to approach him about. It can be of a personal nature or anything. I found him to be as honest and truthful as anyone I've ever met in baseball.

SHANKS: That can be hard to find in baseball.

LAJOIE: There's no doubt about the fact that John is ‘what you see is what you get.' He's very shrewd and is a very good negotiator; he's also someone you can trust.

SHANKS: Were you his point man on a lot of trades?

LAJOIE: Well there was a time when a lot of things happened that we all participated in. There were other people involved. If it included someone in the system he asked the manager or pitching coach or a minor league coordinator. He doesn't leave any people out in what he does.

SHANKS: And he takes their word pretty good?

LAJOIE: Well I think naturally the people that are asked feel good about being asked. I wouldn't say necessarily that their opinions carry equal weight. I would say that he does keep people happy and he does keep people informed on what's going on.

SHANKS: Is it difficult to let go of pitching prospects?

LAJOIE: The way that I recall we did things was whoever the scouts were that were going through the system such as myself I would just say, "John to get that player you can trade anyone other than these two guys or these three guys." The ones that you are talking about putting in a 2-for-1 are not going to big factors in the future for the Atlanta Braves. So that was my relationship with John as far as recommendations go.

SHANKS: I spoke with Jim Bowden and he said when he spoke with John about deals, John would let him know who was not available and then they'd go from there.

LAJOIE: Right exactly. It doesn't take long to have a discussion with John. He makes things pretty clear.

SHANKS: Did you make recommendations on the Braves minor leaguers?

LAJOIE: That was part of my responsibility to go through the system.

SHANKS: And just make recommendations on the ceilings of certain player?

LAJOIE: Yea. Right. Right.

SHANKS: How critical is that to scout your own players?

LAJOIE: That is no doubt as key as anything not only in acquiring but in who you give up. You must evaluate your players properly. Greg McMichael, do you remember that pitcher? He was just an 11th man on an A or AA team and he had been released. I remember I said, "This guy can do something. I don't know what his problem is, but this guy can pitch." From that point on he went to AAA and then to the major leagues.

SHANKS: We didn't have that happen very often did we.

LAJOIE: Not from then on, no.

SHANKS: What about the makeup issue? When you were scouting players for potential trades, how important was makeup?

LAJOIE: That becomes something that is difficult to come by. Say you're talking to a minor league manager or trainer or somebody…they may say things about players. Let's take the Dodgers. Years ago if any of their employees said any bad word about any of their players, they could be relieved of their duties. You never knew at that time if you were getting a straight answer or not. So much of it comes from what you can gather or what you can hear or maybe you knew a manager who used to have this player and you might ask him about those kinds of things. It is pretty difficult to tell about makeup on the field except for the way a player goes about his business. So there are some players that can have some hidden things that you can't find out. You do the best you can.

SHANKS: And that's hard to put a number on isn't it?

LAJOIE: Yes it is. Yes it is. It is on observation with your eyes and your stomach in what you are observing.

SHANKS: When you were looking at our minor league players I imagine you saw them from a couple of games but you had to talk with other people about their makeup. So you had to mainly had to go in and look at how they performed on the field, correct?

LAJOIE: Right. Right. When I did the system for the Braves I made sure I saw each team at least ten times. So it wasn't just an in and out thing. I would usually go in May and July because July can be a very difficult month for players. It's just traditionally that way. The get kind of tired and they don't have their second wind yet. So you'll see them bad then and you may see them good in May. So you get an overall picture of how they react when they are going good or bad.

SHANKS: The depth that they had when John came on board, that was a pretty good stepping stone for John to continue that depth. One thing I believe gets lost when evaluating minor league systems is the fact that the quality of minor leaguers used in trades to get major leaguers?

LAJOIE: Right. I remember when Paul Snyder was replaced I went to him and told him the reason the Atlanta Braves were having success in the early 90's was because of the people that he had accumulated in the minor leagues through his scouting system at that time. I thought that some of that recognition of Paul was lost when John and Chuck came in.

SHANKS: I'm trying to fix that with this book. Some probably believe this all started when John walked in the door and that's just not true.

LAJOIE: No it isn't. John would probably be as up front about that as anybody. The reason there were some players there also the Braves did not finish very highly so they were in a good drafting position for all of those years. Now when the team started to win of course the draft position switched. Then comes the Roy Clark era where he has made the most of that fact: that they've been near the end of each round. And they still look to come up with players of high caliber. I know Roy has worked very hard on that. Roy being the scout that he is and the evaluator that he is certainly has added to the overall production of that organization.

SHANKS: And the philosophy is in such solid place that they are going to try to find the "right" type of player even if they are drafting 30th or near the end of each round?

LAJOIE: Right.

SHANKS: Did you work with Roy any?

LAJOIE: Oh sure. Roy first of all is a tireless worker. We had a thing he and I let's say we're both going to a tournament. If I'm there before him, he will not let me be there before him the next day. Now this is a thing that's been going on for a while. This happens in Florida where I live, so I can get there but he's taking a plane. If his plane's late, I've got him beat. He has a tremendous ability to evaluate players. Part of this came about when he had more players on the Braves roster than were not drafted all within a two-year period. (Brad) Clontz, (Terrell) Wade, and (Adam) Butler. There were four. I can remember saying to John, "John don't take Roy out of his territory. Don't bring him into the office. He's too good a scout. At least you know we're getting players out of the Carolinas and Virginia" It wasn't that I was against Roy getting a promotion, but I know what happens when you go into that position. You are not totally responsible for the whole country. There are other people involved.

SHANKS: And similar to Paul, he was so much more valuable in the field that if you took him out of the field you were doing a disservice to the organization.

LAJOIE: Yes it does. Roy is doing more now in the field than in the office. He works out of his house.

SHANKS: Roy seems to have a tremendous appreciation for the tradition that is in place.

LAJOIE: Yes. He's a great competitor. He lives and dies for the Atlanta Braves. There's no question about that. That's his life. I have nothing but the respect for Roy Clark as a person and as an employee. I think he's as good as there is today. There are two others the Minnesota scouting director and the Dodgers scouting director. I think the three of them are the top guys in the field. They have the same philosophy.

SHANKS: How important is that consistency to maintain the same philosophy for long-term success? It's easy to win one year, but the key is to win for more than that, right?

LAJOIE: Well it's possibly the most important thing to have a plan and to stick to the plan. With the players aren't in the same places, but you can still look for the same type of players. There were times when I didn't even bother scouting certain states because there weren't players there. But the next year there were so you'd go in there. As far as the type of person or the type of player that you want, naturally you have to keep that always foremost in your mind.

SHANKS: You had a particular type of player that you developed in Detroit, right?

LAJOIE: Yea we basically went with power and pitching. That was our way of doing things. We wanted to get power hitters and power pitchers. It was a smaller park. We were able to do that. The key guys on our clubs were good fastball pitchers and we always hit home runs.

SHANKS: The ability to have good replacement value for your players is also very key, right?

LAJOIE: Teams that aren't able to do that don't have enough players to move, where Atlanta has had players they could move. To take a Millwood away, somebody else pops up and then they sign a Thomson. That comes from the General Manager's ability to replace players at the major league level. That's a different part of it.

SHANKS: John's always had good people around him. How key is that?

LAJOIE: Well I'm a big believer in that. I think that experience here and there to draw on is a must. First of all, an experienced person that has had success, whoever is calling him feels some value in his opinion and that it's not a theory or a guess. It's just like on a major league staff. I think it's very important that you have an ex-manager on that staff, somebody for the manager to be able to converse with in certain situations. I think when you have a system of scouting it is very important that you have an experienced cross-checker or even two to help out the newer men. I just think it's a must that you have experienced people in key positions around you.

SHANKS: I know you had a good relationship with Sparky in Detroit. As you look at John and Bobby, how important has their relationship been to the Braves success?

LAJOIE: Well I think the fact that they respect each other, does not always mean that they agree with each other, means a lot. The fact that I respected Sparky had nothing about us disagreeing on players. I'm sure some of that has gone on in Atlanta. I'm sure they don't agree on everything. Bobby and Sparky were both very strong men and that's part of the reason they've been successful. I'm sure there are times when neither manager wanted to move a player that the GM wanted to move and vice versa. But the point is that you have respect for each other and if the GM wants to do it and the manager doesn't then it still gets done. There's not going to be any noticeable rift or a breakdown in communication.

SHANKS: A lot of times GM's and Managers are not that way.

LAJOIE: Yea one wants to be stronger than another or one wants to be the dominant guy. You can't do that.

SHANKS: Or egos get in the way?

LAJOIE: Exactly.

SHANKS: Bobby and John never seem to allow their egos to get in the way do they?

LAJOIE: No. No. Now they don't. John and I did one thing differently. John is in the clubhouse and on the field a great deal. Now my position…I felt that Sparky was paid to run the team and that was his domain. However, he would come up everyday when we were at home. We would talk before he would go to the clubhouse. On the road he would always call me at 10:30 in the morning and it didn't matter what time zone it was. So that's how we did it. John's more in the clubhouse. He doesn't go in there for any reason except that's the easiest way for him to do it with Bobby. Why I still got my communicating done I kind of stayed away. I found sometimes the players get a little nervous sometimes when the GM goes in the clubhouse, especially when he's got a notebook in his arm.

SHANKS: Can you talk about some of the other deals you were involved in with John?

LAJOIE: Well I do know that we were still in Detroit and I remember him asking about Sid Bream and Franklin Stubbs. I said, ‘Bream is the guy you want." Then when I got him over there I helped him out with Juan Berenguer to start with. Juan could be a closer, but he would be effective for so long and then you'd have to have someone else ready. That's what I remember telling him. Juan saved 16 games and then he hit a wall. I was involved in the McGriff deal you get involved in with the teams you're assigned to. If they're dealing with the teams you're assigned to, then you're more involved.

SHANKS: How in the world did we get McGriff without giving up Klesko?

LAJOIE: I remember there were three players. Donnie Elliott. I had seen him over in Clearwater. When they didn't protect him I wondered what was going on. The kid had a good arm. And then there was another player…Oliva the kid who got killed in a car wreck. He was down here in the Florida State League and I just happened to be at home and watching those teams play. I remember there was one time we had quite a discussion about Odalis Perez and Bruce Chen and who would be on the club. I said, "Well there's no question that Odalis Perez is the better pitcher." There were a lot of people who liked Chen. I remember John said, "Well Bill Odalis is pitching against the Yankees in an exhibition game. Will you go watch him pitch?" I said, "Well my decision will be the same whether he does well or gets bombed. Odalis Perez is the better pitcher."

SHANKS: But the ability to trade the right player, whether it's knowing the kid doesn't have as high a ceiling or if he just doesn't fit in, John has been almost perfect in that regard.

LAJOIE: There were other guys coming along that were behind. Many times today's baseball trades are made because a club is willing to take on salary so the club that is receiving the minor league players may take less talent. That can't be overlooked either. They can't ask you to take on McGriff's salary and ask for your top prospects. John has been able to maneuver the other club into that position where they can take a second tier prospect.

Bill Shanks's new book is Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. It's available online at amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble bookstores. Bill can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com

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