P&C Podcast: From the Field to the Front Office, Tommy McNamara’s Journey from Player to Scout
With nearly three decades of professional scouting under his belt, Tom McNamara can spot the next “big leaguer” in an instant. According to Tom, "The good ones just jump out; it’s like a punch in the mouth." Joe Charles of Alliant Sports & Entertainment hosts a conversation with Tom McNamara, Special Assistant to the GM of the Kansas City Royals, who shares his passion for the sport of baseball, his transition from player to scout, and the crucial elements required to succeed at the highest level of the sport.
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Joe Charles (00:09):
Welcome back to another Alliant podcast. I'm Joe Charles, your host. Today we have a special guest and special friend, Tommy McNamara, who is an assistant general manager of the Kansas City Royals. Tom is a good friend of mine. We actually went to college together, and we're also on the board at Dominican University and we get a chance to catch him from time to time. I'm very excited to talk about the path that you've taken from us graduating together to working for a professional baseball organization. And if you could just share with us a little bit about your journey, how you got here and some of the experiences that would be amazing.
Tommy McNamara (00:58):
Sure. Well, it was a pleasure being a classmate and friend with Joe in college. But I graduated from Dominican College in 1988 and that spring I signed a professional contract to play in the Seattle Mariners Organization. After a year in spring training, I was released and I had to come back and join the real world. So, I went back to school, I taught in high school, I coached in a junior college, Rockland Community College, in Suffern, New York for three years as a substitute. I did all kinds of things, ran my own paint company. It wasn't pretty but a lot of good life experiences. Then I was a Division 1 grad assistant and in the middle of that job at Pace University, I was offered a scouting job with the Seattle Mariners and I took it. And I've been in professional baseball now for 29 years. I started out as an area scout working in the Northeast for the Seattle Mariners, and then I worked as a crosschecker in Florida for the Milwaukee Brewers. Then I did five years of professional scouting, which is the big leagues and the minor leagues and international scouting for San Diego. Then I went back to Milwaukee, and then I became a scouting director for the Seattle Mariners for eight years, and then a special assistant to the GM in Seattle. And now I'm a special assistant to the GM with the Kansas City Royals. This is my third year, so total 29 years.
Joe Charles (02:28):
Wow, that's pretty amazing. I was just thinking about some of the players that played with you in college that got drafted. Some of them are still working in a professional capacity working for major league teams on the team that you played on; seven or eight guys were drafted, right?
Tommy McNamara (02:47):
Yeah, we had six guys sign professional contracts in pro baseball, which is rare, especially back then. Dominican College, now Dominican University was an NAI school. We played at Schaefer Elementary School in Orangeburg, New York, which had no dugouts. We had a bench with a fence in front of it but halfway through our season we'd have 30, 40 scouts at our games. So, that field was like Yankee Stadium for us. Believe it or not, my last year at Dominican was 1988. I'm still on a text chain with about six or eight of my former teammates and we all check in with each other throughout the year. So, we've kept close. Looking back, we made the most of what we had. Best experiences I had there were the practices and the off-season work. My teammates really pushed me. I loved playing, but these guys were really competitive. We were competitive amongst ourselves and that got the best out of my ability and looking back, I appreciate that. I was in the right spot at the right time.
Joe Charles (04:04):
It was amazing watching you guys during that period. I know you guys worked very hard and that's why you guys had tremendous success. So, who were some of the people that influenced your life and your career?
Tommy McNamara (04:16):
Well, I definitely have to start with my older brother, Mike, who was tough on me in any sport, I played one-on-one with him, which looking back was a big time positive. I always wanted to please him and get his approval, which made me work harder. My mom and dad; my mom raised six kids, my dad was my little league coach, my Babe Ruth coach. He's an ex-marine, he was a New York City fireman for 35 years, soI come from a competitive athletic family. And then I would have to say Joe Nigro, the scout that signed me for Seattle in 1988. And then after I was released a couple years later, he kept in touch with me while I was coaching baseball, and he got me an interview for the Seattle Mariners. And I got the job, and we still stay in touch daily to this day. He's a real mentor. And then there was also guys like Bill Lajoie, who was the general manager of the 1984 Detroit Tigers World Series team. Him and I worked together in Milwaukee. I learned a ton from him. He took me under his wing working for guys like Kevin Towers, the GM in San Diego, Jack Zduriencik, who was my boss in Seattle. I could go on and on about the influences, some of the coaches I had growing up. I remember playing in the Atlantic Collegiate League, which was better competition than I faced at Dominican College at the time. Division 1 players from bigger schools, better players, and it was a true test. And I had a coach named Buddy Payne who really taught me how to steal bases and get on base and get the best out of my ability. And he became a scout later on with Pittsburgh, but those were the main influencers on my baseball career.
Joe Charles (06:10):
That's impressive. Now I understand where you get the guts and have to go through it to really appreciate it. So, I totally understand where you're coming from there. If you could be remembered for one thing, what would that look like?
Tommy McNamara (06:26):
I think I got the best out of my ability as a player. One of my regrets is when I was in spring training my second year with Seattle, I had a shoulder injury and instead of letting people know, I'm not a hundred percent, I was hardheaded and I figured, you know what, I'll get through it. And because you have this fear of being released. Back in those days, you didn't want anyone to know you were hurt. Today it's a different world, that's probably one of my regrets. But what I'm remembered for, I would say passion for the game of baseball. I still get a charge out of going to see a high school kid in California, getting on a plane the next day and seeing a college catcher in Illinois. And then two days later jumping on a plane to Santo Domingo to see a 15, 16-year-old shortstop in the Dominican Republic. I still have that burning desire to get to the ballpark wherever it is, whether it's high school, college, minor leagues, big leagues. I always go into the ballpark thinking there's a big leaguer on this field. I learned a long time ago from somebody that I really respected in the scouting business. He told me, when you go see players, don't tell us what they can't do. Tell us what they can do. And that's always stuck with me.
Joe Charles (07:52):
So, I know you've seen many players over the years. I'm sure there are probably guys that you knew from looking at them for 10 minutes that they were going to be the next great thing.
Tommy McNamara (08:04):
Yeah, I remember watching Bryce Harper, I think he was 13, 14 years old at some showcase in California. He walked out of the dugout, and he looked like a major league player, like on a rehab assignment. I remember Manny Machado at Brito High School in Miami, just walking out of the dugout, just the body and the way he moved. I said, “Okay, this guy's a big leaguer.” There are players that come in all different shapes and sizes. Some you see it the first time and you don't have to go back. And then there's others you have to kind of piece together, but the good ones usually jump out and punch you in the mouth.
Joe Charles (08:42):
So, where do you think most of the talent is? I know there are a lot of players that come from Dominican Republic. Are there any hotbeds in the U.S. where there's a lot of talent?
Tommy McNamara (08:53):
Yeah, there are hotbeds and if you looked at the data, there's a certain percentage of big league players that come from California, Florida, Georgia, Texas. But you'd be surprised some of the cold weather areas on how many major league players have come from the Northeast, the Midwest, the Northwest. And also scouting in the Dominican, and Venezuela, and Panama, Columbia and Japan. It is a worldwide sport. The passion for the game in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela is off the charts. I love going there because the people there love baseball and they're so passionate for the game and you're watching thousands of players throughout the year. So, those are probably the most fruitful places for major league players.
Joe Charles (09:51):
You know that seems like every kid's dream, to play baseball and then to continue their career in the sport. How did you go from player to scout? How were you able to make that transition?
Tommy McNamara (10:03):
I guess I was a failed player. I had to get a full-time job and the guy that signed me knew I loved baseball. And I remember I took the New York City police test and the fireman test because I was like, “I got to get a job. I got to get an actual job where I'm getting paid and interviewed.” And I went down to Florida to train with someone for two weeks, and I got the job with Seattle. I think it was just meant to be. When I was in elementary school and high school, I wanted to be a play-by-play announcer because I love listening to talk shows, listening to games. I was a big fan of the Knicks and the Rangers growing up, and the Mets and the Yankees. And I got better and better in college as a player. And then I got a chance to play professional baseball, and then it worked out. I became a scout.
Joe Charles (10:52):
Knowing you the way I do, you could have done a lot of different things. You could have been a great manager, you had a really good understanding of the game, doing some commentary work. You could have gone in a lot of different directions, but I'm happy to see that you're having major success. If you could give advice to your 18-year-old self, what would it be?
Tommy McNamara (11:17):
I think I would've told myself at 18, take your passion for sports on the field into the classroom. I was a soft average student. I'm giving myself a little credit there. Did I apply myself like I should have? Absolutely not. But when I got into college, my last two years’ coaching staff created work study, and then I remember working as a security guard at night and I'd have eight hours and I really didn't have to do much. And I started to do my work, and then I started to get more into school my last two years. I should have taken a lot of my drive in sports into the classroom. It would've led to more opportunities. I would've been a more well-rounded person.
Joe Charles (12:13):
Tommy. So, what advice would you offer to an up-and-coming player, kids that are hoping to go pro?
Tommy McNamara (12:21):
It's funny, I get asked that all the time. There are high school players that you can just see it when you're around them. You get to know the kid, you watch them play, you get to know their family. They're ready for pro ball at a young age. It's unique, it's rare. I think of players like Mike Trout in high school, Edwin Diaz is another one, a high school pitcher that we drafted in Seattle. He was from Puerto Rico and his best friend was Carlos Correa. Those guys, they had this air about them that they were ready and that's what they wanted to do. But, we have a shortstop with Kansas City named Bobby Witt Jr. and he played the same way. The shortstop for the Yankees, Anthony Volpe. I remember seeing him in Panama on a USA 18-under travel team. Same thing, these guys just had a way about them. That's what they wanted to do. They were focused and looking back, the enthusiasm they had for playing is the thing that I saw the most in those guys. And then there's other high school, lots of high school kids that are definitely not ready to sign, which is fine. They have opportunity to play college baseball. College baseball's gotten really big over the last five or six years. So, there's players, and that's something that you have to scout. You have to watch the way the player plays, how he carries himself, you have to get to know them and their families. Some kids, just they're not ready. And the worst thing you can do, and I've done it, is sign a high school player that you're 70% sure that he's ready. He's such a talented player, he'll figure it out and offer the player and the family a really nice signing bonus when you have a little doubt that they might not be ready. And there have been a lot of cases where we passed on certain players that we just felt they need to go to college first. They will be better players and better people by the time they're juniors in college. And we were right on a lot of those guys.
Joe Charles (14:38):
Wow. So, if you sign a high school kid, on average how many years does it take before they're physically and mentally ready to get called up, typically?
Tommy McNamara (14:51):
Depends on the player and the person. I remember in Milwaukee we signed Prince Fielder, Cecil Fielder's son. I look back sometimes after signing Prince out of high school in Florida. He spoiled me a little because I remember taking other hitters, but they weren't on his level. He just was ready from the start, and he performed right out of the gate. And I wish all the players could do that. I mean, it was fun watching his box scores. Back then, we didn't really have iPhones and internet, so you'd wake up and you'd look at the box score and it was loud. Then there's other players where you got to go through the peaks and valleys with them. At a young age where I've told a lot of pitchers, remember Taijuan Walker was with us in Seattle, we signed him out of high school. I remember in the minor leagues. I told him once, “Listen, don't be afraid to get hit. Don't be afraid of the bat.” That's an old school baseball expression, meaning I asked him, I said, “When you were in little league, did you ever fail? When you were in high school did you ever fail?” And his answers were, no and then he got to the minor leagues and he started getting hit for the first time in his life. So, that's a big thing with the younger players. How do they handle failure? And with the college players too, it's the first time he's ever failed in something that he's done really well and really easy, and now he's failing for the first time. We had many talks, and he just had the right makeup to make adjustments and keep improving and learning from his failures. And now he's become a really good major league starting pitcher, but he had to go through that at a younger level, which most of the players do.
Joe Charles (16:43):
Right. He's a player that I definitely enjoyed watching. I'm a big Mets fan. You mentioned Edwin Diaz. There were a few guys that piqued my interest because I've taken this journey. And being a Mets fan, sometimes it can be tough because in the beginning of the season, you're always optimistic we're going to be better than the Yankees and then we end up falling apart like right after the all-star break. That's usually when everything goes downhill. So, you've recruited a lot of big name players. Must be fun.
Tommy McNamara (17:17):
Well, we had our fair share of misses too. And sometimes it's not meant to be with certain players, not all of them succeed. The failure rate is pretty high. That's why you got to spend a lot of time away from home. You have to watch players in the summer and the fall. You have to watch players fail. You have to see them succeed and then you want to see them meet in the middle too. So, you want to see how they handle failure, how they handle success. It's been an interesting journey.
Joe Charles (17:49):
And when you're evaluating talent, it's not always easy to get the right read on every player. There may be a kid that shines at a certain level, but then when the bright lights come on and they're playing against a heavier competition level, how will they perform and how do they bounce back from adversity, which is not always easy.
Tommy McNamara (18:13):
Yeah, I remember the first experience that really shook me up in pro ball as a former player was all my teammates - they weren't all-county, they were all-state - they had dual sports scholarships to other sports, they had resumes of success. Guys coming from big schools, big programs, players drafted high. In the beginning, I remember having a little doubt like, “Wow, am I good enough to play? Am I good enough to compete with these guys?” The speed of the game is faster at each level and in the beginning it's intimidating, but then you make a good play, you hit the ball on the button and you hear the roar of the crowd. And after the game somebody asks you for an autograph and it's like, “I can do this. I'm just as good as these guys.” But you need to have a little success to get things going because it could be intimidating. The high school kids today, going back what you asked before, some of them are so advanced. They're playing all year round, the travel ball, they're more accustomed to what's in store for them with the travel, the good competition, they're playing against the best players throughout the summer and falls. So, when they go to the minor leagues, they're ready. They're more ready than the high school players were 15, 20 years ago.
Joe Charles (19:43):
That's a good point. As you're mentioning that, I was thinking about some of my experiences as a player. I played against many NBA players, a lot of European players, and a lot of those guys go from one gym to the next. I don't think I was that focused. I trained maybe an hour or two a day. But compared to what these guys are doing nowadays, they have individual coaches that work with them. For basketball, for reference, they're shooting, they're ball handling, then they play pickup, they're lifting weights. I had a good friend of mine who I trained with a few times, played for the Knicks, and he was just saying that a lot of the players nowadays, they're doing what they call Pilates workouts. They're stretching instead of lifting weights and things of that nature. So, it's a totally different mindset. It's interesting to see how these players could stack up in comparison to some of the players that were 2000 and later.
Tommy McNamara (20:43):
Absolutely. I'm in Columbia, South Carolina right now watching one of our younger minor league teams, and we have high performance people here, nutritionists, trainers, you name it. Everything's much better today. These facilities in the minor leagues are tremendous and the players are eating better. There's individual strength and conditioning coaches, there's experts in all of these fields. So, a lot of these high school players, sometimes I'm amazed with their parents because the parents have to do so much with the travel ball. It's so different than it used to be to play high school, play summer ball, and now it's an all-year thing. It's business. It goes back to the kids that really love it. They love the practice, they love the travel, they love the extra hard work, they love the competition. The games are usually the best part of the whole experience. But that's what we see in the younger high school players that we like as players and people, their enthusiasm. That's the one thing I try to instill in some of our younger scouts, that enthusiasm about the sport at a young age. At the time I wasn't as experienced as I am now, but you look back sometimes and you're like, “Hey, what did this kid have that I may have missed?” Obviously you have to have talent, but the will and the enthusiasm for what you're doing is huge.
Joe Charles (22:17):
Wow. So, let me ask you a question. What's the process? You identify a potential player. I know you guys start very early with a lot of these kids. You identify a talent, you go see them, you talk to them, you talk to his parents and then what happens from that point on?
Tommy McNamara (22:35):
We have scouts on the ground floor, they're called area scouts. So, they're all assigned certain territories in the United States. So, our Northeast scout covers Maine to Maryland. He'll put a list together, it's called a follow list and he ranks those players. And then we have someone who scouts Virginia and the Carolinas. Then we have somebody that's in charge of Georgia, Tennessee, and then we have three guys in Florida. So, everybody has a certain area, they put their lists together, and then we have crosscheckers and supervisors. Those area scouts on the ground floor, their players get crosschecked by their supervisors. And then the scouting director, the national crosschecker, the special assistant to the GM, like that's what I do, we all go see the top players throughout the country. And then we go into the draft room for two to three weeks, and we put a board together and we rank the players. And it's constant moving and going back to see a guy for multiple looks, using all the information that's available today from the analytics to video to mental skills. And we're out there scouting pure talent and getting to know the makeup of the players. And then we have to prep those players out. And then the draft comes, and you know where you're picking and who you think might go before you. I found myself watching the movie Draft Day on a plane a couple of weeks ago. I must have seen it 20 times. And there's a lot of reality in that movie. Kevin Costner in the room with all the people, and they all have different roles in the organization. And sometimes the person up on top, they know who they want to take. Then you have everybody in that room that could be pulling you in another direction. And my favorite thing about that movie was he took the guy he wanted. It's Hollywood, but there were some things in that movie that really hit home. You put everything you have into going into that draft room with much information, much scouting reports. Then you go in there, it's like being in your living room during Christmas. You just sit there, it's relaxing. You see all the gifts, the trees, set up the board with all the magnets. And it's like being in a clubhouse when you're a player. It's the most comfortable place in the world to be. You're surrounded by baseball people, and you're surrounded by baseball operations people, analytical, you name it. And everybody adds their input, and you try to come together and make the best decision possible. I start scouting probably around January 20th, and now the draft is in July, so it's a long spring. I report to the scouting director and the vice president, and we try to get as many looks on players as we can, with the weather and matchups and spend a lot of time in airports.
Joe Charles (25:51):
Wow. So, do you have any downtime? Sounds like you're working pretty much all year.
Tommy McNamara (25:58):
Yeah, Thanksgiving and Christmas, that's pretty much it. But I think I'm trying to get a little smarter as I get older where it's good to get home. You really appreciate home when you're out traveling all the time. You want to get back to your family and your friends and it just feels good to sleep in your own bed.
Joe Charles (26:18):
Yeah. It has to be tough. Tough, tough business.
Tommy McNamara (26:22):
Yeah, but you know what? It's not for everybody, but I've been really lucky, 29 years. If somebody told me that I'd be in professional baseball for 29 years, I would've jumped at it. But it goes by fast. There's ups and downs, just like there is with every other job out there. But the highs are really high, and the lows are pretty low. And when your team is winning, it's the best. And when you're losing, you wear it. It's tough because you're working together as a group and you're trying your best to make your organization better. And it's tough. It's tough when you don't win.
Joe Charles (27:01):
Absolutely. Wow, this is great. I just had one or two more things I wanted to ask you. What is the best compliment you've ever received?
Tommy McNamara (27:09):
Man, I had to think about that. For most of my life, I believe I've gotten a lot of compliments, but I heard them, I didn't listen to them, and I never just took the time to just really appreciate them. I just kept moving, kept working. But I remember I was in Seattle, and I was walking through the runway, and we were playing the Chicago Cubs and Theo Epstein was the president of the Chicago Cubs at the time. And he stopped me, and he said, “Hey, congratulations.” And I looked at him like, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You and your staff have seven homegrown players in the lineup tonight against us in the major leagues.” I'll never forget that. And I said, “Oh, that's pretty good leadership to go out and give a compliment to someone when you least expect it.” And coming from someone like him, it meant a lot. I remember my college coach told me once, “Hey, look, you're not a power hitter. There's not going to be big stories about you in the paper as a player, but you're the oil that makes the machine go here. You're a table setter. You get on base and the other guy knocks you in. They get all the credit. But without you, we wouldn't be where we were at the time.” That meant a lot to me. I think I remember somebody that worked under me about ten years ago reached out to me and sent me a text and he said, “Hey, listen, I just wanted to thank you for all the times that you read my emails and my texts, and either responded by saying, good job, nice work or thanks for taking care of this.” He said, that's something that meant a lot to me. And if I ever become a department head, I'm going to use that. A little thing like that you don't even realize you're doing it, but that means a lot as you get older.
Joe Charles (29:05):
Tommy, I really appreciate you joining me on this podcast. It's been great catching up. Anything that I can do for you, I'm here and thank you and we'll speak soon.
Tommy McNamara (29:18):
Sounds good, Joe. Thanks for having me. Thanks everybody.
Joe Charles (29:22):
For more information, join us at Alliant Sports & Entertainment and have a great day. Thank you so much.
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