By Andy McCullough
NEWARK, Del. -- The rarity rests behind a stack of papers on a desk inside a first-floor office at the University of Delaware. Kevin Kerrane rises from his chair to fetch it. He is a few weeks from his 72nd birthday, an English professor with snow-white hair and a matching mustache. Above him looms Clint Eastwood on a poster for Le Bon, La Brute et Le Truand.
He fishes past his iMac and retrieves a first-edition copy of his book, Dollar Sign on the Muscle. Inside is a message inscribed to his mother. More than 30 years ago, Kerrane shadowed the scouts of the Philadelphia Phillies and documented the arcane habits of their profession. He published the book in 1984 and saw it certified as a cult classic in the subsequent decades. In 2002, Sports Illustrated deemed it one of the 100 best sports books ever written, a tome that lionized one generation of scouts and galvanized another.
After it went out of print about 10 years ago, its price on the secondary market hit triple digits. But soon, remarks a visitor to his Memorial Hall office one day last week, the price of this keepsake may plummet. The time to make a quick $100 is now.
"That's a good point!" Kerrane says, eyes glittering with laughter. "This thing is going to drop in value precipitously any minute."
In the first week of November, Baseball Prospectus will release a new edition of the book, complete with an epilogue that explores scouting in 2013. During this past season, Kerrane returned to the scene of his literary achievement. Once again he watched scouts watch players. He absorbed sunshine and wisdom. He wrote of how the landscape has changed, and how it has stayed the same. Now a new generation of readers can experience the stories that influenced so many baseball men.
"It's just one of these books," says Ben Yagoda, Kerrane's colleague in the English department at Delaware, "that doesn't go away."
* * *
Kevin Towers washed out of baseball in 1989, his right arm unable to propel him higher than Triple-A. He latched onto a dual role with the Padres. For half the year, he served as pitching coach for Bruce Bochy's Class-A Spokane Indians.
Even at 27, Towers was comfortable as a coach. It was the other job that felt foreign. San Diego named him an amateur scout, handed him a radar gun and assigned him to Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Adrift in unfamiliar terrain, he asked around for texts to study.
"I don't remember who recommended it to me," Towers said. "But he said, 'Go get 'Dollar Sign on the Muscle.'"
* * *
The wind stings as Kerrane walks the Delaware campus, so he buttons up the oversized denim shirt that serves as his jacket. When he was a freshman in college, he decided on a path of academia and the dream of writing "learned articles that nobody read," he says. He collected a master's degree and doctorate at the University of North Carolina before settling here, his professional home for 47 years.
In 1976, the university convened lectures to celebrate America's bicentennial. As a boy growing up in Wheeling, W. Va., Kerrane ignored the Cincinnati Reds broadcasts and rooted for Bob Feller, Al Rosen and the rest of the Cleveland Indians. He pitched in amateur leagues into his 40s, a reliever with the nickname "Batting Practice." So it made sense when he convened a series called "Baseball in American Life."
One regular spectator was Brandy Davis, a Phillies scout. In a 1971 report on Mike Schmidt, in addition to a dutiful annotation of the player's vast physical talent, Davis noted Schmidt "has good features, good voice, poise; looks like a ballplayer." He often spoke of "the good face," a topic Kerrane would eventually explore at length.
As Kerrane became friends with Davis, and other scouts like him, "I kept thinking 'Why has nobody ever written about this?'" he says. A few years later, an opportunity arose. After the Phillies won the World Series in 1980, they cemented their reputation as the game's foremost talent evaluators. Kerrane wanted to spend a year chronicling their farm system.
Kerrane visited the team's complex in the spring of 1981, studied their scouting reports and visited their tryout camps. He received access that seems almost unfathomable now. As Michael Lewis would do years later with Oakland in Moneyball, Kerrane spent the draft inside the Phillies' war room. But like Lewis, he used the organization as a window into a broader world.
The story was not about the Phillies, Kerrane decided. The story was about something broader, a subject both timeless and untapped.
"The actual process of scouting, the actual process of going out and finding players, at that time, was really still a black box for people," says Kevin Goldstein, Houston's pro scouting coordinator, who wrote a foreword for the newest edition. "I don't think people really understood what they did, or how they did it, or what the gig entailed."
Kerrane expanded his scope to focus on the profession's history, its customs and challenges and hierarchy, and, most of all, its language. He often ceded the stage to these veterans who loathed radar guns and stop-watches, characters like Hugh Alexander, who became a scout after an accident on an oil rig in 1937 stole his left hand, or Howie Haak, the chaw-chewing sage who helped the Pirates land Roberto Clemente. "I gravitated toward the older guys, because they did have good stories," he says.
Several chapters of the book read like an oral history. Kerrane spends an entire chapter translating their slang, taking readers into the world of choked curveballs, dead bodies and the five tools. The scout's vernacular is a panoply of salt, savvy and swearing -- Dick Allen, one said, "had tools runnin' out of his ass."
The book's title derives from this shorthand. The scouts placed a dollar figure on a player to designate how much he was worth on the open market, before the draft altered the landscape. In the spring of 1980, Alexander considered Darryl Strawberry worth $100,000. This was the highest of praise.
"Not every English professor" could thrive in that universe, Yagoda says. "But he's as unpretentious as you can imagine, and can really talk with anybody."
With the scouts center stage, linguistic flair is sprinkled throughout. Take Davis' explanation why "the good face" was not subjective: "It means he impresses you as an athlete -- not a pretty boy. He's not withdrawn. He projects strength, virility, maturity."
Or another's take on the importance of intellect: "I've never seen a dumb guy be a good pitcher. I've seen some illiterate ones, but dumb and illiterate is two different things."
* * *
A few years ago, Royals assistant general manager JJ Picollo wanted to bolster his scouting department's knowledge. So the organization placed a call to the English department at the University of Delaware.
"JJ liked the book so much that he felt it would be good for the scouts to read," said Mike Toomey, a talent evaluator for 30 years and a special assistant to Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore. "Use it as a blueprint for the scouts."
Toomey had known Kerrane since the 1990s, and let Kerrane shadow him for a portion of the new epilogue. Toomey considers it "the best scouting book ever written." When Toomey worked for Montreal in the early 2000s, he bought a copy for a hungry local kid just breaking in with the Expos. In 2009, after Alex Anthopoulos became Toronto's general manager, he called Toomey to thank him for the gift.
* * *
"I don't really know," Kerrane says. "I've probably repressed a lot of it."
The conversation has darkened, but his tone does not waver. In the summer of 1982, Kerrane's wife Sheila suffered a stroke. She spent six weeks in intensive care before dying. The loss devastated the family and delayed the book's publication by a year. Their two daughters were 16 and 14. Their son was 10.
"So I was trying to be a single dad, hold down a teaching job and do this," he says. "But I was far enough along that this was going to happen. I'm not giving it up."
He dedicated the book to her. He cannot recall when, exactly, he found the time to write: "Probably late at night," he suggests. He sparred with his publisher, and even offered to return his advance in order to receive the time he needed. At lunch last week, it is suggested that the structure of the book, which involves healthy chunks of quotes, resulted from the impulse to just let the scouts handle the stories themselves.
"You're quite right!" he says in between bites of linguini and grilled chicken. "I agree."
The extensive quotation still nags at him. He wishes he had utilized his voice to wrangle control of the narrative. He also lacked the budget for extensive travel, and never flew west of the Mississippi or ventured to Latin America. A chapter titled "Arts and Sciences" foretells the "Stats vs. Scouts" debate that still occurs, but Kerrane laments that he only scratched the issue's surface.
As the years rolled on, so did life. Kerrane connected with an administrator at the university, remarried and had two more children. He followed his interests. He co-edited a collection of literary journalism with Yagoda, his English department colleague, and edited another anthology of a playwright named Billy Roche. He taught courses on Irish drama and documentary films. He aided local film festivals and theater productions.
"He's kind of the opposite of the ivory tower stereotype," Yagoda says. "He's just out there, engaged with the world."
Dollar Sign on the Muscle bounced between a few more publishers, and ultimately was taken out of print around 2002, Kerrane says. At times, he worried it would fade away. Eventually he ran out of copies, save for a precious few. When people wrote in to ask where to buy it, he wasn't sure what to say.
But there were a few signs of a revival. In February, his son Patrick recorded an audio version of the book for audible.com. A few weeks later, Kevin received an email from Dave Pease, the vice president at Baseball Prospectus, who was familiar with the book's lore among baseball aficionados.
"It's 2013," Pease says. "It seems like we ought to be able to keep books like this in print."
* * *
When Kevin Towers started, scouts still ranked players by dollar figures. He laughs about a report he filed on Trevor Hoffman: Towers labeled him a backup catcher worth $5,000. "He did a little bit better than $5,000 over his career," he cracked.
Towers misses those days: Staying in La Quinta Inns, choking down coffee with veteran scouts at 6 a.m. to hear them discuss the trade, roaming his territory in search of gems and taking the time to study them. Along the way, he graduated from area scout to Midwest cross-checker to national cross-checker to scouting director to general manager.
He ran the Padres for 15 seasons, and took over the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. At some point, he loaned a friend a copy of "Dollar Sign on the Muscle" and never got it back. "I was kind of pissed," he said, so like so many others, he scoured Amazon and paid more than $100 for an original edition. He displays it prominently on his bookshelf.
"I was like 'I've got to have it,'" he said. "I may never be able to get my hands on it again."
* * *
Wisps of steam rise from a cup of coffee and fade before reaching Kerrane's whiskers. He's spent an hour dining with a stranger, regaling him with stories, much like Davis and Alexander and Haak once entertained him. As he considers the current baseball landscape, he ponders how the San Francisco Giants could place so many dollars on such an untrustworthy collection of muscle.
"Do you believe the contract that [Tim] Lincecum got?" he says about a recent two-year, $35 million extension. "I mean, I don't get it. Why would they give him that kind of money?"
When Kerrane returned to the field this summer, he found himself fascinated by clubs like St. Louis, who currently hold the same reputation as player-development mavens the Phillies held in 1981. The best teams, Kerrane believes, marry analytical metrics with scouting reports. He enjoyed "Moneyball," but disliked its portrayal of scouts like John Poloni and Roger Jongewaard.
In the 2013 epilogue, he cited the drafting of Allen Craig as a particular example of the Cardinals' acumen: The organization saw how his college statistics matched their on-the-ground observations. They made him an eighth-round pick as a college senior in 2006 and watched him blossom into a critical piece of their offense.
"So it seems to me that there has been a shift," he says. "But the old-time guys, they're not studying WAR, VORP, or any of that. They're still looking at what they always used to look at."
When Pease reached out to Kerrane, he found an author thirsting for an opportunity to update his work. His excitement was infectious. "We expect this to be our best-selling, self-published book," Pease says, selling "four figures."
Kerrane says he has no great expectations for the latest re-issue. But he knows one constituency will be happy: Scouts have already requested dozens of copies.
He is inside his Memorial Hall office, a room cramped with books and other evidence of his intellectual wanderlust during his 47 years here. Stacks of DVDs, documentaries like Hoop Dreams and The Fog of War, rest on top of a bookcase with several shelves dedicated to James Joyce. There are plays by David Mamet and Tom Stoppard, and collections of reportage from Pat Jordan and Mike Sager. In one corner there is a framed portrait of the equipment used in the ancient Gaelic sport of hurling.
In January he is planning a theater trip to Europe with Katharine, his wife. "Probably 10 years ago, I would have said 'Oh, well, that's kind of expensive to do,'" Kerrane says.
Then he channels the scouts he spent so many hours chronicling.
"F--k it. I'm 72. Let me enjoy it."
* * *
Andy McCullough covers the New York Yankees for The Star-Ledger. You can follow him on Twitter @McCulloughSL.