A Whole New Ball Game

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CATEGORY: Alumni
TYPE: Articles

Magazine Cover
Published in Macalester Today

BY ERIN PETERSON
PHOTOS BY DAVID J. TURNER

In Major League Baseball, it’s the players who draw the cheers. But behind the scenes, these four Macalester alumni are helping make America’s pastime even better.

Josh Ortiz ’05

Community programs manager, Minnesota Twins

For Twins fans, Joe Mauer is the hometown hero with the sweet swing and enviable sideburns. For community programs manager Josh Ortiz ’05, Mauer is the guy who lights up the room at the local children’s hospital, joking with kids eager for a light moment. Before he departed for the Pirates, Justin Morneau was more than just a homer-slugging first baseman: he was the guy who made time to visit the nearby homeless shelter with an armful of Twins souvenirs and tickets to give away. “In my job, I get to see that so many of the players are more than just great athletes,” he says. “They’re great people.”

Josh Ortiz ’05 at Target Field, home of the Minnesota TwinsWorking in community programs for the Twins wasn’t an obvious career step for Ortiz, who double majored in neuroscience and psychology at Macalester while playing first base for the Scots. But even as he dug into schizophrenia research at the University of Minnesota after graduation, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had to give a career in professional baseball a shot. He applied for—and landed—an internship with the Twins’ ticket sales department and soon moved into community programs.

These days, in addition to his myriad duties working with player volunteer projects, he oversees the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. The program, which introduces baseball and softball to disadvantaged kids in the Twin Cities, represents one of Ortiz’s biggest accomplishments: In the last decade, RBI has grown by nearly 20 percent and has nearly 6,000 participants annually. Even better, he says, the program allows him to seamlessly combine the things that he loves most—community support and baseball.

Along the way he’s come to appreciate how the work of professional baseball goes far beyond the nine-inning game he grew up watching. “When I was first looking at jobs in baseball, I assumed that the only jobs worth having were in player acquisition, trades, and scouting,” he says. “But there’s so much more, and so many ways for people to combine their passions with baseball.”

Andrew Percival ’06
Andrew Percival ’06, who once played third base for the Scots, now scouts for the Seattle Mariners.Video advance scouting coordinator, Seattle Mariners

When Andrew Percival ’06 was playing third base at Macalester, he remembers spending plenty of afternoons sitting around the lunch table listening to fellow players from far-flung states proclaiming that they came from a baseball hotbed. “Everybody was saying that baseball was great where they were, but I thought: ‘It can’t be great everywhere. There’s got to be some relative relationships here.’ ”

Instead of just expressing skepticism, he decided to prove it. With the help of knowledge he’d gained as a geography major, he built an Excel database packed with data about major league players, including what part of the country they’d come from. He crunched the numbers to prove his intuition right: there actually were places that produced more pro players. “It gave me objective data I could show to those guys to say, ‘The state of Washington [Percival’s home state] is better at baseball than the state of Maryland,” he says.

But bragging rights were only the beginning: when Percival began looking for a job after graduation, he sent his resume and the data he’d collected and parsed to all 30 big-league teams. The Mariners, impressed, hired him.

Now the video advance scouting coordinator for the Seattle club, he uses his data-mining skills to study and understand the patterns of Mariners rival teams. He passes these tidbits on to the players and coaching staff, and a few times each game, he says, he’ll see that knowledge put into action—a pitcher, for example, might throw an unexpected pitch because of a quirk that Percival has identified in an opposing batter.

All in all, he says, the data he collects can give the Mariners an advantage that might result in a couple of extra wins each season. Though that might seem like a minor edge—it’s not going to make a bad team good, or even average—a game or two can mean everything in a playoff race. “I’m small cog in a very big machine,” he admits. “But when the stakes are so high, teams are doing everything they possibly can to win.”

Tom Gillespie ’00 (in Uganda) also founded the nonprofit Play Global!, which teaches baseball to coaches and youth in developing countries.Tom Gillespie ’00
Scout, Pittsburgh Pirates

When baseball scouts evaluate young athletes for their potential to make it to the big leagues, they often refer to the player’s “five tools”: hitting for average, hitting for power, base-running speed, throwing ability, and fielding skills.

But Tom Gillespie ’00, a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, knows that there’s a sixth tool that may be a better predictor of success than any other: drive. It’s the most critical skill to hone during a player’s long, slow grind in the minor leagues, where the constant pressure turns some players to diamonds, others to dust. “Is the athlete going to the field early to get in some extra work when he’s playing 140 games in Boise, Idaho, for a few hundred bucks a month? Or is he thinking about the end of the season when there’s still six weeks to go? You’ve got to find out if they’re internally motivated,” he says.

In his first full year as a Pirates scout (the former Mac pitcher has had a range of other baseball-related roles as well), Gillespie has crisscrossed Europe and Africa to find the teenage phenoms who might just make it to The Show. During the season, he spends much of his time traveling and watching practices and games, following up frequently with promising players. So far, he says, he’s signed one French player to a minor league contract, with more on the horizon.

He admits it’s not easy to track down the most promising players, even with two continents worth of athletes to study. Unlike in the Americas, baseball is a bit of an oddity in Europe and Africa. That said, his Macalester international experience often gives him an edge as he scouts for talent. “Having a global perspective is so important,” he points out. “I may be talking to a 16-year-old kid who’s speaking English as a second or third language. I’m working with kids who come from vastly different places financially, socially, and culturally, and I need to understand that a kid from the Ukraine has different wants and needs than a kid from Uganda. So much of this job is about having understanding and compassion.”

Rob Engel ’10Rob Engel ’10 shown at MLB.com headquarters in New York.
Software engineer, MLB.com

There may be no sports fans more ravenous for data than those who follow baseball. Every pitch, every swing, every fly ball gets tracked, categorized, sliced, and diced to help baseball fans understand the game in a more nuanced way.

As a software engineer for MLB.com, it’s the job of Rob Engel ’10 to give people what they want in less time than it takes to say, “Play ball.”

With the help of sophisticated cameras that can record the break and velocity of a pitched ball and a cadre of stringers who manually type in what happens on every pitch and play during every game, Engel’s work helps tie together these disparate pieces of data into a neat package. That, in turn, gives those who have MLB’s GameDay apps a vast trove of elegantly displayed information as quickly as possible. “We want that information to be delivered almost instantaneously after the event occurs,” he says. “Our top priority is to make everything faster.”

To that end, Engel and his colleagues are currently working on an update to see if they can shave fractions of a second from the process by having stringers use a text-based language (a home run to left field might be HR/7/L) rather than clicking on “home run” and then clicking on a specific spot on a computer screen to show where the ball went. If a fan with a phone gets that information before the home run cheer begins to die down at the stadium, Engel’s done his job well.

For Engel, the job has been rewarding not only because it allows him to combine his passions for computer science and baseball—he played catcher, pitcher, and first base at Macalester—but because it has allowed him to understand more deeply a game he’s loved his whole life. “My job is essentially to write software rules for baseball, but you can play baseball your whole life and still see something you’ve never seen before and not know exactly what the rule is,” he says. “It’s helped me learn things I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’m so happy to have the opportunity to do this.”

Erin Peterson, who lives in Minneapolis, is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.

PUBLISHED: 01/31/2014