When major-league scout Ronnie King (Christian Brothers) evaluated baseball talent, he looked for specific skills. To him, soft hands, quick feet and speed were a must for infielders and that crisp sound of the ball coming off the bat a difference maker for a successful hitter.
But those skills weren’t No. 1 on his must-have list.
According to King “the key to everything in baseball is balance.”
For 41 years, King peered through every backstop and covered every inch of dirt in the Sacramento region scouting for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies.
In 1960, Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown offered King a scouting position. King didn’t answer right away. Then Brown told him “the streetcar only comes by every so often, so if you want to be a scout, you better get on the streetcar now.”
King accepted and became the organization’s Sacramento-area scout.
When the Major League Draft began in 1965, King made an immediate impact in the Sacramento area. He had no problem convincing the Pirates’ brass that the region was a hotbed for talent and the team should hit it hard.
From 1965 to 1973, the Pirates drafted 13 players scouted by King and signed 10 of them. The first player the Pirates drafted was right-handed pitcher Jimmy Nelson (Burbank) in the 31st round of that first draft.
Nelson made the big leagues in 1970 with the Pirates. He played two seasons and had a 6-4 record with a 3.06 ERA in 103 innings.
In 1974, the Pirates wanted King, who became the team’s West Coast Supervisor in 1968, to relocate to the East Coast and become the supervisor for the newly-formed Major League Scouting Bureau. He refused. Instead, he took a scouting job with the Dodgers.
After four years with the Dodgers, King was named their National Cross Checker in 1978. He was one of the Dodgers’ most trusted employees.
“If there was a player I liked, I didn’t have to call the office. I just signed him,” King told The Sacramento Bee in September of 2015.
King continued to draft and sign Sacramento-area players, the most significant one being Steve Sax (Marshall), a ninth-round selection in the 1978 draft. Sax became the National League Rookie of the Year in 1981, a five-time all-star and World Series Champion.
When the Dodgers restructured the organization in 1987, King left. He became National Cross Checker for the Phillies. During his time with the Dodgers, 27 players King suggested were drafted and 19 of them signed.
King was with the Phillies for three years and never had a player drafted from the Sacramento area. He returned to the Pirates in 1991 as Assistant Scouting Director and had no one drafted from the region in the next 11 years.
“That was a struggle,” King recalled. “I used to argue like a son-of-a-bitch with everyone. I kept asking why no one wants to talk about Sacramento and Los Angeles and why we never get anyone from there. All I ever got in return were dumb looks. I’d just walk away and say, ‘Gentlemen, we haven’t been playing too good.”
During his scouting career, King earned World Series championship rings in 1960 and 1971 with the Pirates and 1981 with the Dodgers and three World Series runner-up rings with the Dodgers in 1974, 1977 and 1978.
In addition to Nelson and Sax, he signed future major leaguers Bob Oliver (Highlands, American River), Dave Sax (Marshall, Cosumnes River), R.J. Reynolds (Kennedy, Sacramento City), Greg Sims (Sacramento, Sacramento City), Rich Rodas (Oakmont, Sierra, Sacramento City) and Max Venable (Cordova.)
King said the best power hitters from the Sacramento area were Leron Lee (Grant), Ken Hottman (Elk Grove, Sacramento City), Greg Vaughn (Kennedy, Sacramento City), Bill McNulty (Highlands) and Oliver.
“When they hit a ball, there was a different sound. You could sit in the bleachers down the left-field line and tell all the way down there,” King said. “I bet you if these guys played today at William Land Park people would come out to watch them swing the bat. And, nobody comes out to just watch anyone anymore.”
In addition to the powerful quintet there were a number of other Sacramento-area players that King rated highly. That list included Bruce Edwards (Sacramento), Rudy Rudoni (Sacramento), Jerry Manuel (Cordova) Dusty Baker (Del Campo), Taylor Duncan (Grant), Buck Martinez (Elk Grove, Sacramento City), Wally Westlake (Christian Brothers) and Larry Bowa (McClatchy, Sacramento City.)
One of the most disappointing moments in King’s scouting career was the 1967 draft when Andy Finlay (Burbank) got away.
King, who always maintained Finlay was the best high-school player the Sacramento area has ever produced, was convinced the Dodgers would get him with their first pick.
“I thought we were a cinch to get him,” King said. “His mother loved me and she told Atlanta Braves scout Bill Wight her son was going to sign with the Dodgers and not to bother her anymore.”
However, the Braves and Wight didn’t heed the warning and took Finlay with the 12th overall pick. Missing out on their desired pick, the Dodgers drafted Don Denbow, a third baseman from Southern Methodist, with the 20th selection.
King was a regular at Lodi Dodgers Class-A games in the California League. In 1979, Sacramento Bee columnist Bill Conlin, Doc Oliver and King traveled to Lodi to watch the debut of 18-year-old Mexican southpaw Fernando Valenzuela, who was pitching for the first time on an American diamond.
On arrival, Dodgers scout Mike Brito told King that management wanted him to take care of the kid.
“I don’t know what kind of a job I can do,” King said. “He can’t speak English and I can’t speak Spanish. That ought to work out well.”
After pitching well and earning a 3-1 win with 14 strikeouts, Valenzuela headed immediately to the clubhouse for a cold beverage.
“I’ve never seen anyone drink four beers so fast,” King said. “I don’t know how well the kid will pitch in the future, but he’s already a major-league beer drinker.”
One of King’s favorite stories was about R.J. Reynolds.
Reynolds reached the major leagues despite not playing his junior and senior years in high school or American Legion ball or his first two years in junior college. His goal was to be a guard in the NBA.
When Reynolds finally picked up a bat he was good, very good.
Reynolds was 21 years old when King cornered him in the Hughes Stadium parking lot at Sacramento City College after the Panthers were eliminated from the playoffs in 1980.
Reynolds had just put on an impressive hitting display, collecting five hits. King worked his magic and inked Reynolds for a $15,000 signing bonus.
Before the day was done, King had Reynolds in a car and on the road. The two were on their way to Lodi. He played that night and had three hits.
Reynolds’ five hits in the Panthers’ playoff game and three hits in his professional debut ranked as one of the greatest single-day accomplishments in Sacramento-area history.
The story of Rodas was another King favorite.
King called Rodas “a diamond in the rough” when he signed the left-hander as a free agent out of the Sacramento Night League in 1979.
“I don’t use the word great very often, but Rodas had great breaking stuff, a decent fastball and good command of the strike zone,” King said. “I spent some time with him and found out he kept a book on hitters. When he was in the bullpen, he’d talk to the other pitchers about hitters and all they wanted to talk about was peanuts and beer.
“I knew then he could pitch. I offered him $5,000 dollars and he agreed, but when he signed the contract I gave him $8,000.”
The Dodgers sent Rodas to their rookie club at Lethbridge in the Pioneer League. In 13 starts, he went 12-0 with a 1.12 ERA.
He was incredible,” King said. “However, it was discovered he had an extra rib and had to have it surgically removed and missed the entire 1980 season.”
Rodas returned in 1981 and over his next three minor-league seasons won 44 games. However, while running the bases in a game with Triple-A Albuquerque in 1984, he rounded second base, dove back into the bag and jammed his shoulder. He went on the disabled list on June 6 and didn’t come off until October 1. He was 5-2 when the injury occurred.
“He was never an effective pitcher after that,” King said about his lefty who had a 62-20 record in the minors. “He did get a couple cups of coffee with the Dodgers before he had to call it quits in 1985.”
In 1972, the Pirates selected Tim Jones (Ponderosa) in the fourth round. In 1977, he got a September call-up after posting a 15-6 record and 4.12 ERA with Triple-A Columbus of the International League. The following spring, he was traded to the Montreal Expos and assigned to Triple-A Denver of the American Association.
“Jones had a good arm, but he was squirrely,” King said. “He got upset with the Expos while he was in Denver in 1978, bought a car, drove home and was never seen again.”
King always liked the ability of right-hander Lowell Palmer (Norte Del Rio), who was drafted by the Phillies in 1966, but said that ability was wasted.
“Palmer was a goofy guy with giant hands who had a chance to be really good,” he said. “Without a doubt, had he been serious, he could have been special. He wore sunglasses all the time, even at night. Willie Mays was scared to death of him.”
King said he’d seen some strange occurrences on the ball field.
King was scouting a California League game between San Jose and Modesto. The game was in the seventh inning when home-plate umpire Vinnie Smith, who was known on occasion to throw a knuckleball back to the pitcher, tossed a flutterer back to the San Jose chucker.
“The ball danced and dipped so much the pitcher couldn’t even get a glove on it and the ball hits him directly in the groin area,” King said. “He goes down like a ton of bricks, never gets up and had to be removed from the game. The pitcher was throwing a perfect game at the time.”
One of the proudest moments in King’s career came in 1997, when he was named the West Coast Scout of the Year by Major League Baseball.
“I got to do everything I wanted to do,” King reminisced. “Every time I woke up in the morning, I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Thanks.’ When that happens, you’re pretty lucky.”
King died October 26, 2015 at the age of 87.