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Published: Sunday, 9/27/2009

Baseball bum: It suits him

Behind home plate you will find 'Whitey' Hafner, notebook open, jotting notes about players. Behind home plate you will find 'Whitey' Hafner, notebook open, jotting notes about players.
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In Their Words is a feature in Sunday's Blade Sports section. Blade sports writer John Wagner talked with Ron "Whitey" Hafner, a Toledo native who played minor-league baseball before becoming a scout.

If you've ever been to an important amateur baseball game, you've seen his face.

He's usually behind home plate, sitting with his notebook at the ready and his Mariners cap on his head.

But Ron "Whitey" Hafner isn't rooting for any particular team. Hafner is a longtime Seattle scout who is looking for baseball players.

Hafner played baseball at the former Macomber High School, where he graduated in 1955. Soon after he began a minor league baseball career that included stints with minor league teams associated with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Kansas City Athletics and the Chicago White Sox.

But after his career ended, Hafner began a second career in scouting. One of the players Hafner first spotted was Denny Stark, a pitcher from Edgerton who later pitched at the University of Toledo. Stark eventually was drafted by the Mariners in the fourth round of the 1996 draft and pitched in the big leagues with Seattle and later Colorado.

Hafner is single and lives in Holland.

"WHEN I graduated from high school, I was 135 pounds - too small to play pro ball. But from June of 1955 until the fall I did construction work, and I gained 35 pounds. A friend of mine, Mike Bralich - he won a couple of minor league batting championships - came from Lorain to Toledo to play for Jim White [a local fed team]. I could tell he knew what he was talking about, so I hung around him. He told me that if I wanted to play pro ball, I would have to catch - and gain some weight. So I went on a 'diet' of a couple of beers a day and fried foods.

"We were playing at Ottawa Park one day that summer, and there was a guy on second base when the batter hit a ball to right field. The right fielder threw the ball to me at the plate, and as I tagged the runner I got ready to throw to second base. Well, as I turned, the runner ran into me and separated my shoulder. I was supposed to go work out for the Tigers the next day, so I had to call the scout, Pat Mullen, and tell him that I couldn't because I couldn't throw.

"I went to a chiropractor on Prouty Street who took care of all the athletes in the city. He took care of me, and he told me not to throw the ball until the spring, and I would be OK. I went to him three times a week starting in July, and about the time of the World Series, I got itchy and wanted to throw. I went to the back yard - and I couldn't throw. I went back into the house and I cried. My dad said, 'That's OK, son, you can be an electrician.' I told him, 'I don't want to be an electrician - I want to be a ball player.' But I kept going to the doctor, and when February came I got itchy again. I did some running, swung the bat, and then started throwing the ball. And I could throw again.

"The Tigers and Phillies offered me a chance to go to spring training without a contract - at that time, you could do that. As I thought about it, the Phillies were the worst team in baseball, so I thought they were my best chance to get to the big leagues. So I went to the Phillies camp, but they didn't have a job for me. So I went to the Kansas City A's, and they offered me a contract for $325 a month."

"ONE OF MY best memories came in 1961, when I was sent to Lincoln, Neb. They only had one catcher on that team, and my first night in town we were trailing 6-3 in the eighth. Our right fielder was ejected, and the manager sent me out there. In the bottom of the ninth inning we rally, and the bases are loaded with two outs - and I'm up. The first pitch was right at my head - knocked me down. The next pitch I hit a drive off the right-field wall for a double that drives in all three runs to tie the game. The next guy hits a bloop over the second baseman for a single, and I score the winning run. My first day in town!

"My second day, I'm going to catch my first game there. I threw out Tommy Harper twice in that game, and Harper could really run. So the manager put me in again the next day, and Harper stole four bases. Then someone got hurt in Clinton, Iowa, and I went there and hit .310. After that I roamed around to every minor-league team as a backup catcher. ... I played in a lot of places … Pensacola, Fla., and Sarasota, Fla., and Visalia, Calif.

"The next year, they released me in spring training. I called up Roy Hartsfield, who later was the first manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, and I called up Buddy Kerr, who was with the Giants at that time. They both told me, 'What do you want to be, a baseball bum?' I said, 'Yeah. I want to be a baseball player for the rest of my life.' So I came home, and for about a month I would go to Scott Park where I'd practice throwing. But nobody called, so it looked as if I was going to be an electrician.

"WHEN I wasn't playing, I would go to a lot of games. I would think, 'I could help this kid or that kid.' One day, a scout for the Mariners, Ken Madeja, talked to me. He said, 'Instead of you giving this information to all the other scouts, how about I pay you $250 to give the information to me and no one else?' So I did, and the next year they gave me an expense account: meals, and traveling expenses. Now it's 20 years later, and I'm still doing it. They'll call me if they want to know about some player I've seen in Triple-A, or if I've seen certain guys in this area.

"I see about 200-250 games a year, from the last week of February to October, high school and college. I only stay the first three innings or so. I'm looking for the fastest kids, the kids with the strongest arm.

"Remember Denny Stark? A guy called me up and asked me about him once. I went out to watch him at Edgerton High School, and he turns about to be about 5-8, 130 pounds. If I had recommended this kid, they would have fired me. He was throwing 75 or 80 miles an hour, but he had a curveball that was good enough to strike out 10 or 12 guys a game. He goes to UT, and by his junior year he was throwing almost 90. I told my bosses that this guy kept going uphill every year, so we drafted him. You never can tell what someone is going to turn into, can you?"

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