published Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Wiedmer: Fitzgerald remains a Tennessee Valley treasure

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Sometimes age has its advantages. Already a 70-year-old scout with the Atlanta Braves in 1990, Lou Fitzgerald was asked to visit the home of Chipper Jones’ grandmother in rural Florida.

“She just wanted to make sure he’d have some supervision in the minors,” he recalled from the lobby of the Garden Plaza retirement home on Wednesday afternoon. “When I left, she told me, ‘I appreciate you telling me that you’ll look after my boy.’”

And with that assurance, Jones saw no need to do anything but sign with the Braves once they’d made him the No. 1 overall pick in that summer’s draft. Even then, Fitzgerald had to convince a few of the Braves’ brass to choose Jones over pitcher Todd Van Poppel, despite Poppel saying he wouldn’t sign with Atlanta.

“Chipper’s going to be in the Hall of Fame once day, Van Poppel never really took off in the majors,” said Fitzgerald, mindful that the fastball pitcher never won more than seven games in a single season, finishing he career with a 40-52 record.

“I’d say that pick turned out OK.”

Enough of the 91-year-old Fitzgerald’s picks turned out OK or far better over the years to earn him a special honor at the 8th annual Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation awards dinner earlier this year in Los Angeles.

At a banquet where Larry King and Bob Uecker shared master of ceremonies duty, where Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and Tom Seaver were also honored, as well as Joe Garagiola, where MLB commissioner Bud Selig and Tommy Lasorda also spoke, Fitzgerald received the “Legends in Scouting Award” for his 57 years of service to professional baseball as a minor league player and manager and major league scout.

“There are no scouts in Cooperstown,” said son Mike Fitzgerald. “I think this award is the closest thing.”

Fitzgerald deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for the way he’s lived his life both in and out of baseball. When his managerial career was over more than 30 years ago, he became head of Cleveland’s Parks and Recreation Department. Only trouble was, the department had almost no money.

But Fitzgerald snooped around and found out that the city could qualify for a $250,000 grant if it could match it. Suddenly the city had its park. Still, it needed money-making events to keep it going.

So Fitzgerald went to California to put in a bid for an 18-under ASA national tournament. When he got there, he ran into his old friend Lasorda.

“Tommy told me he was there to make a speech that night,” he recalled. “I told him why I was there. When Tommy spoke that night, he told them they needed to give a tournament to a great new park in Cleveland, Tenn. When it came up for a vote the next day, we got 110 votes out of the 144 people there. We paid for the park off that one tournament, and it was all because of Tommy Lasorda.”

It wasn’t only because of Lasorda, of course. Fitzgerald had created his own magic with almost everything he touched from his Bradley High School days. An amazing stat: Fitzgerald, his eventual wife Myrtle and son Mike are believed to be the only husband-wife-son trio in state history to all be named the Athlete of the Year at the same high school.

“Mom was probably the best athlete of us all,” said Mike.

But Fitzgerald had the best instincts for picking winners and coaching winners. He once guided the Houston Colt .45s to their first Texas League title in 55 years. He discovered former Boston Red Sox player Bernie Carbo. He talked the Braves into signing Greg Maddux, Jones and Javy Lopez.

Yet his greatest professional accomplishment may have been the impact he had on Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench.

“He was a 19-year-old kid,” said Fitzgerald, “and he was the best catcher I’d ever had at calling signals. But he wasn’t hitting and his father came to bring him home. He said Johnny wasn’t having any fun.”

Fitzgerald convinced Bench’s father to make him stay another 10 days. If things didn’t get better, Johnny could go home.

“All I did was drop his bat a little, to letter high,” Fitzgerald recalled. “Nothing much at all. But it worked. He finished with 25 home runs that year. Then Cincinnati called him up.”

Bench never forgot. When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989 he thanked Fitzgerald, “For helping me get this award.”

Said his minor league manager, “That meant more to me than anything else that’s ever happened to me in baseball.”

A few years from now, when Chipper Jones makes it into the Hall, here’s hoping Fitzgerald will hear such praise again.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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