Tue, 02 Mar 2021

Curveball

Carolina Panthers
20 Jan 2021, 04:44 GMT+10

When longtime baseball scout Alvin Rittman would sign a prospect to his first professional contract, he'd make sure to get a souvenir, just in case that guy overcame the odds and made it to The Show.

He never imagined that he'd dig through his garage one day, and find a ball signed by an NFL general manager.

Before new Panthers GM Scott Fitterer started his climb through the ranks of football scouts, he was the one being scouted - a pitching prospect whose dreams of the major leagues were halted by shoulder problems early in the process.

"It's been a long time, so I can't tell you in great detail about a particular inning or a particular game," then-Blue Jays area scout Rittman, now a scout for the Pirates, said. "But I can tell you this - when you saw Scott Fitterer pitch, you could tell he was one of those guys, he enjoyed being in that moment. He's a guy who loved to compete."

Those kinds of intangible memories outweigh the stats on the back of the baseball card (of which there actually is one, even if it doesn't show all that much).

Fitterer pitched in just 44 games in his short minor league career as a relief pitcher, a total of 52.2 innings. He struck out 41, walked 21, and collected 14 saves.

Talking to those who watched him pitch, however, and there was a clear sense of what-might-have-been.

"There's no doubt, he had a real chance to get to the major leagues," said Arizona Diamondbacks special assistant to the GM Tim Wilken, who was the Blue Jays national scout then, and is a member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame. "He absolutely had a chance to make it."

That seems to be the consensus about Fitterer's career as an athlete: unlimited potential, and the kind of success that rises to meet the natural athletes.

Former Panthers great Dan Morgan vouches for mentor and friend Scott Fitterer Jordan and Jake Recap: A new GM Scott Fitterer offers varied experience, with a track record of success

EARLY DAYS

Growing up outside Seattle, Fitterer was pretty much a jock.

"Yeah, . . . we always hear all about that," Seahawks GM John Schneider said with a laugh last week. You could almost hear the eye-roll across the country through a phone connection, as Schneider rattled off the accomplishments which Fitterer had clearly mentioned a time or two.

But in all seriousness, it was easy for Schneider to go straight from Fitterer's football qualifications to his athletic background because his friend and co-worker was so accomplished.

Fitterer was a three-sport star in high schools, plural. He began at Kennedy High, a private Catholic school near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Started as a freshman at safety. A move sent him to Kentwood (a larger public school) for a year and a half, and he quarterbacked the Conquerors to a state championship game appearance, setting school passing records. After leading them to the state quarterfinals the following year, he transferred back to Kennedy, and hit .459 for the baseball team his final season. He scored over 1,000 career points in basketball, and probably would have been a high pick in the baseball draft as a high school senior, but for a stated desire to play in college. During his senior football season, a thumb injury dampened his stats, but it was clear he was a big-time prospect.

Even if it wasn't clear where, or at what.

ON THE MOVE

He began at UCLA with a plan to play football and baseball, beginning with just football as a freshman. He never gained any traction there, and when the coach who recruited him left, he transferred.

And he didn't go just anywhere.

In the mid-1990s, LSU was college baseball royalty, winning five College World Series titles in a 10-year span.

They fell short in 1995, but Fitterer pitched in 24 games as a closer, with a 5-3 record and five saves. In 50 innings pitched, he struck out 48 and walked just 10 for a team that went 48-17.

It wasn't a large sample size, but it was plenty to attract the pro scouts' attention again.

Rittman recalled thinking that Fitterer was clearly an unfinished product, the kind of natural thrower of the ball who would only get better with time and work (and concentrating on one sport).

"You could tell, just by the way his arm worked at LSU, that he could be a good pitcher," Rittman said. "But he was built at the time like a football player, and he didn't have a lot of freedom in his arm because of the football weight. The thought was that we could lengthen him out, loosen up the delivery, and get a lot more out of the fastball."

It's not like it was a bad fastball, either.

Wilken provided a copy of the Blue Jays' 1995 scouting report on Fitterer, an archaeological artifact that shows what they thought at the time they took him in the 22nd round.

Even though it's only 26 years old, the report has an ancient-manuscript quality to it - a Rosetta Stone spit out of a dot-matrix printer. The fact Wilken found a copy of it in his files (along with Rittman's autographed ball) also proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that baseball scouts are incredible hoarders.

At the time, the Blue Jays had a different numbering system than most major league teams (who generally assigned grades from 20 to 80, with higher numbers indicating better prospects). In Toronto's system, a 10 was "outstanding" a 70 was "poor" and 40 was "average."

Their report showed present values and potential, where they thought Fitterer could get to. His fastball was a solid 40, with the idea that it could get to a 37. The numbers were a little lower for his control and change of pace, but the general sense was that he'd get to a place where he'd have a good fastball and slider.

It also included a breakdown of his physical build, noting that he was "strong and somewhat barrel chested," and that he had "fairly long length arms" and was "somewhat bow legged."

"Chance to be at least a set-up relief guy," the summary section of the scouting report began. "Could have semi-power type stuff," it added, closing that section with, "Competes well and makes needed pitches."

After Rittman watched Fitterer a number of times in college, Wilken checked him out during a tournament at the Louisiana Superdome and came away thinking he had what it took to make it, based largely on qualities beyond the tangible or physical.

"Everything was a little bit of a projection because he was so raw to baseball," Wilken said. "But he was also a textbook thrower, did it easy, fastball in the 89-to-94 (mph) range, a really good slider. Easy delivery, the kind that makes you think there's more in the tank.

"But you could see he was an athlete on the mound. It fit him."

WELCOME TO THE PROS

At the time, being a converted football player wasn't a novelty in the Blue Jays system.

Then-GM Pat Gillick had a thing for two-sport players, with the idea that athletic potential could be focused and refined, allowing them to buy low on undervalued commodities.

Former Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke remembers crossing paths with Fitterer during spring training in the mid-90s. Weinke was playing in Triple-A at the time, so they were never teammates.

Weinke also recalled that when he finished out his NFL career with the 49ers, former Blue Jays prospect Scot McCloughan was San Francisco's vice president of player personnel, about to ascend into the GM job the following year. The Blue Jays drafted McCloughan in the 10th round in 1992, after his baseball career at Wichita State.

"The only thing I'm better at than finding baseball players is finding NFL general managers," Wilken joked.

Fitterer signed and played at short-season St. Catharines in the New York-Penn League in 1995. The following year was mostly spent at High-A Dunedin in the Florida State League, where he played for longtime coach and manager Dennis Holmberg.

The 69-year-old Holmberg apologized at first for a lack of detail, but it was 25 years ago for a relief pitcher who only played for him one year.

Still, there was something about the kid that stuck in his memory. Holmberg said that in 42 years of baseball, the guys who stood out were usually either the stars or the problem cases. Fitterer was neither.

"I do know that Scott was a well-balanced player, both in terms of attitude and aptitudes," Holmberg said. "I know you look at the stats now, and they aren't indicative of the kind of player he was, and a lot of that was because of the injuries.

"But I'm not surprised that he found his position because he was a good teammate and a good worker. We're trying to develop baseball players, but you're also trying to develop them as human beings, with the kinds of life skills to go onto something else if that's not their path."

Clearly, the Major Leagues were not Fitterer's path. The shoulder problems that ended his baseball career after the 1996 season sent him back to another one of his sports.

By 1998, he began as a scouting intern with the New York Giants, starting the long road back in football that would lead him to the Panthers' GM job today.

And the interesting thing as he begins the journey is how similar the scouting reports on him are, from his days as a young baseball player to a middle-aged football executive.

"He was always composed on the mound," Rittman, the old baseball scout, said of the kid pitcher. "There was such a calmness about him."

"His leadership style is similar to Tony Dungy," Schneider, his last boss in Seattle, said of the college scout-turned executive. "He's unflappable. Very even-keeled."

Those are the qualities that should serve him well in his new job - which once again, is all about making the right pitches at the right times, and being able to close the deal.

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