It's a cold winter's day about 50 years ago. The phone rings a few times at Jim Walton's farm house near Shattuck.
Walton had recently finished his second season as a minor league manager for the Houston Colt .45s' beginning-level team, the Moultrie (Ga.) Colt .22s.
The club's farm director, Tal Smith, was calling. There was an opening for a scouting position in Oklahoma. Walton took it.
Roll life forward a half-century.
It's early spring, but 39 degrees and misting at L. Dale Mitchell Park on the University of Oklahoma campus. The grounds crew is chalking the batter's box as the Sooners get ready to take on Texas Christian University. Walton, 77, a Major League Scouting Bureau area scout for Oklahoma and Texas, sets his radar gun case down.
Walton begins visiting with others in a covey of pro baseball scouts.
The vast majority of scouts know him.
Coaches, players and even fans know Walton.
They may not know his name, but they recognize the lanky scout with the white hair flowing from under his cowboy hat. Walton's that guy who is always wearing boots and jeans and closely resembles a cattle buyer.
Big league coach
They may not know that 40 years ago, he began a three-year major league stint as an infield coach for the Milwaukee Brewers. Or that he's been with the MLB Scouting Bureau since 1976 and that a few years back he was among four scouts recognized with Scout of the Year awards at the baseball winter meetings.
But those such as longtime scout Steve Taylor of the Miami Marlins said most everyone knows that Walton has an extremely good idea what he's looking for.
“When you pull up to a ballpark and you see his big old Cadillac, you know you're at the right park,” said Taylor, of Shawnee. “The real guys have that nose and know where the talent is. They know where to go.”
When his work is done, Walton will make his way back to the long silver Cadillac. Visible through the rear window is the clothes rack across the back seat.
In Oklahoma, the land of four seasons of weather in one week, Walton says he doesn't put the “big coat” away until about July.
“You know in Oklahoma, it can be 70 degrees when the game starts and all of a sudden it's 42,” he said. “You better be ready.”
And he is ready, regardless.
Walton has scouted in stadiums with towering seating levels and he's gone to rickety old ballparks with only chicken wire separating fans from the field.
He's ready for rainouts, games moved from one location to another, changes in the pitching rotation or whatever else baseball throws at him.
“It's not an 8-to-5-time-frame job,” he said. “It's whatever it takes.”
Although his mail has gone to P.O. Box 787 in Shattuck for many years, Walton can much more easily be found going down the road in that Cadillac. Actually, he's got five Cadillacs and four have at least 300,000 miles on them, he said. The oldest is the 1978 Eldorado.
40,000 miles a year
His current ride has 108,000 miles to its credit. That's somewhat of a rookie by Walton's standards. Take into account he rolls up about 40,000 miles a year scouting in Oklahoma and Texas.
“There's only one person in those cars, so you don't wear the inside out,” he said with a deep laugh. For Walton, the new never wears off.
Kevin James, baseball coach at Yukon High School, remembers when he met Walton several years ago in western Oklahoma. James was the coach at Sayre High School, which was hosting a tournament that included teams with a few pro prospects.
A thin man with a cowboy hat walked up to the coach, who happened to be near the gate. Walton introduced himself and James said, “If you're a scout, you don't need to pay.”
“Jim told me, ‘Son if Major League Baseball can't afford $5, they're in trouble,'” James said. “Jim is just a class guy and it's great to listen to him and hear his thoughts. And he hasn't aged a bit; he looks like he did the day I met him.”
Larry Turner, baseball coach at Owasso High School, said, “One of the qualities I always liked about Jim is he always made you feel important. He didn't try to big league you. He wants to talk and he's always real complimentary of our kids. He's just a good man.”
Turner said when college coaches call and ask about a player, you don't want to mislead them. So, he might get a second opinion from someone such as Walton.
“I would talk to Jim and say, ‘What do you think, off the record between us?' and he's just always been candid with me,” Turner said. “I value anything Jim has to offer.”
Walton compares what he does to stock market speculation. He looks at the present ability of a player and tries to anticipate that individual's future in the game.
“There's a lot of watching, but do we watch the right things?” Walton said. “Have they been conditioned to look for the skill areas a player must have to advance in the game? And then in the end the game will tell you where you belong, not the scout.
“The scout may identify your skills, but then you have to go play and see if you can advance through the speed levels of the game which today are A, Double A, Triple A and the big leagues.”
Each year, for decades, Walton has gone out and gotten in one Cadillac or another and driven off in search of the player with those skills.
He and wife Nancy have been married 51 years, meeting while he was a baseball player in Florida. A small sign hangs on a wall at their house, “Goodbye dear, baseball season is here.”
“She's gone through it from dragging around in the minor leagues to dragging around while I was a minor league manager and a major league coach,” he said. “We've gone through a lot of things together, but it's been good.”
Walton has heard it said many times that for those who love baseball, the child within never grows up. Recently on a cold day in Shattuck, he was asked if that's still true of him.
He quickly replied, “Oh yeah, I'd run out here and play baseball in this snow today if I could.”