Illinois State art professor moonlights as major league baseball scout
Michael Wille looked like the half dozen other scouts who were gathered in the stands behind home plate on a cold and wet Thursday afternoon at Duffy Bass Field for the Missouri Valley Conference baseball tournament. He had a well-worn tournament guide filled with statistics at the ready, a stopwatch around his neck, and a radar gun in his hand.
Like the others, some of whom are former minor leaguers or college coaches, Wille has a baseball background. He played outfield for Millikin University. But he was likely the only professional abstract painter and was definitely the only Illinois State University art professor in the bunch.
“I have always had an ability to wear a lot of different hats,” said Wille, a 37-year-old Pontiac native who is married and has three young children. “I think it’s about being in the moment.”
Every spring as the school year comes to an end, Wille begins attending dozens of high school, college, and showcase baseball games throughout Central Illinois and points beyond as an associate scout for the Baltimore Orioles. He operates like a second set of eyes for Bob Szymkowski, the Orioles’ full-time area scout for the upper Midwest.
Wille sometimes matches up scouting trips with visits to art galleries, but the ties between his passions run deeper. Scouting, like art and teaching, allows him to investigate the crevices of a world that many people don’t even know about.
“I’m doing it because I love paying attention,” he said.
The other day he noticed how a hot pitching prospect for Indiana State University walked on the balls of his feet as he climbed the stairs at Duffy Bass Field. “Awesome athleticism,” Wille said.
Wille has honed his eye for detail the last 10 seasons as an understudy to Szymkowski, who has been a scout for several teams since the 1980s. As Wille’s eye for talent has sharpened, he has come to a sobering conclusion about his own playing career.
“Now that I know baseball in a much more intimate way, I know that I was terrible,” Wille said. “I thought I was fast. But I realize now I wasn’t.”
Wille knows fast now by his stopwatch, which he uses to measure the time it takes a hitter to run from home to first base (4.2–4.3 seconds is average for a major leaguer) or to clock a catcher’s pop time, i.e., the time he takes to throw to second base on a steal attempt (2.0 seconds is the major league average).
This focus on the details of the game makes the score rather irrelevant. All that matters is tracking players with major league potential.
“(Szymkowski) essentially got me to rethink the whole game,” Wille said. “Fortunately, I was willing to learn.”
The two met by chance at a Eureka High School baseball game while Szymkowski was a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies. Wille had asked him for directions to the bathroom, and they ended up trading observations on Central Illinois’ best players from the previous two decades.
“I was essentially being interviewed,” Wille said.
Afterward Szymkowski gave Wille his card, told him about the associate scouting program, and said he would be in contact.
A few days later Wille was at his first game with Szymkowski, a tussle between conference rivals Illinois State and Wichita State. Wille remembers current Minnesota Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey throwing 98 mph for the Shockers.
“He was better that night than he is now,” Wille said.
Wille eventually learned that seeing a player of Pelfrey’s ability is a rare event in an associate scout’s schedule. Recently Wille told his boss, rather sheepishly, that he hadn’t seen a really good hitter in a long time. Szymkowski responded that the players weren’t getting worse; he was getting better at his job.
“We are looking for the kids who can hit the ball on Horton Field House,” Wille said with hyperbole.
Wille is compensated when he is the first scout to recommend a player who is drafted or moves up the minor league ladder. Perks include free tickets to Orioles games and the opportunity to meet the team’s scouting director. But the real rush is determining whether a player is a major leaguer.
“If you draft the wrong guy—you convince the organization that you want to draft somebody—and they turn out to be a lemon, you’re the lemon,” Wille said. “Frankly, the pride in this is getting it right.”
He was one of the scouts who were right about Zachary McAllister, a Chillicothe native who pitches for the Cleveland Indians. But he could have just as easily been one of the scouts who missed on Tampa Bay Rays veteran Ben Zobrist, a Eureka native who hardly attracted any notice out of high school.
That’s why he pays attention: checking whether a hitter keeps his hands still, whether a pitcher has cut on his fastball, whether a catcher moves like a ballerina or a car salesman.
“I have to be on my game because I don’t do this all the time,” Wille said.
Kevin Bersett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.