Duke Dickerson sees the baseball community as a close-knit family, a fraternity in which the older generations help out the sport’s younger participants. That’s the idea behind his newest venture with the Strasburg Express in the Valley Baseball League.
Dickerson, a former minor league player and coach who was tabbed as the Express’ director of player development in August, has taken the idea of baseball’s camaraderie and has helped harness that into the newly formed Strasburg Express Scouting Network. In concert with the Express’ director of player personnel, Parker Neal, Dickerson has helped develop a nationwide web of former professional players, coaches and scouts designed to help attract college talent from all over the country to Strasburg’s Valley League team.
The scouting network, which Dickerson believes is the only one of its kind among collegiate summer baseball leagues, is comprised of baseball minds whose primary focus is to further develop young and budding talent, Dickerson said.
“That’s basically the genesis for this scouting system,” Dickerson said in a phone interview Tuesday. “These guys are retired from the game as active players or coaches, but they love the game and they’re still involved through hitting schools or just being great fans of the game. They see this as a great opportunity to continue to help young people.”
Dickerson, who played professionally in Toronto’s farm system in the early 1980s and coached for the Yankees’ former triple-A affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, in the mid 1990s, was first struck with the idea of a national scouting network shortly after officially joining the Express in August. After pitching the idea to Express president/general manager Jay Neal, Dickerson approached former Major League Baseball player Charlie Hayes with the concept.
“I would say it probably took 20 minutes. And then we made some phone calls and … I would say 80 percent of the guys were on board within 24 to 48 hours, which is incredible,” Dickerson recalled.
Between Dickerson and Hayes, who currently operates a baseball academy in Tomball, Texas, and played in the MLB for 15 years, the two were able to use their vast connections in the professional ranks to piece together a scouting network of over 15 individuals.
Much of the Express’ network consists of former major leaguers who currently operate various types of baseball academies, including Dan Briggs, Mike Cameron, Marvin Freeman, Marquis Grissom, John Pacella, Kelly Stinnett and Matt Walbeck.
But the Strasburg Express Scouting Network extends beyond that. Bob Humphreys, a Valley Baseball League alum and member of the 1964 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, is in the mix, as are former World Series champions Jim Leyritz (New York Yankees) and Willie Aikens (Kansas City Royals).
Former major leaguers Chris Hammond and Ryan Thompson have also joined the Strasburg Express Scouting Network, as have Mike Lord, Shaun Babula and Roger Dean. Lord, who has coaching experience at the collegiate level, most notably served as an international scout for the Red Sox and was responsible for helping Boston land prized prospect Xander Bogaerts, Dickerson said.
All of the scouts are volunteers, according to Jay Neal.
“It’s just guys with a passion for the game, a passion for helping young people, and Jay [Neal] was kind enough to give us this direct line to Strasburg and we think it’s a good thing for all involved,” said Dickerson, whose son, Stephen, has also joined the Express as an assistant coach for the upcoming season.
Parker Neal, who has handled the primary recruiting responsibilities for the Express since the team’s foundation four years ago, said communication between team officials and members of the scouting network is simple. Scouts will go about their everyday activities, Neal said, and will simply notify either he or Dickerson when a certain player is deemed a proper fit for the Express.
“This has really helped us because you’ll ignore an email from Parker Neal a lot easier than you would an email from Charlie Hayes or Jim Leyritz,” Parker Neal said. “It’s helped with just opening different doors for us that we didn’t have open.”
Valley Baseball League teams are currently limited to 28 roster players, and Parker Neal said the current plan is for the Express to refer prospective players to other Valley League teams as Strasburg’s roster fills and more prospects are reported by the team’s scouts.
Parker Neal added that the Express’ 2015 roster is currently filled, but Strasburg hopes to begin reaping the benefits of its new scouting network by mid-spring when it begins losing prospective players to injury and the like.
“We’re really here to help the kids and help them get to the next level, so if we’re full … we’ll probably pick up the phone and call Woodstock or Front Royal pretty quickly and ask them if they’d be interested. That’s the plan,” said Parker Neal. “It’s a little bit tough knowing you may be sending your rival or competitor a really good player, but at the end of the day it’s about helping the kids.”
Dickerson, who played in the Valley Baseball League with the New Market Rebels in 1977, said he also hopes the new scouting network will help the VBL close the gap between itself and some of the other high profile summer collegiate wooden bat leagues, namely the Cape Cod and Northwoods leagues.
“I would like the Valley [League] at least at a parallel with the Cape [Cod League]. It was there once before and there’s no reason why it can’t be there again,” Dickerson said. “It’s just a matter of getting out there and promoting the rich history of the Valley, the teams and the organizations and the fact that it indeed is a terrific stepping stone for the right kids.”
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org