CLEARWATER, Fla. - Baseball scouts look everywhere, from the local high school team to the fields of Japan and Latin America, for prospects.
The Phillies may be the first team to find a player with a Google search.
The story begins in October, when Phillies general manager Pat Gillick hired a scout named Mal Fichman, who specializes in finding overlooked players in the independent leagues. Fichman, himself a longtime independent league manager, used to run an annual tryout camp for the San Diego Padres.
The Padres signed 145 players out of those camps over the years, 17 of whom made it to the big leagues. On Saturday and yesterday, Fichman ran the first of his camps for the Phillies, who signed four pitchers out of the 75 players invited.
"It's a creative way to find players," Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle said. "There are a fair number of guys that have seen big-league time after coming out of the independent leagues."
The Phillies have several, including Jamie Moyer and Chris Coste. As organized and thorough as professional teams are in scouring for talent, some players slip through the nets.
Fichman knows how to find them, even if it takes a search engine.
As he was gathering names from his friends and colleagues around the country, Fichman heard about a lefthanded pitcher who dazzled at a tryout camp for the new South Coast League. The problem was, he had no idea how to contact the kid.
"Someone sent me an e-mail about him," Fichman said. "I'm not very good with computers."
So Karen Cope, Fichman's friend and neighbor in Boise, Idaho, Googled the name. She came up with a phone number in Englewood, Fla. Fichman called, found out the pitcher was working out in Warren, Ohio, and got a cell phone number for him.
And that's how Jake Ociesa wound up in Clearwater Saturday morning.
Ociesa is a textbook example of how a talented athlete can be made to disappear. He was recruited to play for coach Pat McMahon at Mississippi State, only to have McMahon leave for Florida before Ociesa even got to Starkville. After two unhappy seasons there, he transferred to Murray State, where things weren't much better.
"I thought that was it for him," said his father, Dana Ociesa. "He got his degree in mechanical engineering and I told him it was time to put that to use. But he felt he owed it to himself to take one more shot. We made a deal. He came to work at my contracting business part-time and he'd give it this last try."
The Ociesas found Jim Devine, who runs a baseball academy called Swing Lab in Ohio.
"My mechanics were all out of whack throughout college," Jake Ociesa said.
Devine, who accompanied his pupil to the camp, called Ociesa "the poster boy for what we do. It was like he had a Ferrari sitting in his driveway and no one ever showed him to drive it."
The results were astounding. Ociesa added five miles per hour to his fastball. He found a key to the potential that had gone untapped in college.
Jeff Grose's neat Rutgers game jersey stood out among the motley sweatshirts and college tees on the dozens of players jogging and stretching and swinging bats on the field at Joe DiMaggio Park. The namesake son of a former Mets prospect, Grose was an all-Big East outfielder who had hopes of being drafted by the Phillies last June.
He wasn't, and he was mulling an offer from an independent league team when the invitation came for Fichman's camp.
Grose didn't wear the jersey to catch the eye of Fichman, who played at Rutgers in the early 1970s.
"We didn't know that," laughed Hugh Grose, Jeff's uncle and godfather. Hugh, who lives in Medford, flew down to lend moral support. Grose was one of many nervous uncles and mothers, girlfriends and fathers - Cy Young winner Doug Drabek spent two full days watching son Justin - who paced around the complex or watched from the bleachers.
"I've probably seen hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of his at-bats," Hugh Grose said.
This one would be among the most memorable.
They were all behind the batting cage: Gillick, Arbuckle, Fichman, Ruben Amaro, Dallas Green, Steve Noworyta, Rob Holiday. Scouts. Officials from various independent leagues. They sat in chairs or leaned on the cage and watched the parade of hitters and pitchers, who were called by number for their chance to shine.
Pitcher No. 108 was on the mound. Jake Ociesa. Jeff Grose stepped into the lefthanded batter's box against the 6-foot-5 lefthander.
"His biggest fear," Hugh Grose said. "He gets up there and he has to go against a great big lefty with nasty stuff."
Ociesa threw a few high fastballs. In a real game, he would have walked Grose. But as he found the strike zone, Grose couldn't make contact. As he walked back toward the dugout, there was a flurry of activity behind the cage.
"When all the Phillies people were jumping up and talking to each other, I knew Jake had a chance," Dana Ociesa said.
Fichman turned and gave a thumbs-up to a woman in the bleachers: Karen Cope, who had found Ociesa on her computer. Then Fichman called Ociesa into the first-base dugout and offered him a minor-league contract. Holiday hustled the Ociesas and Devine across the street to the Carpenter Complex to complete the deal.
Ociesa will report Thursday with the rest of the minor-leaguers.
"I'm not sure he knows how big that was, what he did today," said Devine, who fixed Ociesa's mechanics. "To come out here, in front of the GM of the Phillies and throw 93 m.p.h., that was amazing."
Fichman was thrilled that Gillick and Arbuckle spent most of the day at the camp. Gillick even addressed all the players.
"This only works because Pat Gillick believes in doing it," Fichman said. "We're the only team doing this now. Gillick, Arbuckle, [minor-league director] Steve Noworyta, they're all behind this."
"We got four players out of this," Noworyta said yesterday, after the Phillies signed another pair of pitchers. "We signed guys who are competitive or even a little better than what we have in the minors now."
The odds are still against Jake Ociesa or the others ever pitching at Citizens Bank Park.
"He has a good fastball," Arbuckle said. "He threw a nice, hard breaking ball and he has a deceptive motion. But you have to see how he reacts in game conditions, all kinds of things like that."
But a long shot is still a shot. And if Ociesa makes it to the major leagues, his will be an unforgettable story, a baseball version of Invincible that begins with a Google search.