Talent scout

Published 4:54 pm Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Mikey Irving, King’s Fork’s new head baseball coach, has been a player, umpire, scout and coach in baseball. While he’s the new Bulldog manager, he’s still a regional scout for the Atlanta Braves.

King’s Fork coach moonlights for Atlanta Braves

King’s Fork’s new varsity baseball coach almost got a World Series ring last October.

Yes, it was the real, big, honest-to-goodness World Series. And no, it wasn’t an eBay auction.

If there’s some way to be involved in baseball, Mikey Irving’s found it and probably done it. He’s the new head of the Bulldog program heading into this spring.

Email newsletter signup

He’s also a regional scout for the Atlanta Braves, and that’s how he was in the hunt for a championship ring before the Braves lost to the San Francisco Giants in the National League playoffs.

Irving has played and umpired the game. He has been a longtime high school coach in North Carolina and now at King’s Fork. And he’s in his third year scouting for Atlanta.

He credits his high school coach, Martin Oliver at Great Bridge, for his love of baseball.

“There are still so many things I carry with me today because of Coach Oliver,” Irving said as he set up batting practice cages and stations for a Bulldogs practice inside Sluggers, an indoor batting cage and training facility, one afternoon in January.

“There are about seven local high school baseball coaches right now who played for Oliver,” he said. “He taught the game, but he also taught all of us the right way to carry yourself on and off the field.”

Straight out of high school, Irving moved into a part of the sport that many players, let alone young ones, take for granted. He started umpiring. After a short time calling recreation and youth league games, and then junior varsity games, Irving was umpiring games with kids only a year or two younger than himself.

“I was really fortunate to have Bullet Alexander, from Portsmouth, as a mentor. He led me to go into umpire school, and that led me into a job in pro ball,” Irving said.

He worked minor-league and spring training games.

“Just being on the field every day with the best players in the world … I approached every day as an opportunity to learn the game and get better at doing what I was doing,” he said.

He wasn’t consciously thinking about moving into coaching but it was in his nature to notice the way the game is played at the top levels.

“I remember Jorge Posada in [single-A] ball,” Irving said. “When he made it to the big leagues, I was thrilled for him. Even back then (in the minors), he was such a class guy.”

Umpires, coaches and players become familiar, even friends, during the course of hundreds of games during seven or eight months. Irving vividly remembers the first time the New York Yankees’ Joe Torre called him by name, and he’s pleased to say it was for a positive reason. Torre told him he had a good afternoon during a Grapefruit League spring training game.

Irving called a series of games at Harbor Park in Norfolk. Rey Ordonez was the shortstop for the hometown Tides. Derek Jeter was the opposing shortstop with the Columbus Clippers. The next visitor to town was the Richmond Braves, with Chipper Jones at shortstop.

“You actually can build relationships with the guys on the field year after year. I saw Chipper in Durham (in double-AA), then Richmond, then spring training,” Irving said.

“Pro baseball is a surprisingly small world,” Irving said. Even aside from the ballgames, umpires, players, scouts and managers are often in the same hotels, restaurants and airports.

Being a part of that small world was how Irving moved from calling games to scouting players who might one day play in those pro games.

“I heard the Braves were looking for somebody close to where I was living,” Irving said.

Irving works under Billy Best, an area supervisor for scouting for Atlanta. Irving’s under contract with the Braves. The organization tells him where to go and who to scout.

“It usually works out my supervisor goes in one direction and I go where he can’t go,” he said. Practically every weekend from February through the summer finds Irving working somewhere from central North Carolina to the Washington, D.C., area.

Games at Virginia and Duke and games with soon-to-be national-champion South Carolina as the visitor were among Irving’s assignments last season. He also goes to showcase camps, high school games and summer leagues, such as the Coastal Plains League.

“For every 50 to 60 guys we look at, we’ll get maybe one of them. I’ve found that everyone is basically looking at the same guys,” Irving said.

The Braves thought they had a scoop on a fire-balling relief pitcher for Boston College last season. Irving was sent to a series at Duke to check him out.

“No one was supposed to know about this kid. It was supposed to be a secret, and I was going to be the only one there,” he recalled. “I got there, and there were 25 other scouts.”

Occasionally, Irving pitches the Braves on a prospect. It’s usually the common story of going to a game to see a well-known prospect but another player catches the scout’s eye.

“Once I file a few reports on a guy, sometimes then my boss will come in and see that guy. It’s happened a couple times already,” he said.

The scouting reports are incredibly detailed, even for someone who’s been in the sport his whole life.

“It includes the size of a guy’s hand, his arm angle, his bat angle, we have to grade everything,” Irving explained. “We’re watching from the second batting practice starts.”

“I’m on the phone with Billy a lot,” sharing some thoughts, but mostly answering questions about the reports he files and the grading system, he said.

With all the different angles he’s watched the sport from, Irving believes umpiring and scouting have made him a better coach along the way.

“Whenever you can experience high-level guys playing the game the right way, it has to be to your advantage,” he said. “I’ve taken [training] drills from UVA after talking to their coaches last year. Now, that’s some of what we’re using at King’s Fork.”