Monday, February 20, 2017

Ontario Native Jon Lalonde Fills a Vital Scouting Role with the Blue Jays

    Like many teenagers, Jon Lalonde was in a bit of a mild panic as his high school days were coming to an end.
    Unsure of what he wanted to do, the sports-minded Penetanguishene (ON) Secondary School student was hopeful to somehow parlay his love of baseball into a career.  Lalonde happened to attend a seminar that Sudbury's Laurentian University put on at his school thanks to the Guidance Department, and his ears perked up when the school's Sports Administration program was mentioned.
    Lalonde grew up in the village of Wyevale, ON, about an hour and a half north of Toronto, outside of Midland/Penetanguishene.  He started playing fast-pitch softball in Wyevale, then baseball in Midland, but Lalonde played every sport available - except hockey.  For a sports-minded kid like Lalonde, Sports Admin was almost a natural fit.

  At Laurentian, Lalonde says he received a great education.  "The program combined the traditional elements of a commerce degree with a sports perspective," he observed.  In the fourth and final year of the program, students completed a field project which involved making a presentation to a team in a major sports market.  Past students had travelled all over the continent, but in Lalonde's year the trip was to Toronto, where his group was involved in what he would call, "One of the great things in my life" - a presentation to the Blue Jays Marketing department about gaining and preserving season ticket holders.
  Admittedly, this was not the most glamorous of topics for someone with a playing background like Lalonde, but it gave him that all important foot in the door.  After the presentation, Mark Lemmon, who was then the Blue Jays VP, Corporate Partnerships and Business Development, told Lalonde to "keep in touch," and while it took a few months after graduation before Lalonde heard anything, an opportunity came up, and he joined Corporate Partnerships in November, 1999.  Again, this was a bit removed from where Lalonde wanted to be, but he was now a part of the Toronto organization.
    One of Lalonde's responsibilities in his first job was the club was helping to organize Fuji photo day, a chance for fans to come onto the field before a game and take pictures of their favourite players.  This was more than simply a point and shoot exercise, and Lalonde had to liaise with the baseball side of the organization a fair bit.  This put him into contact with then-Assistant GM Tim McCleary, who clearly was impressed with his work.  When the Scouting Coordinator position became open on the baseball side in 2001, McClearly encouraged Lalonde to apply, and he was successful.  Off to scout school in Arizona Lalonde went that fall, where he would meet up with a young Expos employee by the name of Alex Anthopoulos.
   The Scouting Coordinator's job was largely administrative.  There were myriad reports to write and expense claims to file.  In preparation for the amateur draft, Lalonde would have to gather medicals, meet with the Scouting Director before the draft, and assign risk rates to players.  Lalonde would also have to apply for Draft IDs for players beyond the top 200, organize pre-draft meetings, and throughout the year, he would chart pitches, file more reports, and compile budgets.  He gained considerable experience in the operational side of the scouting department in very short order.
   By 2004, at the tender age of 27, Lalonde had risen to the Director of Amateur Scouting position under GM J.P. Ricciardi, who involved him a great deal in the process of recruiting and evaluating talent.  In addition to the usual administrative duties, Lalonde was able to get eyes-on the top 75-100 draft prospects every year, and form his own evaluations of them.  Due to budgetary constraints at the time, the Blue Jays were focused on low-risk, highly-signable college seniors, but Lalonde's baseball education was reaching the Masters level with the experience he was gathering.
   In 2010, with his old friend AA having taking over the GM's reigns the year before, Lalonde moved to the pro scouting side of the team, where he has remained since. photo

   The life of a pro scout is something of a vagabond existence.  From mid-February to the end of October, it's a series of airports, hotels, and ballpark food.  Lalonde is typically assigned five or so teams to cover during the course of a season, monitoring their roster, and watching them live several times over the course of a season.  He logs every pitch thrown by the teams he watches, and says his job is to compile as much information as he can before and during a game.  His scouting trips can last several weeks, which can be difficult on a young family (we waited until his daughter was down for her afternoon nap before we started our phone conversation, something any parent can easily relate to).  Luckily, Lalonde is home during the off season, and no doubt gets to catch up on parental duties at that time.  In the off season, he's responsible for staying up-to-date with what's going on across the league, especially as it pertains to teams he covers.  He does have some specific tasks, such as combing through the minor league free agent and reserve list for possible Rule 5 draft recommendations.  Luckily, he can do that from the comfort of home.
   Now that spring training has arrived, Lalonde's domestic duties have been curtailed somewhat.  While responding to an email this weekend, he was packing for a flight to Tampa for spring training, to take part in Blue Jays pro scouting meetings over the next few days, where the club decides the priorities and strategies for the season, and all front office personnel get a chance to re-connect.  Once the World Baseball Classic begins next month, Lalonde will find himself in South Korea, covering the first round teams of that pool (South Korea, the Netherlands, Chinese Taipei, and Israel) from March 6-10th.  After that, he will head to Tokyo to catch second round competition.  After that, Lalonde will likely head back to Florida for some spring training assignments based on the team's needs at that time, before assuming his regular season duties.

   When it comes to analytics, Lalonde admits that he doesn't go into detail with them as much as some, but he's aware of the basics, and says they serve a function, as it's "important to see a player through as many lenses as you can."  He readily admits to being open to all areas of player evaluation, and when it was suggested to him that any club that ignores the mountain of data available to them does so at their own peril, he readily agreed.

   Lalonde is very modest, and when it was suggested his extensive administrative and scouting experience would make him a good candidate for the Team Canada GM job at next spring's World Baseball Classic, he quickly demurs, and recommends fellow Canadian and Blue Jays Assistant GM Andrew Tinnish as the man for that position.  Toronto Sun columnist Bob Elliott ranked Lalonde #61 on his most recent Top 100 Most Influential Canadians in Baseball, and more importantly, praised Lalonde and fellow scout Dan Evans for their advance work on the Rangers prior to last year's ALDS.  Lalonde prepared reports on the Rangers' pitching staff, while Evans compiled data on their hitters, but he admits that relied on Evans' experience and acumen:  "Dan has such incredible experience and feel for the smallest intricacies of the game that I lean on him heavily."
   The respect between Lalonde and Evans is clearly mutual.  For his part, Evans calls Lalonde a 'trusted friend' as well as a colleague:
It has been an honour to work closely with Jon Lalonde the last two years as we did the advance scouting for our ALDS match ups.  When you have that enormous responsibility for a potential playoff match up, you work very closely with your scouting teammate for an extended period, and I have thoroughly enjoyed going through that process with Jon.
His extensive scouting experience and keen eye are so evident, and he is relentless and tireless in his quest to get things right. Highly inquisitive and competitive, Jon is never satisfied just skimming the surface. We constantly challenge each other with ideas and concepts, and that requires mutual respect and trust. I have tremendous respect for Jon as a professional and an individual, and now, as a result of all of our time together, he has become a trusted friend whom I so enjoy working closely with as a fellow Blue Jay staff member.

   As for advice to any young Canadian man or woman considering a career in baseball, Lalonde encourages them to go into it with "eyes wide open."  Pursue your passion, he urges, but go all in:
 There's nothing quite like having a genuine passion for your area of study and, if you're fortunate enough, your career opportunity. In most instances, mine included, however you need to be aware of the level of competition for jobs related to sport, and professional sport in particular. It's difficult to speak to everyone with a broad brush but I do believe that the level of commitment needed to break in and ultimately succeed in the field is significant and shouldn't be underestimated.
   Given his background, and the heights he's scaled in his time with the Blue Jays, Lalonde knows of what he speaks.   He followed his passion, and was willing to take on any task to demonstrate his commitment.


   If an army marches on its stomach, a baseball team marches on the strength of its scouting staff.  Trades and free agency may be glitzy ways to turn a team around, but more often than not they're quick fixes.  The teams that are competitive year in and year out are the ones that recruit and develop the best prospects, supplementing that with data on their opponents put together by their advance scouts.  Solid farm systems give teams added flexibility, whether it's to promote prospects to the bigs, or to use them as currency to upgrade the major league roster. This is not new - it dates back to the early days of Branch Rickey, who said he liked to stockpile prospects and "watch them grow into money."
   Scouts are truly the unsung heroes of the game.  Working almost anonymously, they have to blend what their eyes tell them with what their gut feels.  And the information they gather has to be presented in just the right way.   Legendary scout Hugh Alexander told author Kevin Kerrane in the seminal Dollar Sign on the Muscle,
"If I'm in the same town with the team when they start a series, I go into the clubhouse before the game and talk to the team myself.  I go over all the other team's players - who's hurt, who's playing even though he's hurt.....And I talk to the pitchers - I might say, 'Bull Durham is a wild-swingin' guy, won't draw too many walks' - but I never tell them how to pitch to a hitter.  Who the hell am I to tell Steve Carlton how to pitch?  I just say, 'Hey, I've watched this club play four games this week, and this is what I saw other pitchers get their hitters out with.'

   Living out of a suitcase can't be easy, despite how glamorous it might sound.  Scouts can't call in sick - during the season, there's always a game to cover, reports to write, and expense claims to file.   Even in the presence of fellow scouts from other teams, it can be a solitary, far-from-home experience.  And yet information, which is valuable in any business, is absolutely golden in this one.  It takes a whole host of specialists to make a baseball organization to run - business-side people, and coaches, trainers, and admin staff on the baseball side.  But those people are only as good as the talent that's provided to them.  Scouts are truly the unsung heroes of any successful baseball operation.


   A personal note.  Jon Lalonde and I are from the same area.  I grew up in Midland, Ontario, a town of 15 000 (or so) on the shores of Georgian Bay, about 90 minutes north of Toronto.  Lalonde grew up in the hamlet of Wyevale, a former whistle stop on the old North Simcoe Railway, minutes outside of Midland.  He grew up playing softball, and later switched to baseball in Midland, while I took the opposite path.  We talked for over an hour about Midland, his high school days (he attended Midland Secondary's now defunct arch-rival, nearby Penetanguishene SS), the differences between trying to hit a baseball and a softball, his Uncle Ernie (a good left-handed LF/P who I played with, and is now the butcher at my local Metro), and which Lalondes I grew up with whom he might be related to - we couldn't find a common one, Lalonde being a very popular surname in the Midland-Penetang area.
   Midland has a rich baseball history (which I've written about before), going back almost 100 years, and one day I hope to scour the archives of my now-extinct local newspaper, the Midland Free Press, to write more about it - it would be a history of the game in this country as much as it would be of Midland's. Given this baseball legacy, I think it's fitting that a product of the local ballpark has landed an important role with Canada's baseball team.
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