Mike Arbuckle’s 40-year baseball journey left an indelible mark on Phillies history
One of the all-time scouting greats, who spent 16 influential years with the Phillies, Arbuckle is retiring from baseball.
Mike Arbuckle wanted to be a Division I baseball coach and was off to a nice start in that direction. While pursuing a master’s degree in the late 1970s, Arbuckle had been hired as a graduate assistant at the University of South Alabama, where Philadelphia native and former big-league player and manager Eddie Stanky was the head coach.
The course of Arbuckle’s career and life quickly changed, however, when he ran into George Bradley, a well-known and well-respected scout who later ran baseball operations for George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees. At that time, Bradley was a regional cross-checker for the Phillies.
“George had scouted me when I played American Legion ball,” Arbuckle said. “He came to South Alabama and when he saw me, he remembered me and he told me he liked the way I played the game. He asked me if I’d be interested in scouting. My goal was to be a Division I baseball coach, but it was an opportunity to get into professional baseball. Absolutely, I’m in.”
Well, he was sort of in. An all-time great scout was born that day, but it was only a part-time job, and it wasn’t enough to pay the bills.
“I was actually coaching women’s junior college basketball because it allowed me in the spring to have free time to go out and scout,” Arbuckle said. “I was able to teach and coach and then in the spring go out and do the part-time scouting for Philadelphia, so that was my first experience.”
Arbuckle recalled writing a report on Steve Jeltz, a shortstop at the University of Kansas whom the Phillies later selected in the ninth round of the 1980 draft. But by then he had moved into a full-time role with the Atlanta Braves, and he was hooked on something that was far more than a job.
“In the fall of 1979, the Braves had an opening for a Midwest job, and I liked scouting,” Arbuckle said. “I liked the challenge of it more than the coaching side because every day was a new day. You’d go into the ballpark, and you’re trying to find a player, and you’re competing against all the other teams, and for me it just flipped my switch.”
“I’ve spent my life on the road and haven’t really had the family time that people in a normal occupation have. Now I have great grandchildren, and I think it’s time for me to slow down and stay home and go to their games.”
After more than 40 years in professional baseball, including 16 highly influential ones with the Phillies, Arbuckle will officially turn that switch off when he leaves his job as senior adviser to Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore on the final day of October. The following day, he will celebrate his 70th birthday, most likely with his wife, Martha, and the couple’s two daughters, Shelly and Kellie, who also sacrificed so much for the incredible baseball success of their husband and father. Arbuckle also has four grandchildren — Bethni, Austin, Katey, and Emma — and two great-grandchildren — Addison and Aiden — and they are the driving force behind his retirement.
“This will be the end of my 40th year, and I think 40 years doing anything is probably long enough,” Arbuckle said. “But this is primarily more family driven. I’ve spent my life on the road and haven’t really had the family time that people in a normal occupation have. Now I have great-grandchildren, and I think it’s time for me to slow down and stay home and go to their games.”
Twelve years with the Braves
The only job Mike Arbuckle ever applied for was Midwest scout with the Braves after the 1979 season.
“I was still very green, and I didn’t understand the process,” Arbuckle said. "I just knew it was my job to find players, and I had an eight-state area in the upper Midwest, where you learn to deal with the weather.
“It was a great training ground. I had to learn how to organize because you always had to have a Plan A, B, and C because the weather almost always made you go to Plan A, B, or C. That organization helped me when I moved into other jobs later.”
Arbuckle also learned something else in those early years with the Braves.
“You realized right away that this was more than a job,” he said. “If you were looking for a 9-to-5 gig or something where you could take days off, you were in the wrong business. When you hit the road you were out for a week or two weeks, and our daughters were in elementary school at the time. So our whole family had to learn that this was a lifestyle more than a job.”
Arbuckle remained in that grueling Midwest role through 1986, which was the year he got a visit from legendary Braves scouting director Paul Snyder.
“He had come in to see a couple of the players I was scouting, and after the game we went to dinner, and he asked me if I’d be interested in cross-checking,” Arbuckle said. “Yeah, absolutely, I was in. I didn’t exactly know what would be involved in cross-checking, but I knew it would be a challenge, and I’d be in drafts. So I was all aboard.”
He was also on his way to bigger and better things. After three years as the Braves' Midwest crosschecker, Arbuckle was promoted to the team’s national crosschecker role, where he’d play a part in the selection of Ryan Klesko in the fifth round of the 1989 draft, and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones with the first overall pick in 1990. Those two became part of the foundation that allowed the Braves to win 14 division titles, four National League pennants, and a World Series from 1991 through 2006.
Arbuckle would be around for only the first two division titles and World Series appearances in 1991 and 1992.
Phillies hire him
Phillies general manager Lee Thomas had two candidates in mind when he searched for a new scouting director in 1992. Reports at the time listed the candidates as Arbuckle and Mike Radcliff, who would later become the scouting director of the Minnesota Twins.
Ed Wade, the Phillies assistant general manager at the time, said Thomas was close to bypassing Arbuckle, but “there was some circumstances that precluded him from being able to make that hire.”
“As it turned out, the end result was about as good as you could possibly imagine,” Wade said.
The Phillies reached the World Series in Arbuckle’s first year by beating the Braves in the National League Championship Series, but the new scouting director knew after a year of examining the minor-league system that the Phillies were not a team built to last.
“The most frustrating part was the process takes longer than you want it to take usually,” Arbuckle said. “The process took us longer for sure. When I first went in I told myself, ‘I’m going to have an absolute all-star staff.’ Well, I found over time that’s really hard to do because other clubs aren’t dummies, and once they figure out whom your better scouts are, they hire them if you aren’t able to promote them. I constantly had to replace the most talented people on the staff.”
One of Arbuckle’s first hires was Marti Wolever, who was pulled away from the Chicago White Sox to be the scouting director’s top lieutenant as the team’s national crosschecker.
Those two would combine to produce an incredible 16-year history of drafts that allowed the Phillies to overtake the Braves as the dominant team in the National League East from 2007 through 2011.
Mike [Arbuckle] has to be right at the top for rebuilding franchises that have somewhat empty cupboards when he got there. The Phillies' sustained long period of success was very much about his ability to draft, sign, and develop players.
“Obviously, I’m biased,” Wolever said. “But I think Mike has to be right at the top for rebuilding franchises that have somewhat empty cupboards when he got there. The Phillies' sustained long period of success was very much about his ability to draft, sign, and develop players.”
Wade had even stronger praise.
“You can never overstate how great he was at what he did and how the organization benefited from his approach and passion,” Wade said. “This was a guy who made it easy to have faith in his conviction.”
The draft guru
Mike Arbuckle invited Paul Owens to his first meeting as the scouting director because he knew The Pope was a scouting legend in Philadelphia, and he wanted his input.
“I learned a lot immediately from Paul Owens,” Arbuckle said. “My first two years I used Pope as a sounding board for so many things, and I learned so much. One of the things Pope told me was not to worry about the rounds they come from as long as you give your general manager a player-and-a-half every year for his big-league club. He told me if I do that, I’d be doing my job. I had never quantified it in that way, but that became the standard I worked from to judge myself. I think over 16 years there we produced closer to two-and-a-half a year.”
Arbuckle’s first selection as Phillies scouting director was Wayne Gomes. The fourth overall pick of the 1993 draft was a closer from Old Dominion University. When he made his first visit to Veterans Stadium and toured the home clubhouse, first baseman John Kruk advised him to “hurry” his way to the big leagues because Mitch Williams' tightrope method of closing out games during that amazing season was weighing on everyone.
It took Gomes four years to reach Philadelphia, and he never developed into the pitcher Arbuckle had hoped. But the 1993 draft was still a successful one because the Phillies got the second-best player in the entire draft when they took Scott Rolen with the 46th overall pick in the second round. Only Alex Rodriguez, the first overall pick, had a better career than Rolen.
It would forever remain one of Arbuckle’s favorite picks because he relied heavily on area scout Scott Trcka and regional crosschecker Dick Lawlor before making the pick.
“The only thing I’ll take credit for in Philadelphia is that I was smart enough to get my hands on and identify the most quality staff — and in many cases they were guys that were already there — and then I was smart enough to listen to them and use them,” Arbuckle said.
Picking Rolen, a basketball and baseball star from Jasper, Ind., was a risk because his parents — Ed and Linda — were teachers, and he had a two-sport scholarship to the University of Georgia.
“I had a lot of scouting directors say to me afterward, ‘Wow, how did you get him to sign?’ ” Arbuckle said. “Trcka and Dick made me feel comfortable enough that we could sign him. So I took him, and we only paid him $50,000 to $100,000 more than the other guys who were selected around him.”
There would be plenty of frustration over first-round misses — Carlton Loewer in 1994, Reggie Taylor in 1995, and Adam Eaton in 1996 — but they would be far outweighed by the hits that would eventually form the foundation of the Phillies' great run from 2007-11.
Some of the greatest hits — Pat Burrell, Brett Myers, Chase Utley, and Cole Hamels — came in the first round. But others — Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Madson, and Ryan Howard — came in later rounds.
Other picks were used in trades to bring players such as Brad Lidge, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, and Hunter Pence to Philadelphia during the Phillies' great run.
Adding another role
After seven seasons as the scouting director, Arbuckle was offered a second role by Wade, who had replaced Thomas as the general manager following the 1997 season. Wade wanted Arbuckle to run the scouting and player development departments.
“Obviously his baseball knowledge played a big part in that decision, but I was also impressed with his ability to put a staff together and the way he was able to get everybody moving in the same direction,” Wade said. “Mike had already checked all those boxes in the scouting department, so it made sense to put the player development responsibility on his shoulders.”
A year later, Arbuckle received the title of assistant general manager after interviewing for GM jobs in Pittsburgh and Toronto. Boston, Cincinnati, and the Phillies would later be added to the list of teams to interview Arbuckle for that role.
Once Arbuckle was in charge of scouting and player development, the Phillies started to take off.
“It was just kind of a natural thing because Ed and I had worked together long enough at that point that we were comfortable, and he knew how the scouting department was run,” Arbuckle said. “I felt comfortable doing it because I had Marti [Wolever] on the scouting side, and I had Steve Noworyta on the minor-league side. To do that job on both sides would be physically impossible if you don’t have a good guy beneath you on each side because there aren’t enough hours in the day.”
Arbuckle believes his dual roles brought some unity to the organization.
“I really think that’s the best way to do it by far,” he said. "There’s always a rivalry between scouting and player development, but we were able to do some little things to end that.
"We would take a scout after the draft, and we would put him with a minor-league club for a week. We’d make him get in uniform, go on the field and find out what it was like to try to tell a player over and over 20 times that you should do something a certain way only to find out the player couldn’t physically grasp it.
“And then we’d take our development guys, and I’d put one in a car with a scout in Florida and another in a car with a scout in Southern California, and they would run their rear ends off going to three games a day before having to write scouting reports on guys. Each side got to experience what the other side had to deal with.”
The thrill of victory and dejection of departure
All the years of hard work came to fruition for Arbuckle, his staff, and the Phillies on Oct. 27, 2008, when Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske to give Philadelphia its first major championship in a quarter century.
For most people in the organization there was a sense of pure elation. For Arbuckle, there was a mix of emotions created by the fact that he knew his time with the Phillies had expired because team president David Montgomery was about to announce that Ruben Amaro Jr. would replace Pat Gillick as general manager.
“My feelings were very split,” Arbuckle said. "I was so happy for so many people, especially the players on the field who I had watched and known from the time they were in high school and college. Obviously I was happy for all the staff — the scouts and the minor-league coaches and managers who had spent so many hours with those guys.
“At the same time, I knew for me it was the end of the line. I wasn’t mad or unhappy with David Montgomery or Ruben. I knew David was going to have to make a tough decision, but I felt like there had been some real division in the organization that last year once it became known that Pat was going to step aside. I felt there were some people siding with me and some people siding with Ruben, and I just kind of felt like whoever got the job, the other person would need to step aside.”
Not everyone felt that way.
“When I met with David the day after the victory parade, he started out by telling me he was going to do some things for me that would have enhanced my reasons for staying,” Arbuckle said. “I basically stopped him and said, ‘David, I appreciate what you’re saying, but I’ve had a year to think about this, and my decision is it’s time for me to go.’ I said, ‘There’s nothing really you can say that would make me change my mind.’ The discussion didn’t last long because I stopped it.”
Amaro admitted it was awkward riding down Broad Street on the same float with Arbuckle knowing how Montgomery’s GM decision was going to go, but he was hopeful the Phillies would be able to retain the head of their scouting and player development departments.
“I know Mike was every bit as qualified for the job as I was, and it could not have sat well with him,” Amaro said. “Even though I would have loved for him to have continued to play a role in administration, I was fairly certain he wouldn’t stay on. It wasn’t the greatest feeling in the world being on that float with him going down Broad Street knowing that I was going to be the GM and Mike wasn’t, because he had such a big hand in our success.”
» READ MORE: Phils' Arbuckle one of championship's architects
Wolever remained behind as the Phillies' scouting director, but it pained him to see his friend leave.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Wolever said. “After the parade, we went back to our offices, and I can remember walking by Mike’s office and I saw him putting his stuff in boxes. I remember asking him to please reconsider, but this was the third time they had looked past him for the GM job, and I couldn’t fault him. It was just an empty feeling. I just wish he had gotten one chance to be a general manager.”
Even though the Phillies went to a second straight World Series and won three more division titles, Wolever believes Arbuckle’s departure eventually took its toll on the organization.
“I understand why we made trades, and we wanted to win because there was a window there. But our system became depleted, and when you’re picking at the bottom of the round you can’t expect miracles there,” Wolever said. “Some other people got moved around in scouting and player development, and I think all of those things have a negative impact as to why we went south in a hurry.”
Mike Arbuckle remembers all the GM interviews. Dave Littlefield got the job in Pittsburgh in July 2001 and J.P. Ricciardi got the job in Toronto in November 2001. The Boston Red Sox hired Theo Epstein in November 2002 and the Phillies hired Gillick in November 2005. The last interview came with the Cincinnati Reds in 2006 and that job went to Wayne Krivsky in February.
“You don’t survive in this game for 40 years without being competitive, and from that standpoint it was frustrating,” Arbuckle said. "But there are only 30 of those jobs, so I understand the odds aren’t necessarily that great. I go back to my original starting point that any job I ever took in baseball I went into it with the idea that I was going to be as good as I could be in that job without worrying about the next one.
“Everywhere I was at, I had a good job and I really liked what I was doing … but as a competitor you would like to know if you could have succeeded and what you might have done if you got the job.”
Kansas City, here he comes
Predictably, it did not take Arbuckle long to find another job after he left the Phillies. Three teams, including the Yankees, expressed immediate interest, but Arbuckle felt the best fit was with his hometown team, the Kansas City Royals who were in the midst of a 23-year playoff drought since winning the World Series in 1985.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore was in his third year, and he had young scouting and farm directors in Lonnie Goldberg and J.J. Picollo, a Cherry Hill native.
“I remember calling him right away and thinking it was a natural fit if he wanted to be with the Royals,” Moore said. “We needed somebody with his experience in scouting and development because we were in the infant stages of trying to grow our organization and develop our farm system, and Mike was a perfect fit. We leaned on him heavily.”
Like Arbuckle, Moore, Goldberg, and Picollo all had roots with the Braves, and the philosophies aligned well among them all. Arbuckle took on the title of senior adviser to the general manager and settled into another job he grew to love.
» READ MORE: Icing on the cake for Arbuckle in Kansas City
“I tried to operate like Pope operated with me,” Arbuckle said. "Pope never said you need to do this. He’d say, ‘You know, I had a situation like this back when I had the job, and here’s what I did with it.’ And then he left it up to me whether I wanted to take and use it. … So I always tried to operate that way here.
“It was such a natural fit here because there was such a comfort level with the people I was going to work with, and the icing on the cake was being able to go home.”
Actually, the real icing came later when the Royals ended a 28-year playoff drought by reaching the World Series in consecutive years, winning it all in 2015.
Now, Arbuckle’s 40-year journey is about to end. He’s leaving on his own terms, and itching to watch his great-grandkids play some games that are sure to get glowing reviews from one of baseball’s all-time great scouts.
“To survive for 40 years without somebody coming to tell me we think somebody else is going to do a better job than you can … I realize I’m very, very fortunate,” Arbuckle said. “I have six World Series rings [two titles], and I know a lot of good baseball people who never had one. So I know I’m a pretty fortunate individual. You look back, and there were some tough days. But most days I had a lot of fun.”