It spans a half-century, but it's a connection that is unmistakable.
To the younger old-timers among Orioles fans, rookie center fielder Cedric Mullis is the second coming of Al Bumbry, who played for the club from 1972-1984. Both are self-made players, who at 5-foot-8 had to dig deep to play larger than their size. It turns out they also have a lot more in common than measurements.
"From what I've heard, I'd say his story is pretty much the same as mine," said Bumbry, who can appreciate the comparison as he watches Mullins adjust to the major leagues.
When Mullins completed his journey through the system and made it to the big leagues, the story of how scout Rich Morales played a significant role in Mullins' career was one of the feel-good stories in a year almost devoid of them. It was Morales who offered the necessary encouragement and backed up his belief in Mullins' ability by pushing for the Orioles to use a 13th round draft choice on the Campbell University (N.C.) product in 2015. Mullins made his MLB debut a little more than three years later during his age 23 season.
For this observer, it brought back vivid memories of how the late Dick Bowie, a "bird dog" scout at the time, discovered Bumbry almost by accident -- and then guided him step-by-step until finally convincing the Orioles Hall of Famer to sign a minor-league contract 50 years ago. Bumbry spent four years in college and served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War from 1969-1971 and was awarded the Bronze Star. Bumbry, an 11th-round draft choice in 1968, made his MLB debut in 1972 during his age 25 season.
It wasn't a routine journey. Bumbry's first meeting with Bowie was hardly memorable.
"A friend who had a driver's license told me about a tryout camp they were having, so I went along with him," Bumbry recalled. "I don't remember any conversation with Dick at all."
The truth was, baseball was something of an afterthought for Bumbry, who went to Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) on a basketball scholarship -- and he'll tell you today that if he was four inches taller, he would've made his major league debut in another sport. Perhaps it's a story for another day.
Fast forward a couple of years and Bumbry, now established as a hoopster, went along to another tryout -- this one for Bowie's team, the Stafford Braves, who played in the semi-professional Shenandoah Valley League. This time Bowie noticed.
"He asked me how come I didn't come to the tryout camps, and I told him, 'I came to one,'" Bumbry said. "He said he couldn't believe he missed me because he was always looking for speed."
While Bumbry was making his name on the hardwood, Bowie was his personal chauffeur during the baseball season.
"He lived 35 miles away from me, so he'd come pick me up [for the first game on weekends] and then he'd let me drive his car home," Bumbry said, "so he knew I'd come back because all the equipment was in his car."
That went on for three years. In those days, athletes couldn't sign a professional contract in one sport and still play another in college.
Even though the two developed a special bond, Bumbry had no illusions about a career in baseball -- and, in fact, if it hadn't been for what turned out to be a lucky break, literally, he's not sure what might have happened. One of the differences between the Orioles' newest center fielder and the former one is that Mullins is a switch-hitter, while Bumbry only hit from the left side -- again, by accident.
"I broke my left wrist doing the long jump in a track meet in high school; I don't remember if it was my junior or senior year," Bumbry said. "When it got better, it hurt me to swing the bat right-handed, so I started hitting left-handed. It wasn't something anybody suggested; I just tried it because it hurt the other way. I guess you could call it a lucky break, because I don't know what would have happened. Athletically I wasn't a good enough hitter right-handed."
Even after the Orioles drafted him, Bumbry didn't have any illusions. He knew he had a military commitment after graduating, so there was a lot of uncertainty.
"To be honest, I never had any aspirations about being a professional baseball player," Bumbry said.
But Bowie was insistent, and he had to be because it certainly wasn't the money that influenced Bumbry.
"I finally agreed because Dick said to me, 'I want you to sign this contract because I'd hate for you to say some day that you wished you had,'" Bumbry said. "I signed for $500 a month and my bonus was an equipment contract with Rawlings and a set of Louisville Slugger golf clubs."
The clubs were right-handed, by the way.
The irony that Bumbry was naturally a right-handed hitter who switched to the left side, and Mullins is a switch-hitter whose minor league numbers from the right side indicate he might be a candidate to go lefty all the way will make this an even more interesting development going forward. If so, the two will have even more in common.
But the real story here is how both of these players were influenced by scouts who believed what their eyes told them. In the modern age of analytics, scouting has become an endangered profession.
Fifty years apart, Al Bumbry and Cedric Mullins were put on a path to the big leagues the same way. They are perfect examples of the kind of players computers won't find.
Sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best way. In these cases it was simply two scouts who believed what their eyes told them. I don't know Rich Morales, but I'm pretty sure he'll never be prouder of a signing than he is of Mullins, just as Dick Bowie -- who, in the interest of full disclosure was a close friend -- was as proud of Bumbry as any player he ever helped get to the big leagues.
And lest anyone forget, Bowie was the only scout to recommend signing Cal Ripken Jr. as an infielder rather than a pitcher.
Sometimes the eye test is best.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Originally published Sept. 17, 2018