Play Ball

John Barr '79 scours the globe in search of tomorrow's All-Stars.
Friday, April 1, 2011

History will record the instant rookie catcher Buster Posey squeezed his mitt around a Brian Wilson fastball for strike three as the moment the San Francisco Giants captured the 2010 World Series. But to John Barr ’79, it was an accomplishment years in the making, something that began well before that November evening in Arlington , Texas.

As the players swarmed from the third-base dugout in exultation, Barr high-fived some of his Giants colleagues and embraced others, reveling in their own triumph from their seats behind home plate. Their tenacious scouting and clever drafting helped deliver the franchise’s first title since 1954, and it was Barr, the head of the Giants’ amateur scouting operation, who made the call to select Posey out of Florida State just two years earlier with the No. 5 pick in the Major League Baseball draft. The 23-year-old’s rapid ascent to the big leagues coincided with the Giants’ midseason surge that propelled them from a middling 41-40 record on July 4 to the game’s summit by the fall.

“I knew Buster in high school, and we loved him then,” Barr said of Posey, who was named the National League Rookie of the Year following the season. “His level of maturity was something you rarely see, and he had the personality to go with it.”

In assessing young prospects from coast to coast and abroad, Barr looks for more than just the physical tools – size, speed, arm strength – to be a successful ballplayer. Equally important to him is a players’ “makeup” – those intangibles that Barr feels will allow a talented ballplayer to flourish in the major leagues through his 20s and 30s.

“All major leaguers are skilled baseball players. You have to be in order to reach that level,” he explained. “There are kids in high school and college who have ability, but we do as much work as possible to understand his makeup. Will he be able to turn those tools into a skill?”

In 1990, while working as the director of scouting for the Baltimore Orioles, Barr and his team held the 20th overall pick in the draft. One by one, some of the country’s most heralded young prospects disappeared from the board until the Orioles made their selection. When the time came, it was an easy call for Barr.

“Mike Mussina is a perfect example of talent and makeup coming together,” said Barr of the cerebral right-hander who was one of just two pitchers in baseball history to win 20 games in his final year. “He had such tenacity on the mound, even coming out of high school, and he also graduated from Stanford in three-and-a-half years. That all goes into our evaluation.”

Barr, who played baseball at Rider after starring at Audubon (N.J.) High School in Camden County, once had dreams of playing in the majors, but also prepared himself for a career as a CPA. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Commerce in 1979, he moved between the worlds of business and college coaching for a few years before settling in as an investment banker with Merrill Lynch in Houston.

Barr quickly established a career there, as well as a family. He and his new bride, Marianne, purchased a home and were set to put down roots when he met Merrill Lynch colleague Gerry Hunsicker, who had been a scout for the New York Mets. The two Philadelphia-area natives became friendly, and Hunsicker recommended Barr for a scouting position to Joe McIlvaine, then the Mets’ director of scouting.

 “I met Joe when the Mets were in town to play the Astros, and we just talked about some of the players on the field before the game, sharing some observations,” Barr said. “He asked me if I would consider working in professional baseball, and I told him, “don’t kid about that.’”

Barr had a critical choice to make: stick with Merrill Lynch or follow his dream. He was already successful, newly married and with a mortgage payment, while the alternative required a two-thirds salary cut, a move to New York, and a life on the road. He consulted his father, William J. Barr, a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war.

“He told me, ‘I started my own company when I was in my 40s with five children. That was a risk. Going to war was a risk,’” Barr recalled. ‘What you’re doing is living life. Chase your dreams while you still can.”

Perhaps it was inevitable. Barr’s parents infused him with a love for the sport, and even Marianne had come from a baseball family, one that travelled a long, winding road from Brooklyn to Little Rock, Ark., where her father’s minor league career ran out of gas at the Triple A level.

“When I took the job, my mother-in-law said she couldn’t believe the whole cycle was beginning again,” Barr said, smiling at the memory.

Twenty-seven seasons later, Barr proudly wears the 1986 World Series ring he earned with the Mets on his right hand, but looks forward to another in the spring when the Giants receive their own version of the highly coveted jewelry. It’s emblematic of the one goal shared by everyone in the game – to be the best.

“I got into baseball because I love to compete and I wanted to be with a group of people who worked hard to bring together players who won a World Series,” he explained. “The first one, with the Mets – I had a lot less influence on that team, so this was a very fulfilling year.”

Along the way, Barr worked as the East Coast scouting director for the Minnesota Twins for a year before joining the Orioles in 1989. In 1991, he was named the assistant general manager of the San Diego Padres, working again for McIlvaine. The two friends returned to the Mets for the 1994 season, with Barr as the team’s director of scouting.

Barr left the Mets in 1997, and spent the next 10 years with the Los Angeles Dodgers as the director of East Coast scouting before joining the Giants as the special assistant to general manager Brian Sabean for scouting. His assigned territory with the Dodgers allowed him to relocate his family from Florida to Haddonfield, N.J., where the Barrs – John, Marianne, as well as daughters Kate, Eileen and Mary, and son, Blake, – still reside.

Though he spends some 250 days a year on the road scouting players, the administrative end of Barr’s job also has him overseeing the Giants’ scouting budget. He says the things he learned in the classroom and on the field at Rider have stayed with him, in many ways.

“Rider was a great place for me to develop and chase my dreams,” recalled Barr, a first-baseman and centerfielder during his playing days for the Broncs and coach Sonny Pittaro. “I was never the best player on the field, but I had a passion for the game, and that carried me a long way.”

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John Barr '79