This marks the 30th anniversary of USA TODAY recognizing the nation's top high school athletes. As we prepare to unveil the 2013 American Family Insurance ALL-USA Baseball Team at the end of the season, we'll dig into the archives and check in with ALL-USA honorees from the past three decades. Today, we catch up with 1995 All-USA First Team player Eric Valent of Canyon (Anaheim), who is a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Eric Valent looks for players with as much potential as he had in high school.
Valent set hitting records for UCLA and played parts of five seasons in the major leagues. Since 2009, he's been the Philadelphia Phillies' Northeast Area scouting supervisor.
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"The main thing you're looking for on a position player front is that hitting is a given," Valent said. "You have to be able to have a good at-bat. The good ones also bring good running speed to the table or they're a power guy. The super guys have both. I think position players are harder to find than pitchers. There's a lot of guys who are hitters but aren't great defensively, or vice-versa. Then sometimes they go into the minors and put it together."
Valent played both outfield corner spots and first base and was known for his power, though he was only 5-11 and 195 pounds. He still holds the UCLA career homer (69) and RBI records (219).
The Phillies selected him in the first round (42nd overall) in the 1998 June Amateur Draft and within three years, he was in the majors as a utility player. His best season was 2004 with the New York Mets, where he hit 13 homers in 130 at-bats, had three pinch-hit homers in August and went for the cycle on July 29 against the Montreal Expos, hitting a triple in his last at-bat.
"Going for the cycle, the three pinch-hit homers and playing on two opening days were the highlights of my career," Valent said. "Hitting for the cycle — it's exciting to look back and say I did it. I had a little luck and on the triple, I hit it in the corner and kept running."
He played sparingly the next season and was sent down to the Mets' AAA team in Norfolk, Va. He was signed in 2006 by the Padres but released after hitting .209 in 30 games for the Padres' AAA team in Portland. He finished the season with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan's Pacific League, after which he retired as a player.
"I was inconsistent as a hitter," Valent said. "I never hit a really good fastball. Coming off the bench, you have to be able to hit a 94-, 95-mph fastball and I wasn't consistent enough off those type of pitches."
He was 30 and wanted to stay in the game.
"I had been chasing a baseball career since I was a 5-year-old and I told my teacher I wanted to be a baseball player," Valent said. "I was fortunate enough to make it to the big leagues, but when you get there, you realize how good everyone there is. Once I saw I wasn't going to be able to hang as long as I wanted to, I knew I would try to stay in the game. I had always been interested in the scouting side since I was in high school. That kind of helped the transition."
At first, he took a job as a minor league hitting instructor for the Phils' Class A team in Williamsport, Pa., but when the scouting position came open, he jumped at the opportunity. Now he gets to spend more time at home with his wife and two young sons, instead of being away for six months of the year. Two years ago, he signed the Phillies' No. 1 draft choice, Jesse Biddle of Germantown Friends (Philadelphia), who is 2-3 with a 2.95 earned run average and 51 strikeouts in 42.2 innings at Class AA Reading this season.
"Jesse is a very mature kid," Valent said. "He knows what he wants to do. Barring any injuries, we'll see what he can do in the big leagues."
Valent said that while the Northeast doesn't have as much baseball talent as some warm-weather states, the top level players in the Northeast are just as good as they are anywhere.
"I haven't seen a Chase (Utley) yet, but we're always comparing players to guys we've seen," Valent said. "Their swing will remind you of somebody. I can't get over how big the players are now. The one thing I would like to see more of is good fundamentals. I think a lot of high schoolers are playing so many games, they're not getting to know the fundamentals because they're not having enough practice."
Follow Jim Halley on Twitter @jimhalley.