Panama hat and radar gun, Mike Brito was fixture with Dodgers

He was the white panama hat. He was the radar gun. He was the cigar. He was the heartbeat behind home plate, constant, steady, always standing, always searching, always there.

For years, Mike Brito was a Dodger Stadium landmark, as unique as a Dodger Dog, as solid as the San Gabriel Mountains, as reassuring as a ninth-inning breeze.

You may not have known his name, but you couldn’t ignore his presence, and a piece of Dodgers history will be lost forever without him.

Brito died Thursday at the age of 87 after a 44-year career as a Dodger scout that changed the organization forever, turning an uncomfortable night into an everlasting legacy.

In 1978, the Dodgers sent Brito to the Mexican city of Silao to test a hot shortstop in a Mexican rookie league. The night he arrived was Holy Week and all the local hotels were booked. But Brito was undeterred. He slept on four chairs at a bus stop, woke up in pain the next day, hitchhiked to the field and dutifully made notes about the shortstop.

In the same game, he also noticed a 17-year-old pitcher hitting 12 hitters. The kid was amazing but completely anonymous. Brito excitedly reported his findings to general manager Al Campanis, and a year later the Dodgers signed this oddly colorful young leftist.

Name of Fernando Valenzuela.

Brito’s involvement in the founding of Fernandomania didn’t end there. After Valenzuela joined the Dodgers organization, his greatness was forged while learning the screwball from fellow Dodgers Bobby Castillo, a pitcher Brito also signed under unusual circumstances.

Brito, a former minor league catcher who still played in his spare time, faced Castillo in a semi-pro game in East Los Angeles. Castillo defeated Brito with a freaky full count screwball. Brito was sold. Castillo was signed. Valenzuela finally had its tutor. The Dodgers were never the same.

“Mike Brito’s ability to see beyond the obvious changed the direction of franchise and baseball history,” said Dodgers historian Mark Langill. “Whether it was finding Bobby Castillo in a semi-pro game in Los Angeles Tuesday night or finding Fernando Valenzuela in the Mexican league, he never followed the crowd.”

Dodgers scout Mike Brito looks on as pitcher Fernando Valenzuela celebrates in the clubhouse.

Dodgers scout Mike Brito looks on as pitcher Fernando Valenzuela celebrates with teammates in the clubhouse after winning the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium.

(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Los Angeles Times)

Brito, who was Cuban, once became aware of a top young Cuban player playing at a junior tournament in Canada. Brito was so in love with the boy that he and then-Dodgers scouting director Logan White rushed to Mexico when he was presented and subsequently signed him.

Name Yasiel Puig.

“Brito loved finding the obscure persona and predicting fame,” Langill said. “He loved his diamonds in the rough.”

He was also the beneficiary of some luck. On the same trip to Mexico to see Puig, Brito touted the skills of a young catcher named Julian Leon. During the signing of Leon, Brito and the Dodgers, a number of other locals in a group also signed, one of whom was given a contract despite a problem with his left eye.

Name of Julio Urías.

Brito was a Boy Scout that spanned generations and promoted championships. His three World Series rings filled his hand with a glow as bright as his perpetual smile.

“My heart is very heavy today,” Valenzuela said in a statement. “Mike was a great man and instrumental in my success as a baseball player on and off the field.”

Dodgers scout Mike Brito steps forward to throw a ceremonial first pitch.

Dodgers scout Mike Brito lines up to throw a ceremonial first pitch in the first game of the National League Divisional Series at Dodger Stadium in 2018.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Brito, who is survived by his wife Rosario and daughters Diana and Minerva, has done his most compelling work away from the stadium while caring for his disabled son Miguel more than 20 years before his death.

Despite all of this, he will always be known as the man behind home plate in the white panama hat. Unsurprisingly, his presence there is another story in itself.

He began standing behind home plate in 1978 when Campanis asked him to map Bob Welch’s pitches. He wrote down the speeds and types of each pitch on a piece of paper and then reported the results to the team officials. It was quaint but effective, and Campanis asked him to be behind the plate at every game when he was in town.

He stayed there for more than 20 years, although the Dodgers never paid him extra for his efforts and couldn’t even promise him a place. Though his methods eventually became obsolete, for three hours he stood regal with the slow-aiming radar gun and the long gaze while he turned scouting into a performance art. At the peak of his career, he owned 25 panama hats and 40 suits. He always wore his hat and only took off his suit on hot Sunday afternoons.

Oh, and about that cigar. In his final years behind home plate, he quit smoking it because field-level fans complained about the stench. Instead, he would just chew them.

The whole scene was so simple, so wonderful, according to Dodgers.

“He finally realized he was playing a role, and he played it perfectly,” Langill said. “Name another scout you know. Call me the second most famous scout in baseball. You can not.”

Even if you didn’t know Mike Brito, you did know Mike Brito, the author of a terrific Dodgers career that today deserves the lifting of an old radar gun and the tip of a white Panama hat. Panama hat and radar gun, Mike Brito was fixture with Dodgers

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