The hum of the highway accompanied the interview, a familiar background noise to Joe Katuska’s life.
Driving from “the middle of Illinois” to Cincinnati, Katuska had plenty of time to chat. He started his day in Dallas at the Big 12 baseball tournament, caught a flight north to watch two high school games before getting behind the wheel to return to a place where the Algonquin Regional graduate is sometimes a stranger: home.
Katuska, 42, estimates that he spends between 150 and 200 nights in a hotel per year and on a plane five or six times a week between late January and early June.
“The journey doesn’t stop,” he said. Neither does his quest to improve the Cincinnati Reds.
The former Southborough resident is the team’s scouting director after beginning with the organization as an intern in 2005, two years after completing a four-year career as a catcher/first baseman at Amherst College. Katuska, who contributed articles to the sports department at what was then known as the Middlesex News, also interned with the Cape Cod Baseball League and Lowell Spinners.
What does an MLB scouting director do?
He is currently in charge of evaluating amateur talent for a team with Major League Baseball’s fifth-lowest payroll ($83 million; the New York Mets are the highest at $353 million) that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1995.
The Reds, currently third in the NL Central with a 24-29 record to start the week, are playing a three-game series against the Red Sox at Fenway Park this week. Katuska’s final game at Algonquin was at Fenway nearly 25 years ago when the Tomahawks lost to New Bedford in the MIAA Division 1 state championship game.
Katuska’s job takes him far away from Major League stadiums, but he says the grind is worth it.
“The journey’s tough, but I can’t complain about anything. I get paid to watch baseball games every day.”
The Reds selected Cam Collier, who at age 17 was the youngest to play in the Cape League since 1963, with the 18th overall pick in last year’s MLB Draft, Katuska’s first as scouting director. Collier was projected to go as high as second overall.
MLB.com’s Jim Callis later rated the Reds as having the fourth-best draft class, a ranking that should please Katuska, who has a good portion of the organization’s future on his shoulders.
“It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a pretty significant responsibility, especially for a small-market team like we are,” he said. “We know that we have to build through amateur talent – internationally and through the draft – and we have to develop those guys. We’re not going to be able to play at the top of the free agent market and go get impact players that way, so to put a winning team on the field, which we haven’t done recently but we’re building towards it , a lot of that falls on us getting the right players.”
Baseball, writing and proposing at Amherst College
Katuska, who grew up in Southborough as the oldest of six children, chose wisely when he selected Amherst College to continue his education after graduating from Algonquin in 1998. His coach at Amherst was Bill Thurston, who won 811 games in 44 seasons before retiring in 2009. The school also produced future MLB general managers Dan Duquette (Expos, Red Sox, Orioles), Neal Huntington (Pirates) and Ben Cherington (Red Sox, Pirates).
In addition to playing baseball, Katuska was managing sports editor of The Amherst Student, the college’s newspaper that originated in 1868. He also asked fellow ’03 grad Abby Ouimet to be his wife, proposing to her in front of one of the college’s dorms. Ouimet was a 16-time letter winner in four sports at Williston Northampton School before earning All-America status a combined five times at Amherst for field hockey and lacrosse (3 times), a team she led to the Division 3 national championship as a senior .
The couple has four children, all of whom are involved in sports: Annie, 15; Jackie, 14; Chase, 12; and John, 5. Katuska credits Abby for running the household efficiently, knowing that her husband’s job demands keep him away from home for long portions of each year.
“I don’t know how she does it all and makes it all work,” he said. “She was all in on it and has supported me the whole way.”
His two daughters are involved in club volleyball and softball while Chase plays soccer, baseball and basketball.
“They understand that I need to be gone a lot for the job,” Katuska said, “but on the flip side when I’m home, I try to put the cellphone away, put the laptop away and try to be a dad when I’m at home and then be fully focused on the job when I’m travelling.”
Katuska back at Algonquin for a brief stop
While his travels mostly keep him in the Midwest, Katuska was back near his hometown this spring, as he scouted a player in Massachusetts. He was able to watch an Algonquin baseball game at the field named in honor of late former Major Leaguer Mark Fidrych, a fenced-in facility that is a jewel within the school’s aging athletic complex.
The outfield in Katuska’s day was bordered mostly by woods.
“I saw how much the place has changed in 25 years,” he said.
Fran Whitten, who was athletic director at Algonquin when Katuska was a senior, recalled the player’s work habits.
“I remember him as being such an incredibly hard worker,” Whitten said. “He was a physically tough kid.”
“He was a very smart kid,” Neil Burke, his coach at Algonquin, said. “He had a great work ethic.”
Katuska understood that his appearance at Fenway Park as a high school senior was as close as he would get to playing professionally. That didn’t stop him from pursuing his dreams of contributing to big league baseball.
“Once I figured out that no one was going to pay me to play, I wanted to find a way to stay in the game however possible,” he said. “I didn’t initially think that my map was going to be in scouting, but an opportunity came up and it was the right fit at the right time and I was able to make the most of it.”
Tim Dumas is a multimedia journalist for the Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TimDumas.
This article originally appeared on MetroWest Daily News: Joe Katuska pursuing MLB dreams as Cincinnati Reds scouting director