Kevin Kiermaier son

Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier waves to fans with his son, Karter, after Tampa Bay clinched the AL East title last month. The Rays open the playoffs at 7:07 p.m. on Thursday with Game 1 of their American League Division Series matchup against the Boston Red Sox in St Petersburg, Fla.

CHAMPAIGN — The background noise of cars driving by is evident when Tom Couston picks up his phone Wednesday morning.

Hold on, the veteran pro baseball scout says. He needs to pull over and talk instead of driving in Champaign.

Why’s he in Champaign?

“I couldn’t get a room in Bloomington,” Couston says in a Chicago accent that makes it clear where he was born and where he calls home still. “I was going to Belleville. Then I decided to go to Mattoon and Effingham, and the rain forecast was not good. That’s my life, baby.”

It’s a life well-traveled. All in an effort to unearth raw talent and have those athletes turn into gems. Like Kevin Kiermaier.

Couston has worked as a scout with the Tampa Bay Rays since 2003 and is in his 44th year of a profession devoted to long hours on the road, multiple nights a week in different hotels in different cities and enough baseball games to satisfy even the most die-hard fan.

“I’ve got more points than J.W. Marriott himself,” Couston said with a free-flowing laugh.

Launch angle, exit velocity and spin rate are terms that dominate baseball these days. But the game still needs guys like Couston. And 12 years ago, Kiermaier needed Couston, too.

Because when the former Parkland College outfielder probably didn’t see much of a baseball future besides competing with the Cobras in Champaign and against various community college programs, Couston did.

Now 31 years old, Kiermaier will likely start in center field for the Rays on Thursday night against the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. If he does, it’ll mark his 26th postseason game — all in a Rays uniform — for an organization that took him with the 941st pick in the 31st round of the 2010 draft.

“I tell you this not out of vanity,” Couston said, “but I tried to draft him after his freshman year at Parkland.”

That was back in 2009, the same year Parkland won the NJCAA Division II national championship. But Couston wasn’t exactly coming to Parkland games and workouts to specifically hone in on Kiermaier.

One of Kiermaier’s teammates at Parkland, Nate Roberts, is the player Couston initially wanted. But Roberts, who was eventually taken in the fifth round of the 2010 draft by the Twins after one season at High Point following his time at Parkland, wasn’t interested in the Rays.

“He wouldn’t sign with us, because I didn’t give him enough dough, but he was up front the whole time,” Couston said. “So were we.”

But any time Couston was in Champaign to see Roberts, he made sure to have Kiermaier tag along.

The speedy center fielder was an intriguing prospect in Couston’s eyes. Eyes that helped Cleveland sign future Hall of Famer Jim Thome when the Peoria native was an unknown infielder at Illinois Central College in the late 1980s.

“All that time I was courting Mr. Nate Roberts, taking him out for burgers and stuff, I was also inviting Kiermaier to join us. I said, ‘I want you to get to know me, because I’m going to draft you,’” Couston said.

A year later, the Rays did. With Couston wholeheartedly supporting the move for one significant reason.

“This is the only true center fielder I’ve ever truly scouted,” Couston told me Wednesday morning. “Somebody said, ‘Well, how do you know he’s a true center fielder?’ Because I was one, and I wasn’t.”

Another hearty laugh echoes through the phone, with Couston playing the position for former Illini coach Itch Jones when Jones coached at Southern Illinois Carbondale.

“A true center fielder means he can go back, forward, sideways, everything,” Couston said. “Did I envision him being a Gold Glove center fielder? No. Did I envision him being a center fielder with the Rays? Yes.”

Kiermaier has filled both those roles during his nine seasons with the Rays. He’s won three Gold Gloves in 2015, 2016 and 2019 and become arguably the best defensive center fielder in the game.

He came up clutch at the plate, too, during the Rays’ run to the 2020 World Series, hitting .368 with two home runs and three RBI in Tampa Bay’s six-game series loss to the Dodgers last year.

Kiermaier will get a chance to help the Rays back to that stage this month after hitting .259 with four home runs and 37 RBI in 122 games this season for the team with the best record in the AL.

Couston said an early conversation he had with Kiermaier centered around making sure Kiermaier didn’t do anything dumb to ruin any chance he had at making it in pro baseball.

“He told me, ‘I’m working my butt off, so I can get to the point where I can buy my parents the house they deserve,’” Couston said. “He’s that kind of guy.”

Kiermaier did just that, agreeing to a six-year extension with the Rays for $53.5 million back in 2017.

Couston still keeps in touch with Kiermaier. The two texted earlier this summer, with Kiermaier saying his mom had found an old photo of he and Couston together when Kiermaier was at Parkland.

“He told me he’d sign it and send it to me, but he never did,” Couston said. “Then, he started hitting. That’s way more important than sending me a picture.”

Another full-throttle laugh follows from Couston. Even in his fifth decade of scouting, he still seems to relish in the chase. It’s what led him to Kiermaier. And will keep him tuned in to every Rays game this postseason.

“When you’re on the road as much as I am, and then something like that happens, it’s a dream come true for me as much as it is for him,” Couston said. “I’ve had a lot of those very lucky successes in my career, and he’s one of the top. Thome was another one. I’ve been a lucky dude.”

And with that, he ends the phone call and gets back on the road. In search of, well, the next Kiermaier.

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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