Indians, a South African, an Australian... a mix like no other in baseball
July 10, 2009 8:00 AM
Seven Pirates prospects representing five continents, left to right: Pitcher Mitch Fienemann of Australia, pitcher Rinku Singh of India, shortstop Benji Gonzalez of Puerto Rico, second baseman Gift Ngoepe of South Africa, infielder Elevys Gonzalez of Venezuela, pitcher Dinesh Patel of India and first baseman Gerlis Rodriguez of the Dominican Republic.
Pitcher Chris Aure, born in Alaska and a graduate of North Pole High School, shows off his tattoo.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Someone has stolen Alaska's cap.
"Alaska" is what they call Chris Aure, the pitcher the Pirates picked in the 15th round of the draft last summer out of North Pole High School near Fairbanks. He is the class prankster, the classic antagonist who gets as much as he gives. Think "Stiffler" from the "American Pie" films, and the image sharpens.
"Come on!" Aure shouts toward the Pirate City batting cages, and no head turns. "Which one of you has my cap?"
He checks the two players from India.
The one from Australia.
Another from Mexico.
All are cleared.
"It's one of you guys," Aure says, fingering two Dominicans seated nearby. "You've got my cap."
One of them, first baseman Gerlis Rodriguez, twirls a finger to the side of his head.
"Alaska is loco," he says, citing the Spanish for crazy. "He's way out there."
In this setting, that is saying something.
These teens and barely-twentysomethings make up the Pirates' Bradenton affiliate in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, the first of five steps up the minor league ladder to Pittsburgh. And it is safe to say there never has been a team like this in the history of professional baseball.
Take it from the South African second baseman who was signed out of a camp in Italy by a team from Pittsburgh.
"Oh, I'm sure there hasn't been anything like this," Mpho "Gift" Ngoepe says on this Monday morning, just before the team boards a bus for a game in Tampa. "We're from all over the world, and here we are all in one place playing baseball."
Of the 35 players in the fold, 11 nations and five continents are represented: There are nine each from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, with the United States a distant third at six. There are the two highly publicized, pioneering Indian pitchers, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, a second baseman named Henry Henry from Colombia, two players from Puerto Rico, and one each from Mexico, Panama, Australia, Canada and one of the first three players ever signed out of South Africa.
• Game: Pirates vs. Philadelphia Phillies, 7:05 p.m., Citizens Bank Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Season series: First meeting.
• Key matchup: Philadelphia slugger Ryan Howard fares worse against the Pirates -- .123 career average, one home run, seven RBIs in 81 at-bats -- than against any opponent.
• Of note: The Pirates, without an error in a season-high 64 consecutive innings, rank No. 2 in the National League with a .988 fielding percentage. The Phillies rank No. 1 at .989.
Even one of the Americans, the Alaskan Aure, is from outlying territory.
And yet, there does not appear to be anything approaching the divide so often seen in baseball clubhouses, with English-speaking players in this corner, Spanish-speakers in another. They play pool and video games together in the newly remodeled Pirate City lounge, live together in the dorm rooms, they joke, they tease and, by all accounts, they support each other as if part of some global fraternity.
"We eat together in the cafeteria, but sometimes we try each other's foods," Ngoepe says. "I listen to the Indians' music when I go past their rooms, and they listen to my music from Africa. We tell each other stories about our home countries. We do everything together."
"Everybody's the same here, like family," Venezuelan infielder Elevys Gonzalez says.
The two who have gained the most attention, by a massive margin, are the Indians.
The story of Singh and Patel has been told by countless newspapers and broadcast outlets, nationally and internationally: They were born in villages where their parents were earning roughly $25 a week and, because they could throw a ball hard, beat out 37,000 contestants on an Indian TV reality showed called "Million Dollar Arm." Their prize included a flight to California for a tryout before major league scouts, where the Pirates signed both after Singh topped 90 mph on the radar gun.
Total bonus for the two: $8,000.
The spotlight had faded for three months until Singh and Patel, each 20, made their professional debuts in the past week, shortly after their league's season began. It was in that period, they say, that they became closer to their new teammates and to the sport they never had seen before last summer.
"For me, sir, I was a little bit nervous before I pitched the first time," Singh says. "But now, I am feeling good. I want only to help the team win."
Of his relationships, he adds, "Everybody's my friend. Everybody's a good guy. We're learning so much."
How long did it take Patel to settle?
"Two or three pitches," he replies with a grin. "After that, everything is OK."
Pat Hagerty, Bradenton's equipment manager, teasingly addresses the Indians as "Sir" because of their relentless use of the title with everyone they encounter.
Hagerty appears to relish the clubhouse's diversity, not only in the challenges presented by tending to the players' needs -- on and off the field, he is like a father figure to a few of them -- but also in pushing them to co-exist. He lined up all the clubhouse stalls of the far-flung players in one area he calls "The International Wall," careful to intersperse a couple of the Americans and Hispanics to discourage cliques.
"It's been a real treat for me, all these guys," Hagerty says. "Unlike anything I've seen in my years here."
Ngoepe, 19 -- whose name is pronounced en-WEE-pay -- was born into baseball, remarkably, in Randburg, South Africa, where his mother was a clubhouse attendant for a team called the Mets. The family lived in one of the clubhouse rooms.
"Even though I was in Africa, I've always been around baseball," Ngoepe says. "It probably sounds crazy, I know."
Ngoepe was advanced enough -- and the competition slight enough -- that he often competed with players 10, 15, even 20 years older. He and two South African national teammates were invited to Major League Baseball's academy in Tirrenia, Italy, where the Pirates signed him, and the other two got contracts from other teams.
First major step for Ngoepe was playing in the World Baseball Classic this past spring, in which he swatted back-to-back triples off former Pirates pitcher Elmer Dessens.
Next major step for most would be assimilation, but not for his highly outgoing personality.
"I'm happy all the time," he says. "But I'm really happy here."
Fienemann, 19, was signed out of south Australia by the Boston Red Sox in late 2007 but, within days, he learned he needed shoulder surgery. He spent the next year rehabilitating while working a low-wage job with the Australian Submarine Corporation. A year ago, Tony Harris, the Pirates' full-time Australian scout, made him the franchise's first amateur signing from that country.
Probably not the last.
"In south Australia, baseball is really booming," Fienemann says. "We all play T-ball in schools in now. I did, and I always kind of liked it. It's cool."
He arrived in the U.S. in April.
"I thought it would be all Americans when I got here to this team, but this is a great atmosphere, I think. So many people from so many different cultures. It's a great learning experience in my life. I never heard a word of Spanish in my life."
Nor had he met anyone like Aure, a left-handed reliever considered Alaska's best prospect in half a decade.
"Oh, yeah, he's 'Alaska's Finnest,' you know," Fienemann says. "Go check his tattoo."
Sure enough, on Aure's right shoulder is a tattoo that was intended to read "Alaska's finest," only the inscriber erroneously inserted an extra N.
"It happens," Aure says with a shrug. "That's the only word he misspelled, though."
Tom Prince, Bradenton's no-nonsense manager and formerly the Pirates' backup catcher in 1987-93, is the man charged with making all this work, and it clearly has been a struggle on the field: The team is 1-10, last in the North Division.
But the cohesion...
"It kind of takes care of itself," Prince says. "They're fitting into the Pirates' system, and we begin that here in the Gulf Coast League. Everybody gets the same instruction, and how quickly they pick it up is the only real difference, with the language."
Could he, as a baseball lifer, have forecast this would be his calling?
"No, never. But you know, it's good for the game. You want the best talent to play in the big leagues, and this is the way it's going."
It certainly is the way the Pirates are going, after more than a decade of ignoring Latin America and after having done even less in the growing talent pools of Asia, Australia and Europe.
In addition to the above players and the ones assigned to the new $5 million academy in the Dominican, the team recently signed its first three players from Taiwan after Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo flew there in December to cross-check the recommendation of new Far East scout Fu Chun Chiang.
Overall, the team now has nine full-time international scouts, up from three just five years ago, all in the Dominican. Along with Chiang, Harris in Australia and still three in the Dominican, there is one each in Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, as well as a new one to cover Europe. Part-time scouts cover four other countries, including a new one in the Netherlands.
The work is not groundbreaking: The Minnesota Twins have a GCL roster with prospects from 10 countries, including France and the Czech Republic. They also recently signed a promising outfielder out of Germany for a further foothold in Europe. For years, the Seattle Mariners were at the forefront in the Far East. The Tampa Bay Rays are building an academy in Brazil.
"There is such a premium on acquiring talent, the focus has increased tremendously," Pirates scouting director Greg Smith says.
The push has come from general manager Neal Huntington.
"It's important that we're strong in the international market, even the non-conventional arenas like South Africa, Europe and India," Huntington says. "The draft and international markets are areas that, for the most part, we can and need to compete with the big-market teams in resources allocated and returns on investments. We might not always sign players to the highest bonuses, but we can get a quality return through hard work and creativity."
The makeup of the Bradenton roster, he adds, is nothing more than a sign that this is the first wave.
"It's because we've just begun to reestablish ourselves in the international market. We look forward to the day where we have a large contingent of international players throughout our system."
Of the internationals in Bradenton, Ngoepe, who makes up for his 5-foot-10 stature with outstanding speed and good contact skills, is seen as having the best chance to make it. Singh, a tall left-hander with solid velocity, is the legitimate prospect of the two Indians. Fienemann could emerge, too, if he is past his shoulder trouble.
If any of them bucks the odds and makes it, it surely will enhance the Pirates' brand in their respective countries and, if followed up, could lead to more signings.
"I think it's definitely good for the Pirates, spanning the globe for talent," Fienemann says. "Why look just in America? Baseball is everywhere now."