Pirates' Class A affiliate Jamestown Jammers draws from nine countries
August 11, 2013 11:00 PM
Jim Riggs/For the Post-Gazette
The contingent of foreign players on the roster of the Pirates' Class A team in Jamestown, N.Y., this summer: Front row from left, Yhonathan Barrios (Colombia), Harold Ramirez (Colombia) and Elvis Escobar (Venezuela). Back row from left, Roberto Espinsosa (Mexico), Jin-De Jhang (Tawain), Jackson Lodge (Australia) and Dovydas Neverauskas (Lithuania).
By Everett Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
JAMESTOWN, N.Y. -- The ride from the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport to Jamestown takes about 90 minutes on a two-lane highway flanked by old farm houses and barns. As you near the place once known as "The Furniture Capitol of the World," cows graze near the road in deep green pastures.
This is the route that Taiwanese-born Jin-De Jhang and the rest of the Jamestown Jammers, a Pirates short-season Class A team, traveled in early June after being in Florida for extended spring training. He and the 12 other international players from nine countries are learning about America in a town that feels like it peaked in the 1950s and in a stadium, Russell Diethrick Park, that was built during World War II (1941).
Jhang, a catcher, got a $250,000 signing bonus from the Pirates in 2011 after scouts became enamored with his tight, compact swing. He speaks limited English and Spanish, can't read either language at all, and has teammates from Lithuania, Australia, Colombia and everywhere in between. Jhang and Jamestown are part of a scouting revolution for an organization considered one of the worst in baseball at signing international talent a few years ago.
These players are learning about America through a town where you can go either left or right on the main road. It's not big enough to have other directions.
At a local Mexican restaurant, a waitress asks out-of-towners where they're from because, if she doesn't know them, they aren't from around here. She's a local, calling herself a loser for not leaving years ago. Wrinkling her nose at visitors, she'll pass out a menu and say, "Why in the world are you visiting Jamestown?"
Before general manager Neal Huntington took over in 2007, the Pirates were considered by many to be one of the worst teams in the league at signing international players. It wasn't that they were swinging and missing -- the organization didn't seem to care about getting in the international batter's box.
But right before Huntington started with the Pirates, owner Robert Nutting committed $5 million to build an academy in the Dominican Republic, while Pirate City -- the organization's spring training ballpark and minor league complex in Bradenton, Fla. -- underwent a $20 million renovation in 2008. It also helped that after Huntington arrived, he estimated that the organization's international scouting budget doubled if not tripled.
Over the past few years, the Pirates have signed Major League Baseball's first-ever players from Belarus, Lithuania and India. There are players in the system from the Netherlands, South Africa and Honduras. If a country is playing baseball, chances are it is represented in the organization.
Part of this international expansion is to find the most talent from the most places, but there's also the added benefit of having a foot in the door for future players. Even if one signing doesn't work out, if that player is treated right and says good things about the organization, the next big player out of that country might be more willing to sign with the Pirates.
Case in point: The Pirates have a strong footing in Australia thanks to Tony Harris, a roaming scout who lives and coaches in that country. They've signed several Aussies -- including Jamestown pitcher Jackson Lodge -- the past couple years. Some have panned out, some haven't. Lodge is 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA this season.
In 2012, the Pirates signed Sam Kennelly, a 16-year-old, and their most high-profile Australian prospect commanded a $225,000 signing bonus.
"You're talking about 16-, 17-year-old young men that are trying to make a decision as to where to go," Huntington said. "International guys are coming to a whole new country and environment and culture. To have the Pirate City dorm and the controlled structure and discipline and assistance programs we have in place -- we believe those are an asset for us and we believe will help us not only develop but also recruit players."
Still, it's impossible to be perfect no matter how diligent the scouting system is. In 2008, the Pirates signed shortstop Yhonathan Barrios out of Colombia for $250,000. He hit .196 in the New York-Penn League in 2012 and .143 for Jamestown this season before being sent back to the Gulf Coast League to be converted into a relief pitcher.
Also in 2008, the Pirates made a splash by becoming the first team to sign Indian baseball players after Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel won a reality show called "The Million Dollar Arm." Even though Singh has never made it above Class A and is in Bradenton rehabilitating an injury and Patel was released in 2010, a movie about their lives is in the works.
For a small- to mid-market team, the international acquisition process is incredibly valuable, but that doesn't mean it's easy.
"In my mind, it's the most challenging elements that we have in our sport, the projection of what a young player is going to look like and all the variables that go into the development of that player," Huntington said.
This is how the Jammers wound up with a player from Lithuania living with a player from Venezuela and a Taiwanese catcher discussing strategy on the mound with a pitcher from Australia.
The coaching staff in Jamestown seems set up perfectly to help international talent adjust. Jhang goes to English classes with 10 other teammates run by the team's video coordinator, Braden Laruffa, who spoke English, Spanish and Portuguese growing up. Dave Turgeon, Jhang's manager, played internationally, including a long stint in Taiwan. Jhang is shown around by Dave Valesente, who is familiar with Taiwanese culture because his dad played in Taiwan.
"I know how hard it is," Turgeon said. "I feel all of their hearts. That goes right to my staff, and my staff is sensitive to all that, too. We understand how hard it is. The game is hard itself, then throw everything else into the mix? That's really hard."
There's a cubbyhole full of cell phones inside the Jammers' locker room, guarded like a safe by the coaches and coordinators. Turgeon implemented a rule at the beginning of the year: No cell phones once you get to the ballpark. Players can't stick to what makes them comfortable, which in Jhang's case, is reading or messaging people that actually speak his language, Mandarin Chinese.
In lieu of the phones are a ping-pong table, card games and a makeshift barbershop in a corner next to the lockers. Turgeon insists he would have implemented the rule even if he didn't have nine countries represented on his team, but for a non-English speaker, the phone is a lifeline to his family and girlfriend, to his country. Trying to talk and interact with a group of people that don't speak your language isn't the easiest option.
"When I was playing, we didn't have all of that stuff," Turgeon said. "We had each other, so we were always more tight-knit. I'm trying to create more of an old-school atmosphere where guys are more invested in each other than they are their phones ... I'm trying to get communication amongst the players instead of through the outside world."
Jamestown has international prospects from traditional baseball hotbeds -- the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia -- but also prospects from Lithuania, Australia, Taiwan and Cuba. Turgeon could trot out a lineup of nine players from different countries if he wanted.
On the field, communication isn't that difficult. Baseball has its own language, and international players pick up the lingo pretty quickly. Jhang may not know what "throw" means, but he knows that when he says it, a ball is coming toward him.
Jhang's translator has been stuck in Taiwan for months, work visa troubles leaving Jhang (called Johnny by his teammates) without a person around who speaks his native language. His de facto tutor is his roommate, Valesente, 25, a veteran by New York-Penn standards and the team's backup catcher.
"What's that language program? Rosetta Stone? It's like Rosetta Stone every day in the clubhouse," Valesente said. "It's all about learning."
The players live within a long toss of the left-field fence, four or five in each suite-style apartment in dorms that house Jamestown Community College students during the school year. One sample apartment includes representatives of Taiwan (Jhang), Venezuela, Ithaca, N.Y. (Valesente), Las Vegas and Texas.
The group ordered Chinese food the other week, and Valesente made Jhang go downstairs and pick up the food. Any bit of interaction helps. Restaurants are difficult for Jhang -- he can't read the menu and nobody is there to translate, so pictures are helpful. Dinner usually winds up being chicken or a burger, unless he's on the road. There, Jhang and Lithuanian pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas have a ritual: They eat sushi.
At a local restaurant in Jamestown, out-of-towners who get lunch two days in a row will have their drink order remembered. The city feels old because it is; one of those American towns that's stuck as a remnant of a different period. Downtown takes no more than a couple of minutes to drive through, past the museum and gigantic murals of Lucille Ball -- Jamestown's most famous former resident.
The town around Diethrick Park has changed even if the building itself hasn't had a major renovation since 1941. Most of the big, brick factories are either abandoned or have been turned into storage. The "Furniture Capitol of the World" had its glory days years ago. The industrial town isn't known for anything anymore, but the town's primary businesses make truck engines and truck-engine parts at companies such as Cummins Engines and Truck-Lite.
According to the Census Bureau, Jamestown's per capita income is slightly less than $19,000 a year, which is above the poverty line but not by much. Fewer than 20 percent of Jamestown's citizens have graduated from college, and people who are born in Jamestown tend to stay in Jamestown.
One constant has been the Jammers, who remain in a small city even though so many other teams in their league did not.
"I love the town," Turgeon said. "The place is exactly the same since I was in the league in 1987. It's about the work, not about the thrills. All the talent hotbeds in the world come from Spartan conditions, and there's a reason for that -- it's all about the work and not about anything else extracurricular."
Little baseball towns such as this used to exist all across the country and especially all over the New York-Penn League. Geneva, N.Y., population 13,000, had a team. So did Oneonta, N.Y., population 14,000, and Watertown, N.Y., population 27,000.
Those teams still exist in some places -- Batavia, Auburn, Hudson Valley -- but the majority of the league has moved on to play in new, state-of-the-art stadiums. The Brooklyn Cyclones built a $55 million stadium in 2001, while the Staten Island Yankees built their own in 2000 for almost $30 million.
In Aberdeen, Md., the Orioles play in an $18 million stadium that looks like a major league outfit from the press box and club levels, as long as you turn your head away from the field.
In Jamestown, getting to the press box requires climbing up a ladder and through a hatch in the ceiling to get on the roof of the grandstand, which supports a press box that is fashioned like a motor home -- long, skinny and outfitted with the bare necessities.
Yet, the Jammers are still at Diethrick, the second-oldest stadium in the league. The clubhouse feels cramped, and whatever amenities that pro athletes have don't exist. Tall trees poke up from beyond the outfield fence, and the grass has been known to retain large amounts of water.
It's simple, with no frills. Like Jamestown.
Things are different at PNC Park this year. The Pirates have a shot at finishing above .500 and making the playoffs for the first time in 20 years while buoyed by young, homegrown talent surrounded by key veteran free agents.
Seven Jammers recently were named New York-Penn All-Stars, including Jhang and two other foreign-born players. Maybe a few will get the chance to play in Pittsburgh, but not many and certainly not all. In 2012, 243 major league players (more than 28 percent) were born outside of the United States, mostly from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. Two were from Taiwan. The odds aren't high, but it can be done.
Still, most of these players won't have an effect at the big-league level. What they will have is an effect on the Pirates system and culture and on the way the organization operates in the international market. Changing a culture isn't just about changing the immediate product on the field -- it's about changing the entire system, from top to bottom, from Pittsburgh to Jamestown to Bradenton.
Two weeks ago, Jhang stood on the diamond while children ran around him. He and the rest of the Jammers were helping to run a kids camp, one of the many community-service events that the Pirates require their prospects to participate in. Kids met Jhang and stopped in their tracks, amazed. They asked Valesente questions about Jhang, because they've never met somebody who speaks a foreign language. Fewer than 2 percent of all Jamestown citizens were foreign-born.
"It's a nice, small, typical American city," Jammers general manager Matt Drayer said. "We can show these young kids in Jamestown that there is a grander scale from where we get our ballplayers from, and, sometimes, even show their parents."
So maybe it's not just Jamestown helping almost half the Jammers' roster adjust to America.
Maybe it's the Jammers helping Jamestown see the world.
About the Jammers
• Team: Jamestown Jammers.
• Location: Jamestown, N.Y.
• League: New York-Penn League, a short-season Class A minor league.
• Affiliation: First season with the Pirates after a decade with the Miami Marlins. The Pirates' Class A short-season team previously was in State College.
• This season: 31-18 entering play Friday and in first place in the Pinckney Division. It should be noted that the franchise has never won a championship of any kind since its inception in 1989.
• 2013 leaders: Shortstop Adam Frazier is second in the league in batting (.344) and left fielder Harold Ramirez is second in RBIs (35). ... As a team, the Jammers lead the league with a .275 batting average and 5.14 runs a game.
• Of note: Peters Township's Jimmy Rider, taken in the 26th round of the 2012 draft by the Pirates, plays for Jamestown. He is hitting .275 with 11 RBIs.
• History: The New York-Penn League dates to 1939. Jamestown originally had a team in it -- the Jaguars.