Pirates in the Caribbean: Mining for diamonds

Part 1: A young Dominican outduels peers who play baseball 'for food'


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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- It is 9 a.m., and the November sun is searing this walled-off urban minefield of a baseball diamond, where Sadid Frias has filed into a fidgeting line of 17 hopeful teenagers. The tryout is about to begin, and the talent on hand -- most of it ushered here by the local buscones, pseudo-agents who groom players from the time they are toddlers -- is dressed for success.

The deftly angled caps are mostly major league models, stickers left intact to prove authenticity. One has a genuine jersey, with garish red pinstripes, and the rest have T-shirts that match the caps. The gloves, despite soot-like leather and flapjack action, appear freshly stitched. Even the spiked shoes, the most precious commodity, are in decent repair save the hole that exposes the right big toe of one catcher. Too many pivots in throwing to second base, probably.

Whether or not these cobbled-together ensembles are on loan from the buscones seems to matter little to the dozens of neighborhood children watching. A few, perched atop a dugout, voice approval with cries of "Oye!" -- Spanish for "Hey!" -- when two players walk on together in Chicago Cubs blue.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN

This is the first of the Post-Gazette's three-part series on the Pirates' work in the Dominican Republic:

TODAY: The Blueprint
A young pitcher sees his life change with one handshake, but the path to Pittsburgh is a long one.

MONDAY: The Structure
A $5 million academy, set to open in the summer, is but one way of making up for several lost years.

TUESDAY: The Architect
Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo must fight back emotions in a setting where he is treated like a deity.


The players themselves, though, do not speak as they wait outside the rusty tin-roofed cage behind home plate where their futures -- for a day, anyway -- are about to be decided.

Seated inside the cage is Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director, and he and two assistants begin a face-to-face inventory.

The first summoned is a strapping outfielder, who enters with his chin jutted and a slight smirk.

"Nombre?" Gayo asks.

"Posicion?"

The questions get no tougher. Just a full name, position, age, height and weight.

But Gayo, as he pens the responses with an occasional glance up, clearly is bugged by the hollowness of what he sees. He waves away the player with a derisive flick of his hand.

Second is an infielder Gayo recognizes as having lied about his age before a previous tryout.

"We've started badly."

Next is Frias.

He, too, has fit in fashionably -- Los Angeles cap, T-shirt in Dodgers blue -- but he seems less uptight than the rest.

Once Gayo has filled out his form after the standard questioning -- right-handed pitcher, 18 years old, 6 feet 3, 190 pounds -- he bolts unexpectedly out of his chair and stands chest-to-chest with Frias, something he would do for no one else on this day. Without speaking, without so much as squinting, he looks the player in the eye for five seconds.

Five ... eternal ... seconds.

The fidgeting in the line halts, and all that can be heard is the crow of a rooster beyond center field.

Frias neither flinches, nor blinks. He even takes a breath.

Gayo pats him on the left shoulder and sends him along.

"I use it to engage the person," Gayo explains. "You stand up to him. How does he respond?"

Soon, Frias will stand alone.

'It's the Dominican game'

This Caribbean island nation of 9.7 million people has a median annual income of $2,850. Most of its people are impoverished. Its streets are lined with vendors hanging uncovered meat for sale. But its growing list of exports include bananas, coffee, tobacco and, yes, a remarkable wealth of baseball talent: One in every 10 players in Major League Baseball is Dominican, a ratio second only to the Americans, and the honor roll includes Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada. Perhaps more impressive, roughly one in every three players in the North American minor leagues is Dominican.

Here, baseball never sleeps.

Youngsters in coastal La Romana play on a dump site, having shoved the debris to the outfield for a de facto fence. On a narrow slice of cobblestone in the capital Santo Domingo, two 20-year-olds engage in a Brooklyn-style game of stickball, except that the gear is a tree branch and rock. By night, from November to January, 15,000-seat stadiums are jammed with singing, roaring crowds to support the six-team Dominican Winter League, with many native major leaguers delighted to participate on $11,000 salaries as a show of national pride.

"Baseball used to be America's national pastime," Gayo says. "Now, it's the Dominican game. It's been in the culture from the time the Cubans brought it here in the mid-1800s to now, when it's the country's passion. And that's how it has to be. Baseball is a game you play with your heart."

One can play it for money, too, as the Dominicans are seeing.

Only amateur players from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico are eligible for the annual major league draft, and players from everywhere else are international free agents and can be signed as young as 16 beginning each July 2. And, as usually happens with an open market, the competition has intensified. Signing bonuses that averaged $10,000 in 2000 now routinely reach six figures, a level achieved by 108 players this year alone, according to Baseball America. Of those, 55 are Dominicans, with their total take at $25.4 million.

It is during this period that the Pirates, the franchise of Roberto Clemente that pioneered Latin American scouting a half-century ago, allowed their operations here to crumble.

Under previous general managers Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield, the team's Dominican training complex decayed, and the signing budgets stayed stagnant. The result: No internally signed Latin American amateur has made it to Pittsburgh since former second baseman Jose Castillo, signed in 1997.

The initial sign of change came in May 2007, when owner Bob Nutting reacted to learning about the state of the program with a visit to the Dominican and, ultimately, ordered the building of a new $5 million academy that should open in May of next year. Four months after the trip, Nutting fired Littlefield -- partly because of the Latin American failures -- and replaced him with a new team president, Frank Coonelly, and general manager, Neal Huntington, who have nearly tripled Gayo's signing budget, from $700,000 to $2 million.

It all seems a relief to Gayo, a 2003 hire and one of the few holdovers from the Littlefield administration.

"Bob had the vision, and Frank and Neal have made my work a lot easier," Gayo says. "But you know what? You still have to find the kids."

So, back to those 17 players ...

On the field that once served as the Montreal Expos' academy, crammed into one of the capital's densest residential sections, the pitching rubber towers so far above the caved-in mound that no one dares toe it. Instead, they carve out a small hole in front of it. The infield dirt is coarse as pebbles, and the outfield grass ... suffice it to say that anyone with a glove learns early in life how to field ground-ball singles by allowing the ball to roll up to the biceps, then popping it back down into the bare hand.the glove.

No one has announced this tryout, but no one has to. When Gayo passed through Santo Domingo's airport earlier in the week, one of his scouts believes, a man at customs called the buscones to inform them. Within three hours, Gayo's BlackBerry was full of messages, and his scouts quickly compiled enough names for two tryouts.

The first tryout produced two signings -- outfielders Eliezer Aquino and Jacobo Espiede-- and, on this second day, Gayo is accompanied by Cleveland Indians reliever Rafael Perez, a player he signed in 2002. Perez has a pitching cousin he wants Gayo to see.

As they head toward the scouting cage, it is Gayo -- and not the major leaguer -- who commands the awe. The tryout players, even some of the children, pass in front of him simply to be seen.

A few approach Perez, too, but not to seek an autograph. Rather, they ask how he throws his patented slider.

"They want to know how I pitch, not how I write my name," Perez says.

'He's a Pirate'

The tryout opens with 60-yard outfield sprints, and nearly everyone clocks under 7 seconds. Trouble is, few should be doing that. Gayo sends an assistant to get a tape measure and finds that 2 yards were shaved, perhaps by an eager buscon moving the cones earlier in the morning. Gayo scolds his staff.

The outfielders show off their arms in the first drills, gunning strong but erratic throws to third base and home. In the buildup to each throw, the children scream encouragement like the run-up to a football kickoff.

The infield work consists of shortstops in survival mode, gauging violent hops while trying to maintain the customary Dominican flash. One of them, just as each ball nears his glove, leaps with both feet to a sideways stance, like Spider-Man bracing for a bad guy.

Not much about the running or defense will matter much in evaluating these players, Gayo says, adding, "You have to hit your way off the island."

The hitters will get their chance around noon with the day's most-anticipated session, facing pitchers in simulated action, but that immediately proves a laughable mismatch. Fastballs scorch at 92 mph, curveballs buckle knees and barely a crack of the bat is heard.

Still, the pitchers are not doing much for Gayo, mostly because, as he accuses one in some colorful Spanish, they are not pitching with enough fortitude.

"Challenge the hitter," he says of his criteria. "I want the pitcher who takes the mound in Pittsburgh and scares the Phillies, not the one trying to be clever."

Perez, perhaps as a show of appreciation for the man who signed him, agrees to hold the radar gun for all pitchers. But Gayo quickly demonstrates he will play no favorites when Perez's cousin takes the mound with slumped shoulders.

"This isn't going to be good."

Sure enough, three of the dozen pitches rattle the backstop, and the cousin mopes away.

Finally, here comes Frias, after three-plus hours of inactivity since a few warmup tosses.

Gayo has seen him once before, but what matters most is that his assistants -- two of his five scouts on the island -- have been tailing him for a year. Frias is two years older than most of the elite prospects culled internationally, but the scouts have seen something click in recent months.

Still, Gayo is pessimistic.

"I'm the guy with the checkbook. Almost everyone looks bad when I see them."

That turns out true of Frias, as well. He fiddles for a moment with the ball, then opens with a changeup in the dirt and a fastball shoulder-high.

Gayo, clearly not wanting to give up because of that gleam in the eye earlier, shouts, "Eyo!" to bring him to the backstop.

"Are you nervous?" Gayo asks in Spanish.

A shake of the head.

"Well, forget the people here watching you. Doesn't matter if it's me or 40,000. Just pitch."

After a wipe of the brow, a crisp fastball catches the outside corner. The next pitch, a slider, looks so promising coming out of Frias' fingers that Gayo yells "Uh-oh!" just before it draws a swing and a miss. Another fastball sneaks under the fists.

It was methodical and, to Gayo's view, magical.

"He's a Pirate," Gayo declares, even though Frias' buscon is within earshot and it could hurt a negotiation.

A second simulated inning is sought later, and that produces enough additional quality that even an errant slider draws an approving "A-ha!" from Gayo.

"You can teach command, but the life on that pitch ... that comes from God."

Perez concurs with a smile: "That's the pitch that made me my money."

On the scouting scale of 20 to 80, with 50 being major league average, Frias shows up on Gayo's card as having a 40 fastball -- clocking at 86-89 mph -- but with a 55 projection for the majors. The reason for the increase in projection is Frias' lanky frame, which Gayo estimates will allow him to add 20 to 30 pounds with ease.

"I'm actually being conservative. Look how long his arms are. He's going to be a monster. We just need to feed him."

Frias projects to 55 for life on his pitches, 60 for control, 55 for aggressiveness and 60 for arm action, the latter a critical sign that he can avoid shoulder or elbow injuries. The final column on the sheet, labeled "CHP," stands simply for "Can he play?" Frias projects to 60.

After the last out, Frias lowers his head and walks off the mound. There is no mope, but he is careful not to look into the scouting cage.

Gayo is not nearly as discreet. He bursts from his chair and yells in Spanish, "Pitcher!" Frias, still cool, approaches.

Those two and Frias' buscon, Yasmil Soriano, meet at the side of the cage, and Gayo gets right to it: "How is $70,000?"

Frias nods, still without a smile, as does the buscon. There is a handshake, and it is done.

"I am very content," Frias says through a translator a couple minutes later.

What about those nerves?

What about that face-to-face challenge earlier?

"I felt like he was helping me," Frias says of Gayo. "So, when he looked at me or talked to me, it relaxed me."

Gayo drapes his arm around Frias' shoulder, offers more advice, and pointedly instructs the buscon not to let Frias pitch anywhere until further notice. He then allows Frias to leave so he can call his family -- no parents were seen in attendance -- but not before he barks out one last order: "Get that thing off your head!"

Frias swiftly strips off the Dodgers cap, and one of Gayo's assistants fits him with a Pirates model.

'His dream is mine'

Frias' story is hardly the norm. He is an honor-roll high school student with a plan to study medicine. His father, Eugenio, is an accountant, and his mother, Maria, applied her master's degree in accounting to become principal of an elementary school in the Manoguayabo district of Santo Domingo.

Sadid lives with his mother -- the parents split years ago -- in a small but exquisitely maintained second-floor apartment with polished white tile, classic furniture and a modern kitchen. A trash-strewn construction yard abuts their building, and chickens loiter by the curb, but the setting is unmistakably brighter than the lowest classes.

So, why baseball?

"He was 9, and he said he wanted to play," Eugenio recalls. "I wanted him to study. But numbers are my life, and baseball is his. His dream is mine."

The family's reaction upon being informed of the signing, by all accounts, was measured.

"I've always had a lot of faith in Sadid," Maria says. "Of course, the money helps. But I'm really happy he's doing something he wanted to do. Today is a day of joy."

Gayo and his staff visit Frias' home the day after the agreement, and Gayo is impressed all the more. So many of his signed players are desperate to excel in baseball primarily because of the money and, once they have some, they lose the passion.

"This kid loves the game enough to compete against kids who are playing it for food on their tables," Gayo says. "That tells me something."

Soriano, the buscon, is invited, too, as a show of respect. He will take $10,000 of Frias' $70,000 bonus, but Gayo has no issue with that. Unlike the agents who graft onto Latin American players later in the careers, the buscones organize games and drills for players beginning at age 5. They round up equipment, drive players wherever they need to be seen, buy shoes and vitamins, and their cycle never stops. Frias' buscon will be back on the playground the next morning.

"At least, these guys have earned their cut," Gayo says.

Maria turns over her son's passport and birth certificate, but that will not be enough to prove his age and identity. Major League Baseball's Santo Domingo office, installed earlier this decade to reduce rampant fraud that was costing the sport millions, will undertake the required investigation of Frias' age through paperwork and interviews.

If the Pirates still have doubts, they could perform a bone-analysis DNA test, as they began doing last year. That is what they did earlier this year to prove that a pitcher who went by Joldi Sierra was lying about his name and age. The team rescinded the contract immediately and got its money back.

Gayo tells tales of having only a grandmother's word as proof of a player's age, of recordkeeping in one village being handled by one "old man on a hill" who could be bribed for $10,000, of a player hiring an aunt to lie -- and cry -- for him under an assumed name. There is no computerized identity database in the Dominican.

"You can be pretty much anybody you want here," Gayo says.

Within a week, pending investigation, Frias will be sent to the Pirates' existing academy in nearby San Pedro de Macoris, where he will live, eat and try to prove himself out of a field of 55. He should play for one of the team's two affiliates in the Dominican Summer League next summer and, if he fares well, could make his first visit to the United States in the fall, to the Pirates' spring home of Bradenton, Fla., for the Instructional League.

Out of the 75 players the new academy will hold, if just one or two per year reach the majors, it would be considered a success by industry standards. And that low ratio is not just because of baseball ability. Some cannot read. Some arrive in the U.S. and never adjust to the culture. Some simply lack the will.

"This young man's going to make it," Gayo says with his arm draped around Frias as he exits the home. "I know it's a long way from the island to PNC Park. And I know this isn't a science, what we do here. It's an art. That's why, with each guy I sign, something's got to hit me, really hit me. I'm telling you, you're going to see this kid in Pittsburgh."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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