BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- Rene Gayo is a mountain of a man in many ways, big as Santa Claus and, to some, no less generous. As the Pirates' director of Latin American scouting, he is empowered to dramatically change people's lives -- exponentially, almost unimaginably -- with a mere handshake.
But it takes little to make this mountain melt.
Ask Gayo, for instance, his most memorable moment in eight years in this role, including three with Cleveland.
"I'll never forget Rafael Perez," he recalls of the current Indians reliever he signed as a 19-year-old on Jan. 25, 2002, but had just seen the previous day. "There were some teams that had sent him away. The Yankees. The Marlins. So I go out and see him pitching one day against Edinson Volquez."
He laughs in revisiting one that got away. Volquez was an exceptional rookie in Cincinnati this past season.
"Should have signed them both."
The Post-Gazette's three-part series on the Pirates' work in the Dominican Republic:
SUNDAY: 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.
TODAY: The Architect
Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo must fight back emotions in a setting where he is treated like a deity.
Perez threw a devastating slider, "the best I'd ever seen," a 70 on the scouting scale of 20-80, and Gayo approached him immediately afterward.
"I said, 'What do you want? Tell me the number.' And he said to me, 'I want $20,000.' I came back, 'Well, I'm going to give you $30,000.' And he hugged me ..."
With that, Gayo breaks down and interrupts the interview, taking place in a seaside restaurant in this coastal resort town. Seated nearby is a member of his staff. Two tables away is Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez. If it embarrasses Gayo that they might see him at this moment, it is impossible to tell. He takes a minute to compose himself.
"Rafael's father abandoned him, and he was playing to support his mother. She came and thanked me, and I told her she's thanking the wrong person. That's why I like doing what I'm doing. Some people want to be GM. Not me. This is what I want to do. It's the job of a lifetime."
"This is a good man, Rene Gayo, a compassionate man, a family man," former Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen says. "I feel lucky to know him."
Seems almost unimaginable now, but Gayo, the 46-year-old, American-born son of Cuban immigrants and a godfather-like figure in the large baseball component of this region, never even visited the Caribbean until after the Indians named him Latin director in 2000.
His Spanish is impeccable, and his gregarious personality a perfect fit for the fun-loving Latin culture. He can boom out a song in a crowded restaurant, stop his car to encourage dancing on a random street corner, and he can offer a saying or spin a tale for just about any situation he encounters.
Among his favorites: "In America, we live to work. Here, we work to live."
Gayo's boyhood home in Chicago was filled with Cuban refugees taken in by his parents, often dozens at a time, so the culture and language came easily. But his upbringing would become very much American, including a dabble of hockey to go with his baseball, and, at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, a degree in economics.
His baseball career was cut short after a year of rookie ball with the Cincinnati Reds, as no catcher can recover from two knee surgeries, so he turned to conventional work -- representing a bottling company -- until 1989, when Cam Bonifay, the Pirates' general manager at the time, called to offer part-time scouting work in Texas and Louisiana.
"I wasn't sure what I'd think of it, but I knew I still wanted to be in baseball," Gayo recalls.
He bounced from the Texas Rangers to Cleveland, and his turning point came in 1998 when the Indians were eliminated by the New York Yankees and Cuban pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. John Hart, the Indians' general manager, fumed and assigned Gayo to study the team's operations in Latin America.
By 2000, Gayo had the title of scouting director for that region and soon would sign a remarkable total of 11 players who have made it to Cleveland or elsewhere in the majors, including Fausto Carmona, Jhonny Peralta, Willy Taveras, Danys Baez and Perez. Total expenditure on all 11 players: $2.1 million.
As much satisfaction as that surely brought, Gayo describes a personal element that touched him more.
"I felt like I found myself, like I belonged there," he recalls.
The Pirates lured away Gayo three years later with a bigger salary and the promise of an investment in the region comparable to that of the Indians, this despite the franchise inexplicably having left the position of Latin American scouting director vacant for five years. But Dave Littlefield, the general manager who made that hire, never followed through in upgrading the Dominican academy or the annual signing budget.
Perhaps as a result, Gayo has not come close to matching the productivity of his time with the Indians: Only two of his signed players have reached Pittsburgh, both pitchers: One was Romulo Sanchez, originally signed but released by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The other was Yoslan Herrera, a 27-year-old Cuban defector Littlefield and Gayo saw pitch once in 2006 -- in a tryout -- before giving him a three-year, major league contract worth a guaranteed $1.92 million.
Gayo and management still see hope for Sanchez, but Gayo minces no words when describing his displeasure with Herrera, who was promoted from Class AA Altoona this summer as the Pirates were tragically desperate for pitching and posted a 9.82 ERA in five starts.
"Pin that one on me," Gayo says. "We didn't have a lot of background on him. That's tough to get with Cubans these days. But he tried to portray himself as someone who wanted to be part of a winner and, instead, he's been very complacent. I should have seen that."
Herrera was removed from the 40-man roster last month, with a year remaining on that contract.
Gayo feels far better about his class of the past year, since his budget was nearly tripled by upper management to $2 million, and he seems to feel even better about the new academy and developmental system. But the fact remains that his overall production -- including minimal returns in the upper reaches of the minor league system -- is well below his level with Cleveland and, thus, it is no surprise that he seems never to allow his natural emotions to distract his focus.
"I can't let that happen, no matter what I see wherever I go," Gayo says. "With me, it didn't work out as a player, and that's OK. With them, if it doesn't work out, they're going to sell mangos. I have a chance to affect a guy's life and, to me, that's a very humbling thing."
What about empowering?
Gayo often speaks that "I'm not God," but it surely must seem he is close to that in the eyes of some. The median income here is $2,850, and even a relatively low bonus of $10,000 for a failed stint in the Pirates' academy can make a life-changing difference.
"I don't look at it that way. If you look at it without emotions, yeah, I've got a lot of power in my hand everywhere I walk here. But I look at that as something to be very careful with. As soon as that creeps into your mind, you'll lose sight of what we're really doing here. I have to find people with ability, as well as people who have something inside the cap."
Gayo can oversee as many as six hours' worth of workouts in a day, within a nomadic itinerary that sees him flying alone to check out fledgling baseball countries such as Nicaragua or, in the hotbeds, getting driven to remote regions by his national scouts in hopes of finding a player no other team has seen.
He gets other help, too: Across the Caribbean, the Pirates' 'P' still conjures images of Roberto Clemente, a Latin American icon well beyond his native Puerto Rico, and that is readily evident by the abundance of Pittsburgh or No. 21 gear here.
"We're still the team of Clemente, and we always will be," Gayo says.
The cap also carries weight in Panama, where the franchise three decades ago found a bounty in Sanguillen, Omar Moreno and Rennie Stennett. Gayo and Sanguillen make frequent scouting runs there now.
"Everybody opens the door for us," Sanguillen says. "That surprises me sometimes because the Pirates are not doing too good right now. But people still think of the Pirates first there. They still love the Pirates."
Sanguillen and Moreno will jointly open a foundation for children ages 5-12 in Panama in December.
"We want to find good players," Sanguillen says. "I want to win another World Series, and I know Rene wants to win, too."
Gayo still wears a large ring commemorating the Indians' 1997 American League pennant.
"I've been in Pittsburgh once in the past two years, but I never lose sight of the idea that I'm finding players -- real players, great players -- to help the Pirates win a game at PNC Park," Gayo says. "Those guys, Manny and Omar and the people who made the Pirates what they were, I see them, and I remember, too. That's what drives me. It turns me on."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published December 2, 2008 5:00 AM