Pirates, Mexican ace faced long odds, long route

Special report: It was years in the making, from Heredia's challenging childhood to a determined group of scouts staving off wealthier suitors

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MAZATLAN, Mexico -- Luis Heredia looks like a foreigner on his own field.

It is the fourth inning of a game between Mexico and South Korea, in an international tournament for 15-16 year-olds, played in his hometown, in front of 2,000 adoring fans, with school buddies among his teammates. But the fastball is being clocked at 93 mph -- breathtaking for Heredia's age -- and it snaps the poor catcher's mitt backward a full foot. The downward plane of his pitches, originating with his right hand high above the 6-foot-6 frame, confuses the amateur umpire, and few low strikes are called. Even the first baseman allows three pinpoint pickoff throws to elude him.

Heredia, now charged with three runs on one hit, is flipping the resin bag and kicking the rubber in frustration. His curveball goes flat, and the fastball command veers.

"The kid," Rene Gayo reminds, "just turned 16."

Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director, is seated behind home plate amid a dozen Major League Baseball scouts, all there to see Heredia. With each pitch, they raise their radar guns in unison, like a rifle squad.

Small wonder that, an hour before taking the mound, Heredia had said through a translator, "I want to do so well."

But he is not doing so well, and Gayo thinks he knows why.

"Just look at him," Gayo says. "This is a young man who, for years now, has been pitching to guys three or four years older than him. And dominating them. He's way beyond this."

As if to illustrate that, a few minutes later, Heredia freezes a diminutive South Korean batter with 93-mph heat on the outside corner for his final pitch. This time, the catcher bends without breaking, the umpire makes the right call, and the crowd stands and roars.

The player

That was 10 days ago. On Thursday, Gayo and the Pirates completed a pursuit rooted in a decade-long relationship by agreeing to terms with Heredia and the Mexican team that owned his professional rights on a $2.6 million bonus, largest by far for an international player in the Pirates' history.

And the next step will, indeed, be "way beyond" those four-plus innings against South Korea: He soon will report directly to rookie-level Bradenton of the Gulf Coast League, becoming the Pirates' first prospect in the past decade to bypass the Latin American levels.

Never mind that Heredia, again, will be 3-4 years younger than his peers.

"Oh, I'm happy about that," he says. "I always like that."

To understand why, rewind to one afternoon last summer, when Heredia was asked to accompany Venados de Mazatlan, the city's professional team in the Mexican Pacific League, for an exhibition in nearby Apoderado.

Heredia long had hung around Venados' clubhouse, picking up pointers from a roster that, in the winter months, has included major-leaguers such as the Pirates' Evan Meek and Neil Walker. But this would not be about pointers: Heredia was told he would pitch.

"We were so scared," recalls Maria de Jesus Orosco, Heredia's mother.

They had no idea.

Just before the first inning, Heredia was told to take the mound for Apoderado, not Mazatlan, and his challenge suddenly went from facing a bunch of aging amateurs to current professionals.

Gayo, seated behind the plate, made eye contact with the overgrown child on the mound, grinned and gave a thumbs-up.

"Should have seen him," Gayo says.

"I'm never scared when I'm pitching. For me, pitching is always fun," Heredia interjects before smiling a bit. "But I was maybe a little nervous."

It showed: He walked his first two batters. But, after a visit from the pitching coach and a grin-turned-glare from Gayo, he would pitch two scoreless innings with one hit. Once he knew he was done, he laughed as he returned to the Mazatlan dugout to warm embraces.

Statistics are scarce to support what makes Heredia special, as the Pirates have limited almost all of his pitching for the past few months to exhibitions.

Still, it takes only a glimpse.

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Heredia's fastball sits consistently at 92 mph, with a ramp-up at 93 mph, which means he throws harder now at this fragile age than three-fifths of the Pirates' current rotation. And it appears to explode from the hand, with little buildup and very little visible effort.

Gayo compares the stuff to that of another player he once scouted as an amateur.

"Josh Beckett at the same age," Gayo says. "Same quality of pitches. Same potential. With Luis, he doesn't have one attribute that stands out. What makes him unusual is that he has so many attributes all in one pitcher."

Heredia also has natural movement on the fastball that surprisingly rides in on right-handers, in the mold of Mark Prior -- "Not always," he clarifies. "Just when I want" -- as well as high velocity for his curve and change, and he even flirts with a slider, though often discouraged that catchers are unable to handle it.

Six pitches?

Ben Badler, international editor for Baseball America, wrote that Heredia "was seen by several scouts as the top amateur pitcher on the international market this summer," though he also has quoted scouts as being skeptical of Heredia's offspeed stuff.

"He's the total package," Gayo says. "He's all that, plus command, plus character, plus he's not a nice guy when he takes the mound -- you don't want that -- plus he can grow."

No question about the latter: Heredia's 6-foot-6, 185-pound frame, although more coordinated than most who sprout so quickly -- that pickoff move to first is timed in an excellent 0.98 seconds -- has ample room to add strength, according to Ezequiel Mora, the personal trainer overseeing his daily workouts for a year under the Pirates' auspices.

"No, Luis is not strong at all," Mora says, laughing.

Those workouts mostly consisted of running along the beach or the outfield track at the stadium, light throwing and a game each Sunday. No weights were used, for protection of the arm.

Once that changes ...

"That's the amazing part," Mora continues. "Luis already can throw so hard just because of his delivery and his arm action. When his arm gets stronger, it will be something else."

"The fastball, right now, is what God gave him," Gayo says. "There will be more."

One area that already is strikingly advanced is Heredia's coordination. There is nothing awkward about his posture or walk off the field, and nothing even remotely amiss on the mound.

"I had an umpire tell me once he was shocked when he went to the mound once and saw how tall Luis was," Gayo says. "This was after a few innings."

Gayo often refers to Heredia as a "Martian," his playful way to describe a truly special prospect. The only other player Gayo has given such a label was Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano, who was courted just as feverishly by the Pirates last summer and ended up signing with the Minnesota Twins for $3.15 million.

"I'm in the business of finding dogs who play checkers," Gayo says. "When you find one, you don't ask why. You're just happy they can play checkers."

The person

"El Caballito," they call Heredia, in and around the stadium. As in "Little Horse." And he hates it.

He appreciates the sentiment, so he does not openly object. And, aside from that, it takes quite a bit to keep this easygoing yet outgoing individual from smiling on just about any topic. But the nickname is a direct offshoot of "El Caballo," which they once called Hector Heredia. And Luis most assuredly does not consider himself a direct offshoot, no matter the bloodlines.

Maria gave birth to Luis after she and Hector -- a lifelong minor league pitcher who played as high as the Class AAA levels in the Los Angeles and Houston systems until 1990 -- conceived the child out of wedlock, and Luis has remained without a father ever since. The family says Hector never contacted them until December, when, as they skeptically view it, Luis was on the verge of making money -- and he never sent financial support. When Luis finally met Hector that month, according to those close to him, he was unmoved.

"It meant nothing to Luis," Maria says.

Luis, showing his age when the topic is raised, turns to his mother, puts his hand on her shoulder and says, "I've always thought of you as my mother and father."

Mazatlan, on the west coast of Mexico's mainland and a two-hour flight south of Phoenix, is home to 400,000 and it is as diverse as can be: There is the country's largest commercial port, a bustling business district, a quaint colonial neighborhood, upscale housing in the rolling hills for the rich, a string of beachfront hotels for the American tourists, and there are the poor.

Luis was raised in the family's one-story, cement house in one of the poorest sections. Maria worked while raising Luis and his younger sister, and the family had help with money mailed from Maria's sister, a resident of Florida.

"There were times when it was difficult being a single mother," Maria says, fluent in English. "But we made it, and Luis did, too. When he had to go to play in California in the Pony League in 2008, we had to pay, and we found a way. Our family has one big heart."

Getting by was only a small part of the challenge in Luis' life. Many children in the blocks around his house get early starts in being involved in Mexico's epidemic of drug sales and use, as well as related gang activity. Most of those who would sell would at least use.

"Not Luis," Maria says. "Some of his friends were drinking and smoking, but Luis never got into any kind of trouble."

The family credits Luis with admonishing a relative about excessive drinking. When Luis was 14.

"I'm just very proud to have a family like this," Luis says. "They mean everything to me."

Maria credits her father -- Luis' grandfather -- as helping to fill the paternal role, but much of that fell the past few years to Jesus "Chino" Valdez, the Pirates' Mexican scouting supervisor and a lifelong Mazatlan resident.

Valdez has known Luis since he was 5, and Luis spent nearly as much time at the Valdez house in recent years as his own. Valdez's son, Jesus Jr., was Luis' catcher for a spell, and the two are close friends.

"Like my second family," Luis says, crossing himself.

Chino was the father figure long before turning more serious in the scouting capacity -- "Luis got really big when he was 13, and everybody noticed he could be great," Chino says -- but he invariably talks about the person more than the player.

"We talk in baseball about character, maturity," Chino says. "This young man grew up a long time ago."

The process

In the "Wild, Wild West" world of chasing international free agents -- only players in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are eligible for the draft, and everyone else is fair game at age 16 -- prospects often get hidden by the first team that spots a talent. Either that, or the team essentially dictates all the player's activities, decides when and where he pitches, even tells him what to say, often simply to distract or deceive other teams that might be interested.

If the Pirates are hiding Heredia on the afternoon of this tournament game against South Korea, they are doing a really lousy job of it.

Valdez drives a buggy akin to a glorified golf cart -- common in Mazatlan -- that he recently had painted in pure Pittsburgh black and gold, with Pirates decals all around. He and Gayo are chauffeuring Heredia to the game, honking, laughing and waving as they pass acquaintances at the many sidewalk eateries. Heredia waves, too, while sporting a Pirates cap.


Once inside Estadico Teodoro Mariscal, Heredia sets off to join his teammates, and Valdez and Gayo -- the former served as the Mazatlan club's general manager for years, Gayo as his assistant -- make themselves at home in the last row of seats behind home plate. Right where the parade of scouts soon would begin, all having to pass that spot.

Up the steps comes Oakland's Grady Fuson, one of baseball's most respected scouts.

"Hi, Grady," Gayo says.

Fuson nods. Both men know that, earlier in the day, the Athletics spoke with Heredia's mother. Maria was unmoved.

Next come the Yankees, who, according to word that day, have tried to get to Heredia through his father. That was not about to work.

Many others follow -- all have spoken to Heredia -- some of whom have tried and tried but never made a personal connection.

Gayo is not 100 percent certain he will get Heredia. As he would confess that evening, "I just want this to be over with." That sentiment arises from recent history, Gayo still blaming himself for the Pirates' failure to get Sano, a prospect he still calls "the best I've ever seen." Earlier on this day, he welled up when the Sano topic arose.

In front of Gayo's peers, though, it is all poker-face. A couple of scouts step up to congratulate him for signing Heredia, having heard a morning radio report that Maria said, "My son will sign with the Pirates." Gayo denies it -- "Congratulations for what?" -- and he has backing: Two days earlier, the Mexican League declared that no team could make a formal offer to Veracruz for Heredia until this past Thursday, affording major league teams the chance to first focus on the Monday deadline to sign draft picks.

Gayo still speaks confidently, even if he does not consistently sound it, and he points to the way the Pirates arranged Heredia's signing with Veracruz Jan. 1: The Rangers had tried it first, but Heredia insisted on sticking with "Chino."

That worked nicely for Gayo, who has had a 20-year relationship with Jose Antonio Mansur, owner of Veracruz. Mansur knew at the time he signed Heredia that the youngster never would pitch for that club -- a player has to be 16 to go pro in Mexico, and his rights surely would be sold -- but Mansur also knew that Veracruz could be in for quite the payday. In Mexico, the club keeps 75 percent of the bonus.

Gayo and Mansur discussed the Pirates' intent that day and stayed in constant contact. By the final month, Mansur was taking calls about Heredia only from Gayo, leaving a lieutenant for the rest.

Money would be an issue, as friendship alone was not going to satisfy Mansur. But Gayo sought and received approval from Pittsburgh for an allotment that would double his standard $3 million international budget, authorized by general manager Neal Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly, with owner Bob Nutting notified.

Kyle Stark, director of player development, flew to Mexico to watch Heredia pitch earlier this summer, and the team's view strengthened.

So did the relationship, with Valdez now spending "about 80 percent of my work" on Heredia, and Gayo similarly locked in even though he had to oversee the rest of the Pirates' annual July 2 international class.

One American League team complained informally to MLB that the Pirates were hiding Heredia, even though rules are vague in that area. Gayo hotly denies it while watching Heredia pitch.

"I'm not hiding him," Gayo says, motioning to the mound. "There he is."

As if to bolster the point, Gayo and Valdez leave the stadium right after Heredia is done, with the game still going, fully aware some of the scouts will try to talk to Heredia and family afterward. Gayo entrusts a relative to drive Heredia home.

Heredia allows that the scene is "pretty nervous for me sometimes," but adds with a smile, "Maybe it's a little fun, too. With Chino and Rene, everything is fun. And you know they mean what they say."

The mother expresses the same sentiment.

"So many of these scouts, they talk in a way you can't trust them. Chino and Rene, you just know."

As much as the Pirates held the upper hand throughout this process, there also are occasions where Gayo and his men are in the reverse role, scouting in stadiums knowing full well someone else is going to get the player. Or, in the case of Sano, a sudden change undoes years of work.

In the end, with the agreement reached almost immediately Thursday morning, all that was required was a call from Gayo to Mansur, a physical for Heredia -- whisked in and out of Pittsburgh -- and a signed agreement.

In the early hours after that agreement, Gayo exclaimed in a text message, "Pittsburgh Pirates WIN and get 'El Mariachi,' the best pitcher in Latin America for 2010!"

"El Mariachi?" After the joyous Mexican music that can be heard all across the streets of Mazatlan?

That is the new nickname Gayo is trying to make stick, and he will back it with a mariachi band for the formal signing ceremony Tuesday at a Mazatlan port.

Heredia will be chauffered in that buggy.

"He's a happy kid, and he's going to make a lot of people in Pittsburgh happy someday," Gayo explains. "He deserves a nickname he likes."

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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