On the Pirates: Little Pittsburgh in Dominican
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This morning, 60-plus players will report for the first time to the Pirates' new Latin American academy in Guerra, Dominican Republic.
Tomorrow, they will take to one of the three fields -- the one being named for Roberto Clemente -- for their first workout in preparation for the upcoming Dominican Summer League season.
And Thursday, the team will have its grand opening, with the emphasis on grand: Attending will be Dominican President Leonel Fernandez; members of the Clemente family including widow Vera and sons Luis and Roberto Jr.; as well as all of the Pirates' top brass including owner Bob Nutting, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington.
All of which surely will come with great satisfaction for two men in particular: Dennis DaPra, the general manager of PNC Park who made no fewer than a dozen trips to the Dominican while overseeing the year-and-a-half of construction. And Rene Gayo, the Latin American scouting director who will benefit from the place more than anyone.
"It's very exciting. There's a real pride," DaPra said. "When you look back, it was just May of 2007 when Bob Nutting made his trip to the island to see how we could improve there, and all of this has happened since then. It took vision and a lot of teamwork."
Part of that vision, DaPra said, was to have the academy -- a headquarters building, clubhouse and an observation tower in the middle of the fields, spread over 46 acres and surrounded by forest -- patterned after PNC Park, to give the amateurs a feeling of pride in the Pirates. To that end, DaPra worked closely with the Dominican architect, Jose Mella, to the extent that Mella was flown to Pittsburgh in early 2008 to get a first-hand feel for PNC.
"You can see signs of our ballpark everywhere there," DaPra said.
The project was expected to cost in the range of $5 million, and it finished close to that figure.
The Pirates also increased their budget for acquiring amateur talent in Latin America -- players outside the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are essentially free agents beginning at age 16 -- from $700,000 in 2007 to $2 million last year, in the upper third of Major League Baseball, and that could rise again this year.
Which is where Gayo and his network of 18 scouts come in.
"It's great to have the facility. It's a beautiful place, the best one on the island, and it's going to be a great help," Gayo said. "But we still have to get the players. The job stays the same."
How hard is it to find talent in Latin America?
Consider that Gayo began eyeing a Mexican pitcher a year ago when the pitcher had just turned 15 and was so enamored that he and his scouts in that country made multiple visits to the boy's home, got to know the family and ??? they packed up and moved to California, which means he will play in high school and be eligible for the amateur draft.
So much for any edge the Pirates might have had over other suitors.
The pitcher, whom Gayo declined to name, "might have been one of the best I've ever seen at that age."
By catcher Jason Jaramillo's admission, this will be a unique homecoming.
"I'm a Hispanic kid from Wisconsin," Jaramillo said, punctuating it with a smile.
Jaramillo's return tomorrow to his native Milwaukee area -- he is from Franksville, 23 miles south -- took a new twist after Ryan Doumit's wrist surgery: Now, he is a starter. Lucky for him, a cousin works in the Brewers' marketing department, so "I think she's purchasing the majority of the tickets for my family."
Baseball became the Jaramillo family game after father Francisco moved from Mexico as a migrant-farm worker, picked cabbage and carrots for a living, then married Nora, a Texas native. Their first three sons turned into professional players: Frankie was an infielder who played on Texas and Milwaukee minor-league teams that also included Pirates outfielder Craig Monroe; Lee was a Brewers-system catcher.
Jason attended games but never played in Miller Park or its predecessor. But his father, a contractor, had a role in demolishing old Milwaukee County Stadium.
"It's going to be fun," Jaramillo said. "I haven't been to that park in a long time."
More than a few eyebrows likely were raised when the Pirates drew 20,755 to PNC Park for that Saturday afternoon game last weekend -- a 10-0 blowout of the Atlanta Braves -- and that could have a long-term impact.
The day game was the Pirates' first at home on a Saturday since Sept. 3, 2005 -- when they were forced it into it because of a Pitt football game at night -- and it came at the urging of Coonelly, as did another one later this season, Sept. 19. His thinking was that in April and September, the better weather would come earlier in the day, and that certainly was the case last weekend, with a first-pitch temperature of 68 degrees under a sunny sky.
Perhaps as a result, the team sold a remarkable 5,000 tickets the day of the game.
"I really like Saturday day games myself," Coonelly said. "I had to convince some of our people here that we should do one early and one late."
Might there be more?
"We'll look into it."
First Published April 26, 2009 12:00 am