Pirates of the Caribbean: Brick by brick
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GUERRA, Dominican Republic -- Perhaps it is designed to make Pittsburgh seem real to the youngsters who will play here.
The arched-crown facades of the two building frames, which will dominate the Pirates' new $5 million Latin American Academy, resemble the headquarters of the franchise's spring home in Bradenton, Fla. The blue-steel frames for the covered dugouts, batting cages and observation deck look like additions to PNC Park. Even the grass, sprawled across the 46 acres surrounded on all sides by thick forests, is being nurtured by Manny Lopez, head groundskeeper on the North Shore.
"First class," Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo calls it. "Top to bottom, inside out."
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.
TODAY: 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.
That requires some imagination at this point. The buildings are shells, as are most elements, and the targeted completion date for the full complex is May.
When it is done, it will function as a magnet school for talent from across the Caribbean and will include:
• A two-level headquarters building with offices for the Pirates' Latin American staff, a dormitory for as many as 90 players and coaches, two classrooms, a computer/video room, dining hall and players' lounge. Each of the 18 players on the Dominican Summer League team, the best of the crop, will have his own room. The classrooms will be used for baseball as well as English classes and, in some cases, reading and writing of native Spanish. The offices will be wired for the Internet -- not common here -- and fitted with direct phone contact to PNC Park, with calls made by simply dialing three-number extensions.
• A two-level, two-team clubhouse building, with a weight room and equipment storage.
• A quadrangle of four fields. Two will be full fields, including one used for summer league games, another a half-field for infield work and the fourth a grassy stretching area.
• An observation deck at the center, from which coaches and evaluators can perch just above home plate of each diamond.
• A location convenient for the Pirates' visiting staff. The complex is a few minutes north of the capital Santo Domingo's international airport. It also is close to several other academies, including those of the New York Yankees and Mets, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals.
The same people the Pirates have handling building operations in Pittsburgh and Bradenton are responsible here, including Dennis DaPra, general manager of PNC Park, who has paid monthly visits throughout construction.
"Like when we built PNC Park and the new Pirate City, we have taken our standards and philosophies and incorporated them with the best practices in other facilities we studied," DaPra said. "The result, we believe, will be one of the best baseball training facilities anywhere in Latin America."
There is no comparison between this complex and the Pirates' existing one, a single field squeezed into urban San Pedro de Macoris with a tiny cement-floored clubhouse, no offices and detached housing and eating areas that require constant busing of the athletes.
Comparisons are more worthwhile between the Pirates' new facility and those of their neighbors, all navigated easily because they are pretty much the only tenants along the narrow road leading north of the airport: The Mets' place will be more expensive at $7 million, thanks in part to a golf course. The Rays rent out space from the Dodgers. The Red Sox have a much smaller place, assumed from the Florida Marlins years ago, and its age is showing. The Royals are in a new, spacious complex, but topography prevented them from creating the symmetry and convenience the Pirates will have.
All concerned credit franchise owner Bob Nutting for the project, and their praise has a more genuine feel than simply patting the boss on the back.
It was Nutting early in 2007 who decided, with no input from then-general manager Dave Littlefield, to react to independent word about the Pirates' lagging facilities and productivity in the region by arranging a visit. That happened in May of that year, with Littlefield ordered to come along in a look-at-this-mess-you've-made spirit. To boot, before the party left Pittsburgh, Littlefield was instructed to announce the trip to the media in a clubhouse gathering that might have been one of the most uncomfortable public moments of his tenure.
Gayo made no secret, then or now, that he welcomed the visit.
"I can't tell you how much it meant to hear of Bob's interest," Gayo said. "And then, when he came, that was something else entirely."
If any attempt had been made by others in the front office to hide any aspects of the Latin American operation from Nutting -- and there is speculation that was the case -- he apparently smoked it out.
"If we had on our list to show him this, he wanted to see that," Gayo recalls. "And when we went to look for places for the new one, it must have been 14 different ones that we saw."
Nutting still speaks about the Latin American project with as much passion as any subject he addresses as owner, including, those close to him say, in internal discussions. By all accounts, Nutting took to Gayo right away and promised to make changes.
"I remain impressed with the people we have running our operations in Latin America, and I'm proud that we are providing them with the first class tools that they need to get the job done more effectively," Nutting said. "We all recognize that this complex is not going to make an overnight impact at the major league level, but it is an extremely important piece of building a championship organization."
One old facet will remain, though: The bricks and mortar will not be as important as the human element. That starts with finding talent.
Team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, the men hired by Nutting to replace Littlefield, have near-tripled Gayo's signing budget from $700,000 to $2 million, a figure that ranks in Major League Baseball's upper third for 2008. That has allowed not only for greater quantity -- the new academy will hold 20 to 30 more players than the old -- but also quality: The Pirates have paid out no fewer than four bonuses of $100,000 or more after never previously reaching six figures, including the record $400,000 paid to Venezuelan outfielder Exicardo Cayones. Only five teams had more six-figure bonuses.
The Pirates continue to stay out of the biggest bidding -- the Oakland Athletics paid a record $4.25 million for Dominican pitcher Michel Inoa in July, and they had none of the top 20 signings -- but that sounds as if it is Gayo's preference.
"I can't give someone here that kind of money, having no way of knowing how it might change them," Gayo says. "There are a whole lot of good players I can get for that kind of money."
Another reason for that sentiment: Starlin Cespedes, a shortstop Gayo signed two years ago to a then-franchise-record $85,000, became so enamored of American life in Bradenton that his behavior prompted Gayo to cut him last year.
"That hurt. I had no choice."
The volume and scope of Gayo's network also has grown under Coonelly and Huntington: Three additional scouts in Latin America have doubled the number in Colombia -- Gayo's new man there single-handedly accounted for signing the top player there this year, shortstop Yhonathan Barrios -- as well as adding eyes in Nicaragua, Panama and now Ecuador, where Gayo is traveling next week.
But the biggest difference, as Gayo sees it, bigger than the academy, can be made through a cohesive development plan that handles the Latin American players no differently than any others.
Under Littlefield and previous director of player development Brian Graham, according to several sources, Latin American prospects were not brought up to Bradenton to begin their North American professional careers at the same pace that other teams made similar moves. Also, development of the prospects remaining in Latin America was handled differently -- and by different people -- than in Bradenton.
One high-ranking source strongly indicated that had more to do with Littlefield than Graham but did not elaborate. Littlefield, it is believed, thought those players should prove themselves in Latin America before making the leap.
The problem with that, in addition to players stagnating, was that some buscones, the men who corral and nurture Latin American talent at young ages, fumed that the Pirates would not "let their players get off the island," according to one source, and signed elsewhere.
Under Huntington and the new director of player development, Kyle Stark, there is no systematic separation with any prospects, save the extra year or two that 16-year-olds will get by remaining at the Dominican academy to catch up with draft picks, who are 18 or older. Stark, who makes regular visits to the island, assumes full responsibility immediately after a player is signed, right down to the enforcement of a strict diet.
One example of the benefits of the new assimilation: Starling Marte, a Dominican outfielder who dominated this nation's summer league this year at age 18, smiles wide when discussing his recently completed initial invitation to the Florida Instructional League. In addition to playing a higher caliber of baseball, he had a chance to make friends with Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' $6 million first-round draft pick and a Dominican by heritage.
"Pedro was teaching me some English, too," Marte said. "I can't wait to go back."
He will return in February as part of minor league camp.
The Pirates will continue to operate a much smaller academy in the equally fruitful market of Venezuela, even though most major league teams have left that country because of political changes under President Hugo Chavez. Venezuelans, Gayo said, have a harder time assimilating to life in the Dominican because they tend to come from wealthier backgrounds, and he would prefer to have them spend their formative years there. But, if Venezuela's situation becomes more troubling, the stance could change.
First Published December 1, 2008 12:00 am