Kovacevic: From 'sick giraffe' to Citi slugger
NEW YORK — It's a long, long way from the sandlots of Santo Domingo to the big-city, seven-story-scoreboard bombardment of Citi Field.
That seemed abundantly evident in Gregory Polanco's bulging eyes the moment he stepped up out of the dugout Sunday morning, nudging up the bill of his Pirates cap to gaze around.
“I never see something like this,” Polanco turned to say with a sudden grin. “This is the big leagues, huh?”
Not yet, kid.
It won't be long, though, from the look of things.
If you haven't heard, Polanco, a 21-year-old right fielder with Double-A Altoona, is the Pirates' top position-player prospect and possibly their top prospect of any kind. He's a baseball behemoth at 6-foot-4 and filling out. He's got more tools than Tim Allen, and he's slugged his way to a .308 average, .363 on-base percentage, eight home runs, 20 doubles and 48 RBI.
Oh, and a cannon arm and 28 steals, too. Which might explain why he's getting comparisons from typically rational adults to a young Dave Parker.
To boot, here he was Sunday, starting in Major League Baseball's All-Star Futures Game.
“There are so many great players here. I can't believe it.”
No, that's how this began.
Polanco was 16 when Rene Gayo, the Pirates' superb Latin American scout, started watching him regularly. And he didn't like much.
“He couldn't really pitch,” Gayo recalled, “and as tall as he was, he moved around out there like a sick giraffe.”
Wait, forget the giraffe.
“Oh, yeah. He played some in the outfield, but his buscon was pushing him as a pitcher.”
Buscon is what they call representatives of young Dominican ballplayers. They're more guardian than agent, but they have one thing in common with agents.
“The guy wanted $100,000 for Polanco, and nobody would give it to him. But the more I watched, the more I liked what he might do in the field. He had the long body, but you could see he felt the game. He had a nice, short stroke, he knew how to hit the other way, ran the bases ... he just had fun. It was easy for him.”
So the buscon got paid.
“I told the guy, ‘I'll give you $150,000 right now. You'll get your money and then some. But he's an outfielder for me.' ”
The buscon's response before taking Gayo's on-the-spot check: “Whatever.”
And that right there is the end of any credit Gayo claims for Polanco.
“This wasn't like Starling Marte,” Gayo said of his greatest Dominican find. “Marte was easier to see. I'm not going to lie: I did think Polanco would get better, but not like this.”
Gayo recalled another pivotal point: That was when Clint Hurdle, trusting the view of Gayo and other scouts, summoned Polanco to take a single at-bat in a spring game with the Pirates. It was in Fort Myers, Fla., against the Red Sox.
“The lights went on, man,” Gayo said. “People don't understand what it means to show the Latin player something like that. Polanco's out there looking at David Ortiz, a legend in the Dominican. He's looking at this beautiful facility. Where he came from, it's chain-link baseball. Like prison. But he sees a place like that, and he can see the future.”
Kind of like Sunday.
Funny, but for as much as Polanco professed to be blown away by the Mets' home stadium, it took all of one swing in batting practice to lash the first meatball into the bullpen beyond right field.
I'd swear he laughed a little as he stepped out.
“Good feeling,” he'd explain later.
The game itself wasn't nearly as invigorating, with a popup and walk. Dilson Herrera, the Colombian infielder who was the Pirates' other representative and is another Gayo product, went 0 for 1.
But when it was done, those two posed for a picture in the locker room — same one the Pirates use when here — and texted it to Gayo as a gesture of appreciation and, no doubt, as a way of illustrating how far they'd come.
“You never forget,” Polanco said, tapping his heart twice. “Now I'm here, I'm playing good. But I talk to Rene. He tells me to be humble. I talk to Marte. He's like my brother, you know? He tells me to be humble, don't have a big head. I listen.”
It won't be long until Marte can shout advice from one outfield corner to the other.