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Gayo leads Bucs in Dominican Republic

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, May 10, 2009

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — On a Third World island teeming with skinny, hopeful kids with rag-tag uniforms, Rene Gayo seeks small miracles.

"My job is to look for the guys who are touched by God and to recognize they have the talent," said Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director.

Every year, more than 500 Dominicans — raw, toolsy 16-year-olds — sign pro contracts with Major League Baseball organizations. The country supplies about 40 percent of the majors' foreign-born players.

Years ago, the Pirates relied on talent — Tony Pena, Roberto Clemente, Aramis Ramirez and many more — from the Caribbean. But in the mid-1990s, the team's front office, at the behest of former owner Kevin McClatchy's budget-conscious ownership group, shifted its attention away from the region.

Ramirez, who signed in 1994, was the Pirates' last significant signing from the Dominican. Impact players such as David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Furcal continued to pour out of the island. But they signed with other teams and prospered, while the Pirates sunk into a slump of 16 consecutive losing seasons.

Two years ago, Pirates owner Bob Nutting toured the team's aging, crumbling training facility in the Dominican. Shocked by what he saw, Nutting ordered construction of a new baseball academy, a sprawling, $5 million complex which also serves as the franchise's Latin American headquarters.

The facility, along with a beefed-up budget and roster of scouts, will make Gayo's job easier. But his success — and the Pirates' success — will still hinge on Gayo's ability to watch kids run, throw and hit on a hardscrabble field and immediately sense which of them has innate, high-level skills.

"Development is important, but I've got to send them guys with ability," Gayo said. "If they could develop anybody , I'd send them my wife."

A dozen teenagers, none of whom understood English, laughed along at Gayo's joke, hoping to catch his attention. Each silently wished, "Escoje me.''

Choose me.

"The key to doing this job is knowing what plays," Gayo said. "There's a big difference between a grown man you see in the major leagues and what you see out here. It's knowing what gets better and what doesn't."

'This is where it happened'

The abandoned field on the outskirts of Santo Domingo once was used by the Cleveland Indians to train prospects. The infield is pock-marked and a pile of rubbish sits near the right-field corner. The perimeter wall is topped with rusty razor wire. Beyond the outer wall, dilapidated houses cling to a hillside.

Gayo knows the field well. It was one of his workshops during 10 years as a scout for the Indians before joining the Pirates' staff in 2004.

"This is where Jhonny Peralta, Fausto Carmona and Willy Taveras came from," Gayo said, referring to three players he signed a decade ago. "This is where it happened."

On a sweltering morning, a buscon named Ramon Olivo brought dozens of his players to the field for a workout in front of Gayo and his assistants. Gayo, a boisterous man in a floral pattern shirt and a Team USA cap, greets Olivo with an embrace.

The Spanish word buscon translates as prospector or searcher. There's another definition which is especially apt: scavenger.

The buscon is part agent, part coach and sometimes part father. He gathers players, some as young as 13, from suburban homes and slums and finds ways to put them in front of major-league scouts. If a player is signed, the buscon gets a cut of the signing bonus.

"There are 10 million Dominicans ... and probably 900,000 buscons ," Gayo said, laughing. "There are a finite number of jobs (in MLB). A guy retires, comes home to the Dominican, and baseball is all he knows, so he does this."

Gayo makes 10 or more scouting trips to the Dominican every year. He'll usually stay a week or two, seeing as many players as he can, then move on to Venezuela, Colombia, Curacao or elsewhere in the region.

"You've got to fish where the fish are, and right now that's down here," Gayo said. "If you love baseball, this is the place to be. Every day here is the middle of July. There is no basketball season. It's baseball 12 months a year. This is baseball with a Latin beat."

Centuries ago, Gayo's ancestors in Cuba played a stick-and-ball game called batey. In the 1860s, Americans brought baseball to Cuba, and from there, the game was exported to practically all of Latin America, including the Dominican Republic.

"It's like I always say," Gayo laughed. "We've been playing baseball in the Caribbean since Columbus showed up, but the Americans turned it into a business."

'This is what I wanted'

About 80 players patiently waited for Gayo to begin the tryout. They wore mismatched uniform tops and bottoms and the caps of several big-league teams. Some wore T-shirts with "Niche," the nickname of their buscon , stitched across the front.

It was getting close to noon, but the players were in no hurry to finish. Most of them have long since stopped going to school. A 2006 study by the United States Agency for Economic Development estimated 25 percent of the Dominican population is malnourished.

The average family income is $3,200. Dominicans do not have the kinds of distractions familiar to American kids, such as movies, television and video games.

"These guys don't have money for that," Gayo said. "So, if you want to have fun, you go out and knock down coconuts with rocks, and then you've got a good arm."

If the weather would've cooperated — large, black rain clouds loomed — Gayo would have watched every player. But, he was there to evaluate two kids in particular: a tall, lean outfielder from Venezuela and a quick, quiet shortstop from La Romana, D.R.

Gayo's assistants had seen both players several times before. It was up to Gayo to make the final assessments.

It began with a chat. Standing just inches apart, Gayo asked each player his age, his hometown, his playing position.

"The way he looks at me, how he expresses himself, tells me a lot," Gayo said.

The shortstop just turned 16, meaning he'll be eligible during MLB's international signing period, which begins July 2.

The outfielder claimed to be 17. Yet, when Gayo asked for his birthdate, the player had to pause and think for a moment before sputtering an answer.

"He's a liar," Gayo said, turning away. "The other guy is telling the truth."

As rain pelted the ground, Gayo put the two players through a workout. They threw from right field to third base. They ran a 60-yard dash. They fielded grounders and made throws to first.

Gayo looked on coolly as the outfielder, who reacted angrily when Gayo challenged his age, went through the paces.

"That kid, I say he's a liar. But he grew up in there," Gayo said, pointing toward the hillside slum, "and he found that lying and cheating worked. So, is he going to stop just because I tell him it's wrong?"

Then, Gayo's gaze lingered on the shortstop. The veteran scout, who's in his sixth year with the Pirates, smiled when the player re-ran the 60 and shaved a tenth of a second off his time.

"Most guys don't get faster the second time they do it," Gayo said. "That's special."

When the downpour intensified, the workout moved to a batting cage that was covered, like so many other buildings in the Dominican, by a corrugated tin roof.

The shortstop was a switch-hitter with a silky, quick batting stroke. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! All solid line drives. Satisfied, Gayo nodded and pulled the buscon aside on the muddy outfield.

When Gayo quietly asked how much cash it would take to sign the shortstop, Olivo replied $200,000. Gayo quickly countered with an offer of $80,000. Grinning, Olivo offered his hand.

"All these players here, and they picked me," the shortstop said, beaming. "That makes me feel real good. This is what I wanted, and I'm almost there."

The deal between Gayo and the buscon is not binding, as no player may officially be signed until July 2. But Gayo is confident it will stick, as his and Olivo's reputations are on the line.

"We have a history together," said Gayo, who in the past has signed three of OIivo's players. "I know he's a man of his word, and he knows I'm a man of mine, so I feel good about it. Down here, giving your word still means something."

'This is an investment'

Unlike American high school and college players, amateurs in Latin America are not eligible for MLB's annual draft. Players ages 16 and up are free agents, and the bidding gets more heated each year.

If other teams knew of the Pirates' $80,000 offer, they still could try to recruit the shortstop — or at least raise his asking price. (That is why the Tribune-Review, at Gayo's request, has not identified the player by name.)

However, MLB rules do permit the Pirates to "hide" the player, even if he is unsigned, by housing him at their academy. The player can live and train there for a month, then spend 15 days at home, then go back to the facility for another month.

"That's what makes this (new academy) a big deal," Gayo said. "It's not just pretty; it helps in real life."

On April 30, the Pirates opened their Academia de Beisbol in El Toro, a few miles outside the capital city of Santo Domingo.

For less than $5 million — about $2.5 million less than what Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson will earn this season — the Pirates raised a state-of-the-art training facility on what had been 46 acres of mango trees and cow pasture.

Ninety-nine percent of Pirates fans will never get an up-close look at the academy, thousand of miles away from PNC Park. But the academy is an indicator of the course Nutting has set for the franchise -- aggressively scout, sign and develop players from anywhere and everywhere, then put them on a consistent path toward the majors.

Over the past decade, the Pirates had a hodgepodge of teaching techniques in their farm system. Now, players at the Academia de Beisbol will follow the same guidelines and learn the same methods and strategies that are used at every level of the organization.

"This is an investment in the long-term future of the franchise," Nutting said. "It may not help next year at the major-league level, but it builds strength within the organization."

The Pirates' former Dominican complex was so dilapidated, players were unable to improve their skills.

"Now, we'll get those guys up to speed here," Gayo said. "It's a 180-degree turn for development."

The new complex includes two full-size fields, one of which will be used exclusively for games against other Dominican Summer League teams, and a half-field for infield practice. There is a covered batting cage and a bullpen, which allows six pitchers to warm up at once.

Players and staff are housed in a dormitory, take all their meals in the cafeteria and prepare in the roomy, on-site clubhouse and workout room.

"It provides us with a competitive advantage in terms of recruiting and developing players," general manager Neal Huntington said. "It still comes down to dollars. But if all things are equal, we feel this is a competitive advantage for us."

The day before the facility officially opened, the Pirates held an invitation-only workout there for a handful of Dominicans. Many of the kids were wide-eyed as they looked around the gleaming facility.

But the value of the academy goes beyond that. It's about the approach Nutting wants the franchise to take — and where he is willing to allocate dollars.

"One of my (business) themes is to get excellent people and provide them with the tools they need to get the job done," Nutting said. "It's the facility, it's the budget to sign (players) and it's adding bodies. All three of those need to come together."

The facility is in place, and the Pirates have already added scouts to their staff. Nutting has tripled the budget for signing bonuses and has pledged more increases.

In 2008, the Pirates paid about $2 million in bonuses for international players. They gave six-figure payouts to just three players, and the biggest bonus ($400,000) went to Venezuelan outfielder Exicardo Cayones.

The Pirates ranked 12th in the majors, although four teams — the Reds, A's, Padres and Yankees — each spent more than $4 million.

In 2007, three players got signing bonuses of $1 million or more. A year later, eight players got at least that much. The San Francisco Giants paid a record $2.55 million in 2008 to sign outfielder Rafael Rodriguez. This summer, Dominican shorstop Miguel Angel Sano is expected to command at least $3 million.

'This is the first step'

Compared to those huge bonuses, the Pirates' $80,000 offer to the shortstop from La Romana does not seem like much. It is lower than last year's average of $108,000.

Yet, the shortstop could not stop smiling as he thought about how his family would react when he told them the news.

"There are four of us," he said. "It's been tough because we come from the bottom. My father left a long time ago. He came back six months ago, then left again. It's my mother who does everything. This money will help everybody in the family, because we don't have any."

Minutes later, one of Gayo's assistants steered the shortstop toward a waiting car for the hour-long ride to the academy in El Toro. There was paperwork to process — his age must be verified, he must pass a drug test and physical exam — and he cannot receive his bonus until he officially signs a contract in July.

That night, however, the shortstop slept on crisp, white sheets at the Pirates' academy. His training began the next day.

Before leaving, Gayo again shook the player's hand, then drew him in close and spoke quickly in Spanish.

"I told him, right now, the Pirates have done something for him," Gayo said. "Now it's his turn to do something for us. With his money, he can do something for his family. If he gets to the big leagues, and we win a championship, he can do something for the whole community.

"The real goal is to get to the big leagues and help us win a World Series. This is just the first step."

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