India-bred pitchers begin second season with less fanfare, more familiarity
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh are virtually indistinguishable from the other 18 players in their practice group on Honus Wagner Field at Pirate City.
With no names on the backs of their jerseys, there is nothing to divulge their background. They run through pitchers' fielding position drills with no indication that they haven't been doing this for years. They get high-fives from their teammates after conditioning sprints bring 100 players into one big swirling mass.
It's almost as if Singh and Patel are just like every other guy at spring training, just a couple of kids who grew up on the Little League fields dreaming of making it to the big leagues one day.
Last year, that wasn't the case.
Last year, Singh and Patel were those two guys from India.
The ones who won a reality show, came to the U.S. to work out and then were signed by the Pirates, believed to be the first Indian players ever to be picked up by a major-league team. The ones who'd never even heard of baseball, much less played it a year before reporting to spring training in Bradenton, Fla.
There were television crews from ESPN and CNN, as well as interview requests from the BBC, National Public Radio and Indian networks. There were national newspaper and magazine reporters hanging around. There were all the questions, about winning "Million Dollar Arm," the small villages they'd just left for the first time, learning English and learning the game they were now getting paid to play.
"Nothing," Singh said. "It's easier. We can concentrate."
A year of firsts
Singh, 21, and Patel, 20, are back this year on another one-year contract after playing last season with the Gulf Coast League's Bradenton Marauders.
They first reported to Pirate City in February 2009, and five months later, Singh made his professional debut July 4. Patel pitched later in the same game and recorded a strikeout.
The progress between last spring and now is remarkable, Pirates farm director Kyle Stark said, considering they knew next to nothing when they arrived.
They had a difficult time getting the concept of catching the ball with the glove, not their bare hands, and the first time a ball was hit back to one of them during live batting practice, he jumped and screamed in surprise.
So how does it work having two strangers to the game playing professionally alongside guys who started playing tee ball at age 5?
"I think the beauty about this game is that there are certain things that are so fundamental that we practice, practice, practice no matter how much experience a player has," Stark said. "So they're getting a taste of the same things (as everyone else). In terms of being on the mound and competing, you just back up the expectation of where they start. Everything we do is progression-oriented anyway. It's just starting further back in the progression with those guys."
Singh got his first win on July 13; Patel earned his one month later.
Patel, a right-hander, finished with a 1-0 record and a 1.42 ERA in six games, 6 1/3 innings pitched. He allowed five hits and two runs, one earned, with no walks and four strikeouts.
Singh, a lefty, was 1-3 with a 5.84 ERA in 12 1/3 innings. He gave up 14 hits, nine runs, eight earned, with four walks and eight strikeouts.
'We keep working hard here'
Neither one knows where he might end up this year.
"We don't know where we're going, but we keep working hard here," Patel said.
Stark said a lot will depend on how much they lost spending the offseason in India.
Both were greeted by parades and crowds when they arrived home.
"The people were going crazy when we got there," said Singh, who got to see the home he built his family with the contest winnings and signing money (Singh won $100,000 and Patel $2,500 on the show, and both were believed to get signing bonuses worth $15,000-$20,000 from the Pirates).
Patel built his family a real bathroom outhouse and purchased them farmland.
The Pirates sent both home with two gloves, a bat and a couple boxes of balls so they would have the equipment to practice. Singh and Patel then had to teach the game to people in their villages.
They'll also have to readjust to the speed of the game.
"We'll do a drill, they'll nail it, we'll talk about it in the classroom, they have the answer, then they get in the game and the game speeds up and things aren't natural for them," Stark said. "They'll joke after, 'Practice, good. Classroom, good. Game, no good,' just because things speed up."
Stark said it's too early to say what the future might realistically hold for Singh and Patel as they try to make it as professionals. But he said the Pirates still feel it's been worth signing the pair.
"Definitely," he said. "It challenges us to be creative every day."
Virdon lists 3 traits for great fielding outfieldsrs
Over 12 years in the majors, center fielder Bill Virdon compiled a .982 fielding percentage and won a Gold Glove. He played in 1,376 games, sixth-most among Pirates outfielders. So he knows the top three traits which separate an average glove guy from a defensive stud:
Speed is the first one. You can be a decent outfielder (without it), but you can't be a real good outfielder unless you have some speed to cover the ground. There's so much ground out there. I played back more than I played in. In my mind, I came in on the ball better than I went back, so I could play a little deeper and still get to the balls in front of me. It depends on the outfielder. Some guys play close, others play back.
-- Instincts are important. I think that comes from practice, working during batting practice and seeing (the ball) off the bat. It also can help to work with somebody who knows how to hit fungos. It's about accuracy, knowing where you want to hit it and being able to get it there. But, actually, in my opinion, it's harder to judge the ball off a fungo than it is off a regular bat. Why• I don't know. The (fungo) bat is smaller and it's just a tougher read. If you can read the ball off a fungo, you can read it off a bat. I don't know that there's a definite way to teach that first step. I never really considered it. I just trained my eyes to see the ball and took off. It's more instinct than it is a talent. Some people can do it, some can't. But you have to work at it.
-- The biggest thing is, being alert on every pitch. There are, what, 120 or 130 pitches a game• You can't miss one because that may be the one that's hit. That's one thing I tell guys, 'You've got to find a way to make yourself stay alert. I can't teach you to be alert on every pitch.' And everybody gets caught at one time or another during the course of a season. One-hundred-and-sixty-two games in a season, 130 pitches a game ... there are going to be a few times when, for whatever reason -- maybe the pitcher was walking around too long or the game's out of hand -- you get distracted and, bingo! Somebody hits one and you say, 'Oh, no!'
2009 top 10 MLB outfielders by ultimate zone ratings
1. Franklin Gutierrez -- 29.1
2. Nyjer Morgan -- 27.8
3. Ryan Sweeney -- 24.0
4. Carl Crawford -- 7.6
5. Randy Winn -- 16.5
6. David DeJesus -- 15.1
7. Juan Rivera -- 11.9
8. B.J. Upton -- 11.0
9. Nelson Cruz -- 10.6
10. J.D. Drew -- 10.5
-- Rob Biertempfel
Taschner's path to majors in the genes
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Jack Taschner figures he got to the major leagues in part because he hit the genetic jackpot.
"My dad was very athletic and my mom is very competitive, so it was kind of a good mix," Taschner said. "One of my sisters is very athletic, but not really competitive. The other one is competitive, but not very athletic. That's just how it worked out."
Taschner shrugged and grinned. He's the only kid in the family who wound up with both the competitive and athletic genes. But he's also glad his parents never pushed him to be a robo-jock.
"The best thing about my household growing up, and I wish more parents would do it, is there was never any pressure on me to play sports," Taschner said. "You played and played hard -- and that was good enough.The results be damned; it was about having fun."
Like most pro athletes, Taschner played a lot of different sports as a kid. But after every baseball, football or basketball game, he knew what kind of feedback he'd get.
"There was never any negative. I never got in the car and had to worry about what Dad was going to say about my playing. The only thing, and my dad was quick on it, was how you handled yourself. If you're out there, cussin' and moaning, yelling at umpires or teammates, there was a quick stop put to that."
Competitiveness is what separates those who do their job from those who do the job at an elite level. It puts athletes on bigger stages and leads them to bigger paydays. A kid can be taught how to become bigger, stronger or faster. But a strong inner drive to succeed is not the byproduct of any lesson.
"As you get older, your competitiveness comes out -- if you have it," he said. "You can't create it. I think a lot of parents think they can make their kids something they're not."
Taschner already has noticed a competitive streak in his 6-year-old son Gradin. "But I won't put that pressure on him to be that way just because that's the way I am," Taschner said.
-- Rob Biertempfel
Upton an enigma
He has been mildly disappointing for much of the six years since his debut, and his younger brother is now the family's big-time star.
He played with the Rays when they still bore the surname "Devil" and were regular last-place finishers.
There are a myriad of reasons to forget B.J. Upton is only 25 years old.
Only 19 players have ever had 40-plus home runs and 100-plus stolen bases before their age 25 season. Three quarters of those players, including names such as Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Sammy Sosa, kept improving.
But the others bear similarities to Upton -- players who reached the majors young, had a few good-but-not-great seasons and never got any better.
Upton is at a fork in the road, and the odds favor a continued improvement.
TOP 10 OUTFIELDERS
Name -- Team -- Comment
1. Ryan Braun -- MIL -- Only player more of a sure thing is Albert Pujols
2. Matt Kemp -- LAD -- Could be MLB's only .300-30-100-100-30 guy.
3. Carl Crawford -- TB -- If he plays in more than 110 games, 50 SB is a shoo-in
4. Matt Holliday -- STL -- .313 avg. in '09 was lowest since 2005
5. Nick Markakis -- BAL -- Last year's step back only a blip in growth
6. Grady Sizemore -- CLE -- Mysterious declining avg. could be trend ... or just luck
7. Justin Upton -- ARI -- Won't hit .300 but could post 30 HRs
8. Jacoby Ellsbury -- BOS -- Projections don't see him adding power; he'll need more runs
9. Adam Lind -- TOR -- Breakout season was long time coming, and sustainable
10. B.J. Upton -- TB -- Tons of upside; could be poor man's Sizemore
Once you get past the top five outfielders, the talent drop-off is steep. But there is depth in the second tier, with as many as 13 players in that next group. Unless you're taking one of the top four or five, hold off a few rounds, then load up on No. 2-No. 3 type outfielders.
Coming next week: Coming next week: First base, third base
Need more: E-mail your fantasy questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
-- By David Sandora