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Message and meaning in El Toro

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — On my second day here, I saw Rene Gayo offer a 16-year-old shortstop with raw but promising physical tools $80,000 to sign with the Pirates. The player accepted.

Would that have happened before the Pirates build their Academia de Beisbol in El Toro, D.R.? Sure. But Gayo, the club’s director of Latin American scouting, expects to be able to mine even more talent out of this region now that the Pirates have given him better resources — a top-notch facility, an expanded budget and more scouts — to do the job.

That is the message behind yesterday’s opening of the Latin American headquarters.

Talking with him before the game, I noticed that owner Bob Nutting was — and I do not use this term lightly — giddy about the place. Nutting gushed about the architecture, the weight machines, the chef in the cafeteria, the immaculate game field and practice field. He even described the clubhouse lockers as being “the best in the Dominican.”

Nutting had a right to gush. He and his brother Bill poured a big chunk of their cash into the project.

For less than $5 million — about $2.5 million less than what Jack Wilson is pulling down this season — the Pirates erected a state-of-the-art training complex 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. Most probably don’t care much about it. 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 linear path toward the majors.

By linear path, I mean the same structure, rules, facilities, methods and strategy is taught at every level of the farm system. Five or more years ago, the Pirates had a hodgepodge of philosophies in their organization. You saw how well that worked.

GM Neal Huntington talked about how the new facility will make it easier to “recruit” players in Latin America. And, to be sure, several of the kids who attended a private tryout Wednesday afternoon were wide-eyed as they looked around the place.

But the value of the academy goes beyond that. It’s about an approach, a message.

“In the Dominican Republic, the kids just want to play, even if it’s a bad place,” Gayo said. “Our staff had success in the past even with an antiquated place. But it’s always better and it’s more humane to the kids to have a (nice) place.”

Gayo pointed out that the Pirates’ former Dominican complex was so dilapidated, players were unable to improve their skills. “Now, you get those guys up to speed here. It speeds up the whole process. It’s a 180-degree turn for development.”

It won’t produce a World Series title in the next season or two … or probably even four or five. But it is a sign Nutting is serious about how he intends to run the franchise.

Time will tell if the process will work.

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