The Pittsburgh Press from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 14, 1991 · Page 39
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The Pittsburgh Press from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania · Page 39

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Issue Date:
Sunday, July 14, 1991
Page 39
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Sunday, July 14, 1991 The Pittsburgh Press BASEBALL lilllt!JiIIIM,rVJWti.y; I I " l J ITU - "-, f-rt TT 9 r?f) 0 1 r i 1 i VI .A 3 in WM( Joe Traver tor The Pittsburgh Press Wearing hand-me-down Pirates uniforms, Welland players stand for the playing of the national anthem before a game FOR A HORT STOP Welland is where it all begins for Pirates By BUI Utterback The Pittsburgh Press WELLAND, Ont. Ten men. wearing lime-colored bowling, shirts and maroon fezzes sat behind the third base dugout at Welland Stadium. "Biff" was stitched above each man's shirt pocket. A plastic bust of Elvis occupied a seat among them. They dressed funny, laughed a lot and took pictures of each other sitting next to Elvis. Elvis also wore a fez. They came from Detroit and called themselves the Hack Wilson Baseball Tour. "Hack was somebody we admire, someone we can identify with ... a little dumpy guy who was known to have a few drinks," said Tom Lon-ergan, who organized the trip. The Tour had stopped in Welland to see the Welland Pirates of the Class A New York-Penn League. "We're trying to hit for the cycle' this weekend," Lonergan said. "We're going to see a (Class) A game in Welland, a AA game in London (Ont.), a AAA game in Buffalo, and a major-league game in Toronto. It's easy to do. Everything's so close." . In the moments before the start of the game, the Welland Pirates loitered outside the clubhouse door. The door is next to a nachos stand, about 10 feet from the top row of the bleachers. In a big-league clubhouse, there are televisions and card games and air conditioning and food. There are sofas ana cushioned chairs and toy basketball, hoops. Players never leave. In Welland, there is a narrow row of lockers in a dark, stuffy room. Players prefer to stand outside and chat with fans. Joe McLin, 19, a first baseman from Milwaukee, sat in a shaded portion of the bleachers. He was not in the starting lineup and did not agree with the men wearing fezzes. He does not think it will be easy to get to the major leagues from Welland. Pittsburgh is in another country and may well be in another universe. "When you look up at the major leagues, and you think, about all those players m front of you, it all seems so far away." Class A, the short season. Doorway to professional baseball for a few players. Doorway out of professional baseball for most players. So close, yet so far away. Players here are so far down in the system that they could be promoted twice and they'd still be playing Class A ball. Is there hope? In 1986, the Pirates' Class Ashort season team was in Watertown, N.Y. There were 39 players on the roster and only pitcher Bill Sampen has made it to the major leagues. Welland. Maybe an hour's drive from the Skydome, site of the All-Star game, major-league baseball. But players here are wearing uniforms with RFC printed on a sleeve. The whole town is mystified. . Why RFC? Something about Roberto Clemente? Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri died in 1988 and the Pirates wore his initials as a tribute that season. Three years later, the uniforms have been handed down to Welland. Hand-me-down uniforms. Cramped quarters and long bus rides. A schedule that asks them to play 78 games in 80 days. A 39-1 shot at making it to the big leagues. Sometimes it is discouraging, but almost everybody feels that he's the one. "This is my first step to the major leagues," said shortstop Tony Wo-mack. On Saturday, Womack's first throw sailed over the first baseman's head. His second throw skidded in the dirt 4 feet in front of the first baseman. He was 0 for 4. The big leagues seemed a long way off. On Sunday, Womack singled in his first two at-bats. He stole second base both times and scored a run. For the season, Womack has 10 hits, eight stolen bases in nine attempts, and eight runs scored. For a man who can move quickly around the bases, the big leagues might not be so far away. The distance between Welland and Pittsburgh varies from game to game. Womack, who played at Guilford College in North Carolina, measures the distance frequently. "I think about it every day. Maybe somebody was watching me today. Maybe they're thinking about moving me up. I think about it constantly ... I think about it after the game. I think about it before I go to sleep. I want to move up so fast." For his first week as a pro, thinking about promotions and pos-" sibilities was a problem. "I was always thinking about trying to impress other people, but I've started to calm down. I think about baseball during the game now. I just go out to have fun and the innings fly by. But after the game, I start wondering if anybody was watching me." Dan Jones, a pitcher from Northwestern, hopes that nobody has been watching him lately. He allowed 20 baserunners in his first nine innings as a pro. He has thrown four wild pitches. He knows that most of the pitchers on the staff are putting up better numbers. It is not a comforting thought. "This is a learning experience for me. I haven't thrown very well since I've been here. I'm going through a lot of ups and downs, and it has been hard. But that's part of what I'm learning. You can't let yourself get too high or too low. I've been frustrated, and things have been kind of tough for me, Dut I've got to learn that if I walk 100 batters and give up 50 runs one game, I can't let it affect me in the next game." Jones wonders if some of the Eassion has filtered out of the game e loved to play in college. "In college, there was more of a rah-rah atmosphere. 'Let's go, Northwestern. Let's beat these guys.' We had big games and big rivals. Here there are no big games or big rivals. It's just one game after another." Deon Danner, a pitcher drafted out of North Carolina-Charlotte, has sparkled in his first month as a Pirate. He has allowed two earned runs in 19 innings (0.95 earned run average). He allowed two hits in five innings against the Jamestown Expos Saturday. He allowed base-runners in four different innings, but ended three of the innings with a strikeout and the fourth with a double play. He's pitching extremely well, but he doesn't know what that means. "This is my first year of pro ball -so I don't know how quickly things can happen. I don't really know what comes next, or when it will come, so I try not to worry about anything. Why worry about something you can't control?" 'You want to know about Class A baseball? I'm the guy to ask," said pitcher Steve Roeder. Roeder spent two years with the Pirates' rookie league team in Bra-denton, Fla. This is his second year in Welland. Four seasons and the big leagues are still in another universe. "The biggest thing that players have to learn here is that baseball is a business. It's hot the game it was in high school or college. There are a lot of details that make a difference here. You might be pitching just as well as another person, but he gets promoted because he's older, or more experienced." Or maybe he's a high draft choice and the club has more invested in him. "It is hard not to get frustrated." Roeders girlfriend got frustrated. She couldn't live with the uncertainty of his career. She wanted a commitment, but what could he tell her? He didn't know when he'd be secure enough to think about a family. He didn't know if he'd be playing ball or looking for a real job next month or next year. The relationship crumbled. "I'm engaged to another girl now. She's a student at Ball State and she's willing to wait and see what comes of this. She's done wonders for me. My attitude has really changed." Roeder is no longer impatient or temperamental. With his new fiancee, there is no pressure to succeed quickly. He has been a pro for four years, but he is only 21. He is the same age as the college pitchers who have just joined the profession. He is 6-7, and tall pitchers sometimes require time to develop. Roeder walked 37 batters in 31 innings a year ago. In Saturday night's game, Roeder threw a rising fastball that hit one batter between the shoulder blades. He twice knocked down the second batter with similar fastballs before walking him. With runners on first and second, no outs and batters terrified by a 6-7 wildman, Roeder registered three consecutive strikeouts. After seeing his high-and-tight fastballs, nobody was willing to lean out over the plate and try to hit one of his nasty breaking pitches. "A year ago, I couldn't have pitched out of it But this year I've got a lot more composure." Roeder's been bitter and frustrated, but he also realizes he is improving as a pitcher. "I'm anxious to move up, but I know when the time comes I'll be better prepared than I would have been a year ago." McLin and outfielder Greg Lea-vell have also learned to be patient. They played in Bradenton a year ago. "They key is not to get on that emotional roller coaster," said McLin. "I come out of the locker room smiling every day," said Leavell, 21, from Chicago. "I look at this as a step up from Bradenton. Progress. We're traveling in bigger, air-conditioned buses now. We're staying in . nicer hotels. We're seeing a new part of the country. And we're playing against better competition. I'm having fun." McLin's anxiety was eased when he played in the Instructional League this past autumn. "In the Instructional League, you play against the best prospects in everybody's organization, and you realize that those guys aren't any different from you." McLin's only problem is playing time. He's sharing first base with Jeff Leatherman, a draft choice from Auburn. - "The toughest part is getting your turn in the game. There are so many players here, and we all want to play every day. It's tough to sit and wait. It's hard to wait for that chance to play." Leavell is playing almost every day, but he's got another obstacle to overcome: the Pirates have asked him to become a switch-hitter. His batting average was at .122. "I've learned to accept that this is going to take awhile." Manager Lee Driggers has nearly 20 years of experience coaching high school and college players in Texas. Pitching coach Jerry Nyman played three years with the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. Together, they seem to make an ideal coaching staff. Driggers knows where his young players have been. Nyman knows where they want to go. "These kids are putting a lot of pressure on themselves to perform for me, for the scouts, for the top brass in the organization. They all-want to show everybody what they can do," Driggers said. "My biggest job is to keep them , on an even keel, to help them- . i i. l i i: mi i iniuugn uk uuwn nines, lane vuui- fielder) Marty Neff. He hit 20 home runs at Oklahoma (University) but he came here and started out 0-for-17. He was going nuts. I had to keep talking to him until he finally relaxed. Now he's doing fine. These kids, coming from high school or college to the pros, all have to regress before they progress, and it's our job to make that experience easier for them." Nyman remembers the handling he got as a minor-league player with the Chicago White Sox in the 1960s. He's hoping to do a better job with his prospects. "I got cheated. Nobody said a word to me when I was coming up. They just gave me the ball and told me to throw. I was out of baseball before I realized what I had missed. -I looked around and saw that I had a better arm than guys who were still pitching, and a better breaking ball. If somebody had handled me better, I could have pitched for a long time." Nyman makes sure he talks to his pitcher before and after he hands him the ball. He talks to them on their days off. He talks to them about preparation and condition and the demands that will be placed on a full-time ballplayer. He talks to them about dealing with bad outings. "Daily, that's my biggest responsibility. I talk more about those things than about the mechanics of throwing a baseball ... They all have great arms. That's why they're here. I can't have a whole lot of impact on their arms, but I can make a big impact on their heads." Don Garvey has been a pro baseball player for nearly a month. He learned about frustration when he started the season without a hit in 12 at-bats. He knows about success because he raised his average from .000 to .324 in three weeks. He knows about the long odds and hand-me-down clothes and grueling schedule. And he disagrees with Jones, who said there is no passion at this level. "In college, you're playing with guys who like to play baseball. Here, we're playing with guys who really want it. The level of competition is high because everybody here wants the same thing. This is exciting." Pirates' No. 1 draft choice looks past struggles of his first month By Bill Utterback The Pittsburgh Press WELLAND, Ont. Two pitches, two strikes. Jonathon Farrell steps out of the batter's box. Behind in the count again. Relax. Focus. Back into the box. Do something. Curveball, outside, ball one. Curveball, fouled off. Fastball high, ball two. Curveball, fouled off. Curveball, fouled off. Another pitch outside. Full count. Curveball, fouled off. "I felt good," Farrell said later. "I was waiting for my pitch, waiting for the fastball." Fastball. Farrell, the Pirates' No. 1 draft choice in the June draft, swung and missed. He struck out for the 15th time in 14 games. His batting average dropped to .222 for Welland in the Class A New York-Penn League. As he walked back to the dugout, he flipped the bat in his hand a couple of times, alternately grabbing the handle and the barrel. He handed it politely to the bat boy and took a seat. He is struggling, but he is not frustrated and he is not discouraged. "He's got a very good mental approach to the game," said manager Lee Driggers. "IVe always been told to look ahead to the next day," said Farrell. "If I have a bad day, I don't worry about. I look ahead. I know there's another game and another at-bat and everything's going to be fine." Everyone struggles in his first month of pro ball. Bobby Bonilla batted .217. Jay' Bell batted .220. The team batting average of the Welland Pirates was 537 last week and only three players were batting higher than .265. The key to survival is handling the struggle, and Farrell ranks among the team leaders in disposition. "He is able to keep things on a very even keel," said Driggers. "A lot of young players experience ups and downs when they're making the adjustment to pro ball ... and most guys get depressed or angry and put a lot of pressure on themselves. John's different. If you talk to him, you'll find he's never had a bad day." Farrell, drafted out of Florida Community College in June, was warned about the constant pressure and inferior conditions in the lowest levels of professional baseball. "Everybody told me about the long bus rides and how bad things 4 1 & SI if 1 J) v i 1 Z3 Joe Traver (or The Pittsburgh Press Jonathon Farrell is maintaining an upbeat attitude would be here. But I'm having a great time. I like the bus rides. I like playing games every night. I like batting practice. I like standing around and talking to Coach (Jerry) Nyman. He tells some great stories. I didn't expect to enjoy everything so much." Farrell also didn't expect the pitchers to be so good. "The pitchers I'm seeing are a lot better than I saw in junior college. The big thing is their ability to change speeds on their fastballs, and they've all got good breaking balls and off -speed pitches. But I'm learning to adjust to them. I'm definitely feeling more comfortable up there." Farrell is splitting time catching and playing the outfield. The other catcher at Welland is Angelo En-camacion, 18, from the Dominican Republic, who is batting .325 and has a great arm. "Angelo can catch and throw better than anybody I've seen in this league. He has a very quick release and a very quick bat," said Driggers. The Pirates hope Farrell will also develop as a catcher, although he admits he has some defensive deficiencies. "In college, I caught and played the outfield and didn't spend much time learning the position." The Pirates sent Joe Lonnett, a roving catching instructor, to spend a week with Farrell last month. "We talked a lot and I learned a lot." Although Farrell's batting average is sagging and he has to improve his catching skills, Driggers is not disappointed. "He's a young man with very good tools. He's got power, he's got an above-average arm and he runs very well. And he's got very good baseball instincts; he's very mature for his age ... He's a very good outfielder now and I think he's going to develop into a good catcher, too. Once he gets comfortable, things will happen quickly for him." Farrell's in no hurry. There's a game today and another one tomorrow. He knows the Pirates have great expectations, but he knows meeting those expectations will take time. "Some of the players have been ragging me. They said I'm a No. 1 and I should be doing more. But the coaches haven't put any pressure on me. I put pressure on myself. I want to go out and be perfect every night, but I know that won't happen. I'm going to be OK, but it's going to take time."

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