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Bucs open facility in Dominican Republic

Bucs open facility in Dominican Republic

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EL TORO, Dominican Republic -- Pirates owner Bob Nutting had just finished noting the many details in, and the critical importance of, the Pirates' new Latin American facility. However, without another question being asked, he felt the need to continue.

"I'm really enthusiastic about this," Nutting said. "I'm not sure if you can tell."

He certainly had enough reason to be.

Just less than two years after spearheading plans to invigorate the Pirates' presence in the Dominican Republic, Nutting was standing no longer on what had been sugarcane farmland, but on the grounds of the Pirates' new Latin American headquarters.

Thursday marked the grand opening of the facility, which sits on a 46-acre plot of land in the principality of El Toro, just outside the capital city of Santo Domingo. The "Academia de Béisbol" signs welcomed hundreds of visitors, some from Pittsburgh and others from within the Dominican Republic, to now what is arguably being touted as one of the best Major League facilities in the country.

"I could not have imagined it being this functionally outstanding and aesthetically beautiful," said Pirates president Frank Coonelly, who along with Nutting spoke at Thursday's ceremony. "It's hard to imagine that when you're standing in the undeveloped farmland that we were standing on, I couldn't be prouder of how this facility came together than I am today."

To understand management's enthusiasm, it's important to understand what Nutting saw during his initial visit to the Dominican Republic back in May 2007. With Rene Gayo, the Pirates' director of Latin American scouting, serving as a tour guide, Nutting visited the Pirates' current facility at the time, which was located in San Pedro de Macoris.

He found fields that were unkempt and facilities that were inadequate to live and train in. He watched as players had to be bused to a local gym for workouts, since there was no such on-site equipment. It became glaringly evident why the Pirates had fallen behind in Latin American player development.

That has all since changed. Once the pomp and circumstance surrounding Thursday's event, which included the presence of the country's sports minister Felipe Payano and members of Roberto Clemente's family, dies down, the complex will carry significant importance in the Pirates' international scouting and development process.

"This will help make us again a major player in the Dominican Republic, which is critical in the overall goal of building a championship team from within the organization," Coonelly said. "If you build a championship organization from within, you've got to be a major player in a place like the Dominican Republic. Quite frankly, we were not a major player here when we should have been."

The complex, which was finished at the $5 million budget, plans to serve as one of the most functional recruiting and development tools in the fertile baseball land of the Dominican Republic. It is a crown jewel among the country's baseball facilities and a certain long-term investment.

On the recruiting side, the Pirates plan to show off the complex to players whom the organization may be interested in signing. If all other things are equal, the Pirates believe that the on-field and off-field resources at this complex could be the deciding factor in where a player decides to sign.

"For us, this is a tremendous foundation for us in Latin America," general manager Neal Huntington said. "They come to see a facility like this one and they see all the things that we can offer them ... that should help in the signing process."

Members of the management who traveled down this week saw that firsthand on Wednesday, when Gayo held a tryout for a group of higher-profile teenage players whom the organization is scouting as potential signees this summer. The tryout was held on one of the 2 1/2 fields at the complex as a way to show off the facility.

The buzz from the boys, and even from some parents who sat and watched, was palpable.

"You heard them saying that this is better than the Yankees place," Gayo said. "For me, the functionality makes it the best place."

Beyond recruiting, the development process of young Latin American players should improve substantially with a new bevy of resources. There is an on-site weight room and covered batting tunnels. There are classrooms that will be utilized for English classes and other academic lessons.

The fact that the location of the facility is near so many others now will mean more time on the fields and less time traveling by bus.

In other words, as Nutting said on Thursday, the personnel that the Pirates already had in the country now finally have the resources necessary to operate.

"It was certainly one of my consistent themes in Pittsburgh to get excellent people and provide them with the tools that they need to get the job done," Nutting said. "What I did see [on that initial visit] were some fantastic individuals. There were very good people in the system, and we simply had hugely inadequate facilities for them to use to develop players."

The Pirates also used Thursday to again honor the Hall of Famer Clemente, whose wife, Vera, and sons, Luis and Roberto Jr., were on hand for the dedication of one of the two fields.

Along with Nutting, Vera Clemente unveiled a plaque, identical to the one that honors Clemente in Cooperstown, N.Y., that will lie just outside the gate of the Pirates' main field. The field has been renamed Roberto Clemente Field and his No. 21 adorns the right-field wall.

"We're very proud that here in the Dominican Republic, the Pittsburgh Pirates are leaving the same fingerprint [as Clemente did] in the community," Roberto Clemente Jr. said.

It would be difficult not to detect the significance of the overall event amid the dozens of Dominican media members and noted guests -- which included former players Manny Sanguillen, Kent Tekulve and Rico Carty, as well as numerous members from Major League Baseball's Commissioner's Office -- who toured the complex on Thursday.

For the Pirates, though, the day's events wasn't the culmination, but rather a step. That culmination will come years down the road when it becomes evident that Nutting's visit and subsequent vision in the Dominican Republic is paying dividends back in Pittsburgh.

"I'm overwhelmed with the result," Nutting said. "From that starting point to today, it really is transformational for our Latin American operations. I really believe this is the finest facility in the Dominican. I could not be more proud."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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