Rojas, Andrade smooth path for Bucs' Hispanic players
Coaches' sage advice eases transition to life in the Major Leagues
PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates were one of the Majors' most committed pioneers in Latin America. Joe Brown, their '60s general manager, laid the pipeline for talent from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama and other countries that impacted the farm system and the big league club. The Jolly Roger proudly waved over those lands.
In recent years, the influx of Hispanic players has slowed, as the growing interest of other Major League organizations impacted any one team's take. The effect has trickled down into the Pirates' clubhouse, where once the many Latinos formed their own support group and gave each other comfort and guidance.
Now, when Jose Tabata or Starling Marte or Stolmy Pimentel check in, their shoulders to lean on are provided by Euclides Rojas and Heberto Andrade.
Rojas, the bullpen coach, is from Cuba. Andrade, the bullpen catcher, is from Venezuela. For the Bucs' Hispanic players, they are so much more, and have been for the 10 years Andrade has been in his role and since Rojas joined manager Clint Hurdle's inaugural Pirates staff in November 2010.
"When I first came here, I didn't know anything or anyone," recalled Tabata, a fellow Venezuelan, "Heberto helped me get settled in. He was someone I could talk to right away."
"I tell them little things. So much stuff is new for them," Andrade said. "They're grown men, so you don't want to be pushy. It's better if they come to you and ask -- and most of the time, that's what happens. We just try to help, reassure them some ways."
"He's like that with a lot of players," Tabata said. "Very helpful. He makes you comfortable, makes you feel like you're home."
Home for Rojas and Andrade, conversely, is the bullpen. It is the modern ballclub's most important laboratory, and they are the late-game chemists. Rojas is in constant touch with the bench during the game -- monitoring the warmups of relievers -- and with pitching coach Ray Searage between games, letting him know who is available and who needs down time. Searage then briefs Hurdle, who gameplans accordingly.
Andrade, a catcher since his Little League days, warms up the relief arms. But he does a lot more than crouch for their deliveries.
"I'm receiving, so I can tell if a pitcher is good, or just OK," Andrade said. "If I see some stuff, I tell [Rojas]. We're good friends, and there's always good communication between us."
They form a different kind of battery. Rojas was a pitcher, the Mariano Rivera of Cuba's National Team, setting records with 342 appearances and 90 saves from 1982-94. Following a brief playing stint with the Marlins, he turned to coaching in mid-1996. He was a critical component of the Pirates' Hispanic culture long before joining the big league staff: Six years as Pittsburgh's Latin American field coordinator; prior to that, years as the Bucs' roving Minor League instructor, with an emphasis on the club's Latin American program.
Andrade has been catching since his pre-teen years in Venezuela, and also had a brief playing run in the Cubs organization in the mid-'80s.
Venezuelans have a rich Major League tradition, from Davey Concepcion to Omar Vizquel. But Andrade was always more partial to his position, not to his nationality.
"I've been catching since I was seven, and always followed the catchers, looking at guys who played my position and what they could teach me," Andrade said. "Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson -- I paid attention to all those guys. I remember watching the Yankees and the Dodgers a lot in the '70s, because television had two games a week, and you only got to watch what they picked. I remember the '79 World Series, the homer Willie Stargell hit."
Rojas and Andrade clearly are two of the Pirates' unsung heroes, practically invisible to fans, their contributions coming below the surface. But their work does not go unappreciated inside the clubhouse, making them two of the most popular men within those walls.
During Spring Training, someone uncovered an old videotape and popped it, unsuspecting, into the deck playing on the huge monitor on the wall -- and there was Rojas blowing away USA players during the Pan American Games long ago. As players around him whooped it up, Rojas' face lit up, relishing the surprise.
When one of the Bucs' Hispanic players is approached for an interview, he invariably asks Andrade to serve as interpreter, and he always complies, with a smile.
"We may be apart from the team, down there in the bullpen, doing our own things," Rojas said. "But we are all Pittsburgh Pirates."