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'We understand what it's like': How the Orioles are supporting Delmarva's international core
A diverse and bilingual staff for the Delmarva Shorebirds has done everything it can to ease the adjustment to full-season baseball for their first large group of Latin American prospects.
Daniel Fajardo hasn’t just seen this all before. He’s lived it.
Signed by the Orioles as a teenager out of Venezuela in 2011 and catching in the organization until 2020, Fajardo is now the fundamentals coach at Delmarva and has a different lens on one of the most fascinating features of their farm system: a team where three-quarters of the roster is a product of their nascent international program, playing both at a level and in a place far different from anything they’ve known.
“Sometimes, I look at them like, ‘Wow, this used to be so easy,’” Fajardo said. “But you realize these guys, most of them, it’s their first year in this league, first time playing with fans, first time playing with cold weather. And all those things affect their playing. All this stuff involved affects that. I don’t really judge them.”
Fajardo is one of several staffers with the Shorebirds meant to make the transition to full-season, affiliated baseball less daunting for a group of players that is experiencing nearly all of this for the first time. Manager Felipe Rojas Alou Jr. spent the last 14 years as director of the Orioles’ Dominican Academy—he is known by the players as “Jefe.”
Athletic trainer Julio Ibarra has worked with many of the players since they signed in that role at the Dominican Academy, and bullpen catcher Alfredo Gonzalez — another former Orioles farmhand who has made that transition stateside before — is also a mentor to the players.
Having familiar faces while living on their own in a foreign country where they aren’t fluent in the language has been helpful. What the Shorebirds staff relayed more immediately as obstacles to overcome came on the field.
Life at the complex level, whether in the Dominican Republic or Sarasota, is pretty straightforward. There are early-morning report times for workouts and training, then during the season games in the late morning or early afternoon. Life in affiliated baseball mostly features night games, with early-afternoon report times and long waits before the game. Fans (and hecklers), weeklong road trips that, stadiums with lights, and the cold nights have all taken some getting used to.
Delmarva’s is one of the youngest groups of hitters in the league, and the average age for pitchers (21.8 years old) in the league are over a year older than their average hitters (20.6). Imagine dealing with that while, for the first time in your life, being so cold you can’t feel your hands?
“I think everybody has handled this pretty well — especially early on,” Rojas said. “The weather is very different, you’re new to this routine of not getting up in the mornings and doing your work and playing games in the morning or early afternoon. Now, you’re playing at night, and having to make your own lunch and come here and work out, go have a snack and come back and re-activate for other stuff. It’s been pretty good so far. I’m actually pretty impressed how kids have handled their own.”
Many around the team believe the set-up around them has helped with that. As part of MLB’s new mandate for teams to provide housing to minor leaguers, the Orioles leased apartments for players and coaches, removing what would have been a challenging facet of coming north for their international players. Securing that many short-term leases during the summer so close to the beach was an undertaking for the Orioles, but Rojas said “the set-up is great.”
There’s a shuttle van to and from the ballpark — which Rojas himself drives sometimes — and outside that, the players are have staff members willing to help them navigate their new summer home whenever they need.
Rojas said they text him at all hours asking questions. Ibarra brought a group of players to get haircuts on Monday’s day off. Fajardo said he’ll get early-morning calls from players who need to go to Walmart.
“Anything that they need, we’re trying to help them because we know,” Fajardo said. “We understand what it’s like being in a different country, not speaking the language. I’m happy to help them. They’re a good group of players, a good group of guys, too. … It was different when I played. I had probably three, four Latin American players on my team. This year, it’s different for all these guys.”
Some of the players, including switch-hitting outfielder Isaac Bellony and infielders Moisés Ramirez and Luis Valdez, signed well after the July 2 opening of the 2018-2019 international amateur signing period, once the Orioles dismantled their major league team and began focusing on the future.
Others, like pitchers Moisés Chace, Juan De Los Santos, Raúl Rangel, and Alejandro Méndez, signed as part of the first full international class of Mike Elias’ tenure under senior director of international scouting Koby Perez. Elias’ trades brought outfielder Mishael Deson (from the Colorado Rockies for Mychal Givens), infielder Isaac De Leon (from the Miami Marlins for Richard Bleier), and infielder Noelberth Romero (from the Boston Red Sox for Andrew Cashner).
They’re all arriving in Delmarva at once thanks to delays in their development timeline and MLB’s paring of the minor league season removing short-season affiliated ball, creating a big jump they’re all making all at once.
But the circumstances have created a scenario that has benefited this group in some ways. The Orioles have programs in place to teach the native Spanish speakers English, but the language barrier that can make life difficult for international players who come stateside doesn’t exist.
Hitting coach Brink Ambler conducts meetings in Spanish, doubling back to see if 2022 draftee Ryan Higgins needs anything clarified later. Pitching coach Joe Haumacher said the mix of college pitchers and international signees on his staff feed off one another and have spent the season so far learning each others’ languages while sharing knowledge of the game.
It’s all meant to make a baseball experience that’s purposefully challenging to this group of players less so, even if at every turn there’s something they’ve never encountered before. For the Shorebirds’ home opener, returning infielder Darell Hernaiz said his new teammates were “so jittery” with nerves, and he had to orchestrate the pregame ceremonies on the field for them.
“It’s an experience, that’s for sure,” he said.
Rojas said: “I know it’s still early, but it’s a very unique situation for everybody. I think we’re very excited as an organization that we’re put in this position, where I would say 60-70 percent of our players are from the international program. At this early stage, it’s paying off. You can see that the kids are making progress, and the kids are understanding why they’re here.”
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