Tag Archives: Midwest League

South Bend’s Wawrzyniak helps ballplayers navigate language, cultural gaps

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Building better communication bonds between foreign professional baseball players and the club’s that employ them.

That’s what Linda Wawrzyniak is doing for the game with her Higher Standards Academy, LLC. When she started her business it was tied to adult education.

It has morphed into a service for teams who have increased their international investments and built baseball academies in Latin American countries but did not have an effective system to integrate players in ways that include more than balls, strikes and outs.

Based in South Bend and traveling extensively in the U.S. and Latin America, the bilingual Wawrzyniak works to help athletes navigate language and culture gaps.

She teaches English classes and so much more.

Wawrzyniak and HSA had a contract with South Bend Community School Corp., when she was approached about a decade ago by the South Bend Silver Hawks, then a Low Class-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. That’s where she met South Bend field manager Mark Haley and D-backs executives. They wanted her to teach a few language classes.

“My son was in baseball at the time,” says Wawrzyniak. “I thought it would be fun. Then I realized that they didn’t have a great system to do this. Guys didn’t have a lot coming in and when they left, I didn’t know what they were going to. There were a lot of holes.”

Immersing herself into the world of baseball and figuring out how to help these young foreigners pursuing their diamond dreams, Wawrzyniak created a necessary niche.

“There’s just a ton of need,” says Wawrzyniak. “The broad brush stroke of English doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s so much that happens behind the scenes when they’re with us. It’s trust. We’re a different kind of coach, really.

“We’re not just teaching English, we’re teaching a few other things. It’s the heart. It’s the cognitive processes of learning. It’s having another person to lean on emotionally.”

Wawrzyniak notes that it takes 500 hours in a classroom setting to learn conversational English.

“We don’t have 500 hours, so we have to do it faster,” says Wawrzyniak. “You develop some systems and methodologies.”

Many contractors work in-season only. Wawrzyniak trains them and oversees their programs.

“We take a lot of time to find good people,” says Wawrzyniak.

Major League Baseball requires all its teams have an integration program in the Dominican Republic. Some hire teachers and others have someone on staff.

By investing much time and energy, Wawrzyniak has learned how to get the conversation started and how to build relationships.

“With what I do, you’ve got to know those kids,” says Wawrzyniak. “You’re not just supplying paper and pencils. You know lives. You’re directly involved with player development. I know those kids and I know the teachers that know those kids.”

Three of the many players that Wawrzyniak has a connection with and has watched blossom in professional baseball are Venezuelans Ender Inciarte and Wilson Contreras and Dominican Eloy Jimenez.

Inciarte, 26, played in South Bend in 2010 and 2011, broke into the big leagues with Arizona in 2014 and is now with the Atlanta Braves. The center fielder was recognized as one of baseball’s best defenders in 2016.

“To see him win the Gold Glove, I cried,” says Wawrzyniak. “I was overjoyed for him. I knew the struggles he went through. He struggled with losing his father. For awhile, it really slowed him down but it didn’t stop him.”

Contreras, 25, played in the Midwest League in 2013 with Kane County and made his MLB debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2016. A versatile player, he has played most of his pro games as a catcher. He played in Game 7 when the team finally snapped its 108-year world championship drought.

“He just learned to temper himself,” says Wawrzyniak. “He’s a neat person. You watch these players figure out who they are. You see them mature. He learned to make the most of who he was.”

Jimenez, 20, is considered the top prospect in the Cubs system by Baseball America. The outfielder played in South Bend in 2016 and is now at High Class-A Myrtle Beach.

“He’s just a naturally joyful person who loves to play,” says Wawrzyniak, who has faced the rising star in ping pong and basketball. “That’s neat. You don’t see that very often.

“He’s paying attention to every aspect of his career.”

When the Cubs started expanding into the Dominican Republic a few years ago, they sought out Wawrzyniak to help them smooth the transition.

“By that time, I was already working in the D.R. and the U.S.,” says Wawrzyniak. “I already had that international experience and understood what that required.”

She understands that culture is an all-encompassing concept.

“Let’s break that down,” says Wawrzyniak. “Culture is defined as societal norms. But because America is a melting pot, we don’t have one culture. Navigating that is one thing. There’s also gender cultures and age cultures.

“Culture’s a lot of things. Until you’ve had to teach it, you don’t really realize how big that is.”

College-age people today have a different verbiage and values from those of 30 years ago.

“It’s basically a difference in generations,” says Wawrzyniak. “Slang in the United States changes every five years. The reason it changes is that it’s driven by pop media.”

A typical baseball clubhouse is full of multiple generations. The references that a staffer in his 50’s makes may not connect with a player of 20.

“You might have coach who grew up with The Terminator and this new generation who has never seen The Terminator, and the coach says “I’ll be back!” and the Latin goes are going “What?” The Korean guys are going “Huh?” It doesn’t carry.

“If you haven’t integrated social media and pop media into what you’re doing, you’re behind the times. You have to be able to help kids understand those things.”

Wawrzyniak, featured recently on MLB.com, did her job well enough to receive a big thank you from the Cubs — a World Series ring.

“The Cubs are an amazing organization — world class,” says Wawrzyniak. “They didn’t have to give me a ring. But they did because I think they saw the value in working with all these Latin players, which is such a huge percentage of their minor league system.

“Huge progress was made. They saw that and acknowledged that.”

In the Cubs organization, South Bend represents the first full-season team for its minor leaguers. They play 140 regular-season contests compared with about half that at Eugene, Ore., in the short-season Northwest League.

“It’s hard,” says Wawrzyniak. “It’s more games than they’re used to playing. There’s a little more traveling than before. It’s a higher level of competition.”

It’s also “not their first rodeo.”

By the time they come to South Bend, they’ve usually already been in the U.S. three or four times. First there’s a month in the fall instructional league. They go home and then come back for spring training or extended spring training. They return home and then come back the next year for another spring training or extended spring training session before heading to Eugene.

While the Cubs have a nutritionist and many meals are provided, players usually are responsible for one meal a day and they crave foods from back home. Many grocery stores carry Latin American brands like Goya and there’s some chains that are attractive.

“They love Chipotle,” says Wawrzyniak. “That’s as close to home as they can get.”

Of course, it all comes down to the game.

“I’ve learned more baseball than I ever thought I would know,” says Wawrzyniak. “I now see the game within the game. I ask questions of coaches all the time. We build that into our programs.

“It’s not like what you learn in the first year of high school Spanish — Donde Esta La Biblioteca? (where’s the library?). They don’t want to know that. We have to give them words that make sense in their environment. We create materials that correspond to that.”

Wawrzyniak has made it a point to know what it feels like to throw a pitch, swing a bat, make a slide. She watches baseball on TV each night and breaks it down. She has devoured history and statistics.

“It’s not something you can do without knowing,” says Wawrzyniak. “I’ve spent a lot of my time just learning. You’ve got to know all of it. If you want to be effective, you have to. Any field you’re in, you have to know it.”

HSA teaches players how to interact with reporters. Normal conversation-starting questions revolve around who, what, when, where, how and why. But many times it comes across as very open-ended and sets the player up for failure.

“Speaking to the media, to me, is one of the hardest things and it’s not because they don’t have the words,” says Wawrzyniak. “It often comes down to how the question is formulated. There are a variety of ways reporters ask questions and they’re not always the same. One is ‘tell me about …’ That’s so vague.

“Most men don’t like opened-ended questions. (It’s the difference between) ‘tell me about what you envision for Mother’s Day vs. ‘what do you think we should do for Mother’s Day?’ Most guys struggle with that, regardless of their nationality. It’s kind of a sneak attack on these guys because they don’t really know what you want.

“It’s better, when you’re dealing with an international player, to be more specific.”

Wawrzyniak’s advice: The reporter should know what they want from the interviewee when they pose the question.

It’s all about communication and making a connection.

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Linda Wawrzyniak is helping the baseball community integrate foreign players with her Higher Standards Academy, LLC. The Chicago Cubs recently said thank you with a World Series ring.

Speedy, versatile South Bend Cubs ready to roll in 2017

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

South Bend is about to begin its third season as a Chicago Cubs affiliate.

Jimmy Gonzalez was the manager for the first two and he’s back for 2017.

The skipper has plenty of nice things to say about the community and the fans (the Cubs drew 350,803 during the 2016 Class-A Midwest League season and owner Andrew Berlin has set a goal of 400,000 for 2017).

“It’s a great town,” says Gonzalez. “There are things to do around here and good restaurants. It’s great to have a minor league affiliate called the Cubs and be so close to Chicago. The support is through the roof.”

Gonzalez leads the ’17 team (Notre Dame visits for a seven-inning exhibition at 6 p.m. Wednesday, April 5 at Four Winds Field before plays two road games Thursday and Friday and the home opener at 7:05 p.m. Saturday, April 8) with a few returnees to South Bend and several who played for short-season Northwest League champion Eugene (Ore.).

The Emeralds, managed by former South Bend coach Jesus Feliciano, went 54-22 during the 2016 regular season.

While there was no pennant (that went to the Lansing Lugnuts), the ’16 campaign saw South Bend go 84-55 during the regular season, make the playoffs and Gonzalez earn MWL Manager of the Year honors.

“There’s a bunch of exciting guys,” says Gonzalez. “They’re coming off a great season last year in Eugene, guys that have won.”

Gonzalez surveys his ’17 South Bend roster and sees fleetness and versatility.

“Speed is going to be a huge factor with this club,” says Gonzalez. “Those speed guys create spark and excitement and a lot of good things happen.”

The swiftest of the Cubs are outfielders D.J. Wilson (21 stolen bases in 2016), Kevonte Mitchell (15) and Chris Pieters (20) and infielder Yeiler Peguero.

Wilson expects to be in center field.

“I have first-step quickness,” says Wilson. “My angles are pretty good.”

Wilson is glad to be back with a group of friends that he played plenty of winning baseball with last summer.

“We had great chemistry last year with the Emeralds and it’s only gotten stronger throughout the spring,” says Wilson, who also looks forward to playing in South Bend since it is closer to his hometown of Canton, Ohio, which should allow friends and family to see him play in 2017.

Mitchell says he could see time in right and left and, possibly, center.

“My base running and my speed (are strengths),” says Mitchell. “I also have a nice arm from the outfield.

“I bring energy to the team.”

All the way up the big league team, the ability to play multiple positions is valued in the Cubs organization. South Bend reflects this philosophy.

“I love having that as an option,” says Gonzalez. “It gives rest to a bunch of guys. (Versatility is) also great for their development.”

The manager says it is likely that Peguero will see time at second base and shortstop with Wladimir Galindo at third base and first base, Isaac Parades at shortstop and third base and Zack Short at shortstop, second base and third base.

Including time in instructional league and spring training, Vimael Machin has played all four infield positions and has been used at catcher.

“That’s a good thing about Vimael,” says Gonzalez. “He is willing and able to do a lot of things.”

Machin, Paredes, catcher Alberto Mineo and right-handed pitchers Jared Cheek and Dakota Mekkes appeared with South Bend in 2016.

“I consider those guys leaders,” says Gonzalez. “Yes, they probably didn’t want to come back here (but move up in the Cubs system). That’s just part of the game. You can mope about it or you can just go out there and play.”

Machin models that team-oriented attitude.

“I’ll do whatever (Gonzalez) tells me to do,” says Machin. “Even if we’re not playing, we’re helping and supporting each other. That’s what it’s all about.”

With the grind of a long season, baseball is a game where slumps and bad days are inevitable.

“It’s important that (the players) know that adversity is going to come,” says Gonzalez. “How are they going to handle it? Are they going to get down and just not perform moving forward and understand that’s going to happen.

“Whether you’re 5-for-5 or 0-for-5, that sixth at-bat is another at-bat. You can’t change what you just did. It’s written down. You always have that moment to do something.”

Because it translates in games, Gonzalez says the concept of staying in the moment was an emphasis of the Cubs mental skills program during spring training.

Flame-throwing right-hander Dylan Cease has embraced the mentality and does not dwell on the future.

“It’s the process over the result,” says Cease. “I just expect to stay in my process and do as good as a I can.

“I feel really good about my mechanics. It just comes down to executing … I’m just focused on being the best ballplayer I can be and getting better.”

South Bend pitching coach Brian Lawrence has watched Cease progress well since having Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in June 2015, but there will be a learning curve in 2017.

“He’s never thrown meaningful pitches in April before,” says Lawrence. “He’s going to have to get through his first full season. He has to learn what he has. What he’s shown from last year through spring training is tremendous. He has command of all his pitches.”

Cease is part of a starting rotation that right-handers Duncan Robinson, Kyle Miller, Tyson Miller, Erling Moreno and Matt Swarmer and left-hander Manuel Rondon. Lawrence says there will be a few “piggyback” situations where one pitcher will start and another starter will take over. Left-handers Bryan Hudson and Jose Paulino may join the team from extended spring training in the coming weeks.

“This is going to be a fun team to play with,” says Tyson Miller. “I’ve just got to execute pitches. I want to throw the most innings I can with the least amount of pitches.

“I just need to get better with my pitching I.Q. and knowing how to set up hitters.”

Lawrence says starters will be limited to 80 pitches to start the season.

The bullpen features 6-foot-7 righty Dakota Mekkes and 5-8 lefty Wyatt Short and several other arms who will get work.

“We won’t go back-to-back (days) for quite awhile (with relievers),” says Lawrence. “We do have a lot of guys who can pitch at the end of the game. We have a lot of options.”

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Teenagers big part of excitement for 2017 Fort Wayne TinCaps

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Indiana has a number of talented teenagers on the diamond.

Not all of those are wearing high school uniforms.

Some are professionals.

As the the Fort Wayne TinCaps (affiliate of the San Diego Padres) get ready to being the 2017 Class-A Midwest League season, they sport a roster with six teenagers and four 20-year olds.

“There’s been a lot of hype and talk about this group,” says Fort Wayne manager Anthony Contreras, who returns for a second season as skipper at Parkview Field. “I want to see what it looks like under the bright lights.

“It’s going to be fun to watch them.”

Fernando Tatis Jr. will be the TinCaps’ 18-year-old shortstop when the season opens Thursday, April 6 at Bowling Green (the home opener is at 6:05 p.m. on Saturday, April 8).

“He’s a very dynamic young player,” says Contreras of the 6-foot-3 power-hitting athlete from the Dominican Republic. “He’s got some of the best pop I haven’t  seen in awhile.”

Contreras expects Tatis to keep things loose while also bringing some of his unique experiences to the team.

“I’m here to have fun and do what I do,” says the son of major leaguer Fernando Tatis Sr. “It’s fun (being around other young players). We have the same mentality.”

The young Tatis grew up around big league clubhouses.

“He knows what it’s like to be a professional in this game,” says Contreras. “He’s going to thrive in this type of atmosphere.”

Contreras (age 33) and his coaching staff will be looked upon to develop the young talent for the Padres.

“There’s a a lot of pressure put not the minor league side,” says Contreras. “They’ve invested a lot of money (in player development).”

With many players who have yet to experience the grind of a 140-game season, the manager knows he will have to manage the inevitable bad days.

“That’s minor league baseball,” says Contreras. “That’s the experience they have to go through. When they move up and get the major leagues, they’re going to fail as well so you want to address it but not dwell on it.

“A lot of these guys are going to go through some slumps for the first time. It’s my job and the staff’s job to keep them focused.”

Besides Tatis, Contreras expects his regulars to include third baseman Hudson Potts (18), second baseman Eguy Rosario (17) with G.K. Young (22) and Brad Zuinca (21) sharing time at first base and Reinaldo Ilarraza, (18) playing various infield positions.

“We should have a very good team, from what I saw in spring training,” says Young. “These young guys don’t play like young guys. They can swing just like grown men.”

Young played with NCAA Division I national champion Coastal Carolina in 2016.

“Going through the College World Series, I understand what it takes to win at a championship level,” says Young. “I can honestly say I was not ready in high school to come and do this, but some things I went through mentally (in college) strengthened me to go through this game.”

Fort Wayne’s outfield includes Jack Suwinski (18) in left, Buddy Reed (21) in center and Jorge Ona (20) in right.

Marcus Greene Jr. (22) and Webster Rivas (26) will take turns at catcher.

A six-man starting pitching rotation includes (in order): right-hander Jesse Scholtens (22), left-hander Logan Allen (19), right-hander Austin Smith (20), left-hander Jerry Keel (23), right-hander Hansel Rodriguez (20) and left-hander Will Headean (23).

Burt Hooton is back for his fifth season as Fort Wayne’s pitching coach.

The 67-year-old is teaching his young arms to “keep things simple and keep progressing.”

“I tell them not to bite off more than they can handle,” says Hooton, who was a big leaguer for 15 seasons.  “You want to master your pitches and take the time to do it.

“You learn from your experiences — both good and bad.”

Fort Wayne’s bullpen includes returnees like right-hander David Bednar (22) and Lou Distasio (23) as well as right-hander Mark Zimmerman (23) and Ben Sheckler (21).

“There are no roles defined,” says Hooton. “They’re in the bullpen and, a lot of times, we’re going to use them when it’s their turn to pitch. We’ll use two or three guys to close out games. We’ll use two or three guys as long (relievers).”

Doug Banks (32) is the TinCaps hitting coach.

The former scout is telling his young players to focus on the positives.

“The biggest thing with these guys is that they trust themselves and they stick to their approach — whatever it is that night — and they believe in themselves,” says Banks. “That’s a big one.

“I’m exciting about this season. I hope they live up to the potential they have.”

As a young coach in the Texas Rangers organization, Banks learned from veteran baseball minds Ron Washington, Clint Hurdle and Mike Maddux and watched veteran Michael Young and Josh Hamilton.

“That was a big opportunity for me,” says Banks.

And opportunity is what’s in store for these young Fort Wayne TinCaps.

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