The Shark had a story to tell, and when the Shark has a story to tell, the only thing to do is gather around and listen.
The story begins on a hot afternoon in the Dominican Republic, on a baseball field where the Shark was wrapping up a tryout camp for local teenagers. A man pulled up on a motorcycle, with a boy riding on back, and the man asked, "Can you look at one more?"
The Shark has a rule: Never turn down a look at a kid because "the kid you say no to always comes back to bite you." And so he watched the kid throw, and he watched the kid run. "He had a great arm," remembered the Shark. "And we timed him in the 60: a 6.7. Very impressive." Then the Shark noticed something strange. "He had two different shoes on," he said. "One was bigger than the other. It had a sock stuffed into it so it fit. And I started to wonder how good this kid would be with two decent shoes."
That afternoon 19 years ago the Shark went to the kid's house and signed him for $1,500. He gave the motorcycle driver $200. The Shark, Fred Ferreira, never found out who the driver was. The kid was a 16-year-old from Santo Domingo named Vladimir Guerrero.
Ferreira -- the legendary scout known in baseball circles as the Shark of the Caribbean, the man responsible for the careers of Guerrero, Roberto Kelly, Bernie Williams, Jose Vidro and Jorge Posada, to name a few -- told the story of the boy with the mismatched shoes one day last December in Orioles GM Dan Duquette's office at Camden Yards. Duquette had invited Ferreira and another old scout, Ray Poitevint, to Baltimore, and the three spent much of the afternoon telling old scouting stories. But Duquette didn't call the meeting just to talk about old times; he also wanted to talk about the future of the Baltimore Orioles. He wanted to talk about the Orioles becoming players in the international market, and he wanted the two old scouts --- two veteran baseball men he'd known from stints in Montreal and Boston --- to lead the way.
It's the new Oriole Way: finding undervalued talent in pockets of the world where few others are looking. The new global initiative in Baltimore, headed by Ferreira (now the club's executive director of international recruiting) and Poitevint (director of international baseball), has just begun -- it will take years before Baltimore has the staff and infrastructure in place -- but the organization has begun to add some intriguing international talent, from a 26-year-old from Kaoshiung, Taiwan who has quickly emerged as one of the Orioles' best starters to a 28-year-old pitcher from Guadalajara, Mexico who could be Baltimore's secret weapon down the stretch this season.
"The international market was one in which the Orioles had not been active in over recent years," Duquette, who took over as Baltimore's GM last November, said one recent afternoon. "The talent base is so thin, and it's so competitive among professional teams, that it's important for teams to be active in all the markets -- the trade market, the free agent market, the draft, scouting and the international market. If you're going to be good year in and out, you need to be good in a couple of those markets. The international market is one we think we can be good in."
In the AL East, the Toughest Division in Baseball, the Orioles' strategy may not, in the end, make much of a difference in terms of wins and losses this season, or even in the seasons to come. But after 14 consecutive losing seasons, isn't it worth a try?
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"It's more of an international game now, with more kids playing it, at higher levels, around the world," an American League executive said the other day. "But the thing about the international market is that it's still a relative unknown. We talk all the time about efficiencies in the market -- finding undervalued talent -- and there might be more of than in the international market than anywhere else."
He pointed to the signings of Cuban imports Yeonis Cespedes and Jorge Soler to the A's and Cubs. "Those are two pretty smart teams, and they clearly saw value in those signings," says the executive. "Look at Texas: they've devoted more resources than any team out there to the international side, and now a lot of their top prospects are from outside the U.S." As for the much-discussed changes in the collective bargaining agreement that limits signing bonuses, he says, "Honestly, I'm not sure that it's going to make a huge difference. It never was about who spent the most money. It was who spent their money the most intelligently."
Duquette agrees. "It will be good for teams like ours that don't have the resources that the major market teams have -- it should level the playing field."
The Orioles have, since January, plucked players from Guatemala, New Zealand, Mexico, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Like the 17-year-old they signed out Wanganui, New Zealand, a former softball player, many of the signings are lottery tickets, long-shot gambles.
One, though, has already made an impact: Wei-Yin Chen, the Orioles' first-ever Taiwanese player, a lefthander who, after his seven shutout innings against the Braves on Sunday, was 7-2 with a 3.36 ERA and was one big reason why Baltimore has been one of the great surprises of the season. The Orioles signed him in January to a three-year, $11.3 million deal.
"One of the best signings of the winter," says a scout. "I think there are a lot of teams kicking themselves for not giving him a longer look. Is he an ace? No. But he's a good middle of the rotation arm, and you'd have a hard time finding that on the free agent market for that price."
Chen was far from a diamond in the rough -- he posted a 2.48 ERA in four seasons with the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Central League, and his 1.54 ERA in 2009 was the lowest for a starter in more than four decades.
"His WHIP in Japan was 1.06, over a fairly large sample size, which tells you what kind of command he has," says Duquette. "There aren't a lot of lefthanded pitchers in the league that consistently throw over 90 mph, and there are even fewer that throw over 90 and have the command that Chen has. Based on those attributes, our scouts thought that he could be a top three starter down the road. We just didn't know how long it would take to translate."
It didn't take long, despite his unfamiliarity with the routine of pitching in a five-man rotation. In five starts against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rangers, the top three scoring teams in baseball, Chen is 4-0 with a 2.51 ERA. "This guy has been the best at applying anything we've talked about, better than any of our pitchers," says O's pitching coach Rick Adair. "He comes out of the bullpen and works and talks and has questions. It's been an open book, and I tip my hat to the guy for not coming in here and saying, 'I want to do things a certain way.'"
"I'd never heard of him before spring training, but he's a lefthanded power arm -- 93, 94," says Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. "There are times when I wonder if I should go to the mound, but then I'm like, 'What am I going to say if I go to the mound?' My Chinese isn't that good. Thankfully, he knows how to pitch, and even the guys that speak English, you don't have to do much."
In March, the Orioles added another Taiwanese lefthander, Yi-Hsiang Lin, a 19-year-old who began the year in the Gulf Coast League. "We were in on Lin because of Chen," says Duquette. "The Orioles have been getting all this publicity over there because of Chen. Everyone in Taiwan now knows who we are."
Duquette knows that it will take much more than striking gold with a handful of international signings to turn the Orioles into a perennial contender. But he knows that after all these years of losing, the Orioles need to find new ways to compete in the AL East, even if it means searching the ends of the earth to find talent. "Asia is the next frontier," Duquette says. "Taiwan is developing -- there are more universities there now that have programs for elite baseball." He adds, "And what about China? What if we got one or two players from there? Imagine tapping into that market."
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The Shark is 75 now, but in his latest gig with the Orioles, he's on the road as often as ever, in Latin American, mostly, with Poitevint covering Asia. It's harder now to find the next great talent, the next Vlad Guerrero, but the Shark says "there's also better and more talent than ever out there. You just have to go and find it."
Every time he comes home the Shark seems to have another story to tell, and one morning last week, from his home in Florida -- he'd just returned from Curacao and was already packing for the Dominican -- he told the story of his latest signing. It was January 2012, and a 28-year-old right-handed pitcher named Miguel Gonzalez was on the mound in a Mexican League game. The Shark, watching from the stands, saw him throw nine pitches and "every one of the nine is exactly where he wants the ball to be," he recalled.
The Shark decided that nine pitches were all he needed to see, and he convinced the Orioles to sign him to a minor league deal. Gonzalez impressed in spring training at Sarasota, he dominated at Triple-A Norfolk (allowing two runs in 30 innings as a reliever, with 35 strikeouts and just six walks), then made his major league debut in late May -- he struck out five in 3 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays -- and made a second appearance against the Red Sox and allowed two hits and one run over four innings.
Last week the Orioles sent him back down to Norfolk, where they planned to stretch him out as a starter. Orioles manager Buck Showalter left open the possibility of Gonzalez joining the rotation later this season.
Maybe the kid from Guadalajara will turn out to be something. Says the Shark: "You just never know."