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Trust, love, and baseball

Dave Jauss checks the lineup during a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets. (David Hahn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


Trust, love, and baseball

Teamwork lessons at spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates

As the major league baseball season opens, fans in 30 cities will learn whether the team-building efforts in spring training camps have been successful.

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle gave reporters the typical message: “‘Team-first’… We all have the same goal. There needs to be connection, there needs to be communication.”

Easier said than done: The 62 players at Pirates spring training camp came from eight nations and 19 different states. Nearly a third were Spanish speakers, along with a Korean, and MLB’s only Lithuanian. Moreover, sharing one goal seemed particularly difficult when the essence of the camp was competition. There are only 25 spots on a major league roster, so more than half of those assembled would either be with a Pirates minor league club or released.

The bulletin board outside the team’s locker room displayed inspirational statements and league policies in English and Spanish, along with a less-expected notice advertising a women’s Bible study. The contact person, Billie Jauss, is the wife of Pirates coach Dave Jauss.

Dave Jauss, 62, has led teams in four different countries and at all competitive levels, with over 30 years in professional baseball. He’s been a big league coach with the Red Sox, Dodgers, Orioles, Mets, and, since 2012, the Pirates.

Team-building, Jauss stressed, begins at the individual level: “When you earn the trust of each player, and … they know you care about them, … then all of a sudden the third thing that can happen is they will be open to learning from you what you know, what we want to develop as a winning team, as a successful team, as a team that plays together.”

Hurdle made personal connections as players streamed onto the field, taking an extra moment for a handshake and a word with the last player invited to camp. During base-running drills, he barked encouragement and handed out low-fives and knuckle touches.

Jauss acknowledged, “Not too many people—definitely not males—talk about this, but when love permeates your family, … when you have the Lord in the middle of your home, … despite miscommunication, … despite differences of opinion, … you have a successful family, and a successful home.”

The same principle, he told me, applies to a team, so when “there is love in that clubhouse, you have an opportunity.” Whether or not players share his faith, Jauss feels, “The Lord allows love to come through my heart.”

That wasn’t enough, though, on the 2001 Red Sox. As bench coach—second in command on a major league team—Jauss was in the thick of what he calls “a dysfunctional office … absolutely no love in [that] team in Boston.” Owners fired the manager in August, and new owners who took over the Red Sox the following spring fired the replacement manager and Jauss.

David Goldman/AP

Pittsburgh Pirates at spring training in Bradenton, Fla.  (David Goldman/AP)

DURING INFIELDER DRILLS IN BRADENTON, seven players took their positions: All had major league experience, but at most six would be with the Pirates when the season started on March 28. Only the first baseman worked solo. Pairs of players at second, shortstop, and third base knelt on white towels spread over the grass as they alternated fielding grounders. For each, the day loomed when “one will be taken and the other left,” whether to the major league bench or a minor league roster.

On an adjacent field, nonroster players worked out. Among them was Ke’Bryan Hayes, less than a month past his 22nd birthday, a touted prospect with high hopes. Nearby was Nick Franklin, almost 28. Like Hayes, Franklin was a first-round draft pick out of high school—but that was 10 years ago, and he’s yet to play a full season in the majors. The Pirates are his fifth club.

Into this anxious environment, Jauss brought the love. He praised a minor leaguer’s progress: “I read those box scores, you know!” He embraced the Pirates’ stated goal to “grow boys into men,” saying, “I’ve never been in an organization that has that as a goal. … That’s why I love being here.”

Other coaches also worked to connect: First-year hitting coach Rick Eckstein huddled over his phone with a player, reviewing video of batting practice swings. Another player, unsettled after some at-bats, sought out Eckstein. The coach checked back later: “Did you feel any difference?” Assistant pitching coach Justin Meccage worked his Spanglish, asking a pitcher to throw “maybe two or three mas” and commending his ball movement: “Action bueno.”

Players bridged gaps, too: Korean third baseman Jung Ho Kang spoke the international language of teammate harassment, launching a handful of sunflower seeds that cascaded down Venezuelan catcher Francisco Cervelli’s back. A Dominican pitcher chatted with Kang, their short English phrases punctuated by gestures illustrating a baseball’s flight past a hitter.

The key to forming a team, said Hurdle, is “getting them to play for something bigger than themselves, to find a way to really embrace celebrating the success of others. … At the end of the day, they want to be the last team jumping around on the field.”

For Jauss, though, it’s about more than winning it all: “You can walk away with a really good year, a really good team, and not hold a trophy. People don’t write [about] those things. But you know when it’s been a successful impact on yourself, on others.”

—Laura G. Singleton is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate