MLB’s first Lithuanian learned the game where few play it


The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH — The decades-long journey of a father and a son, of a game and a country, ended with a sprint.

When Dovydas Neverauskas – fresh from the airport and wearing cleats and a glove bummed from his new Pittsburgh Pirates teammates – jogged onto the mound at PNC Park on April 24 to clean up what was left a lopsided loss to the Chicago Cubs, the 24-year-old reliever became the first Lithuanian player in Major League Baseball history.

Halfway across the world in the middle of the night, Virmidas Neverauskas stared as his laptop as his boy – the tall kid with the No. 66 on his jersey – started firing fastballs that topped out in the upper 90s against the World Series champions. Two innings. Two hits. One run. One strikeout . The family odyssey that began in communist Russia, moved across Europe and led to a slow ascent through Pittsburgh’s minor league system was complete.

“All the emotions,” Virmidas Neverauskas said from his home in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, some 4,500 miles and seven time zones away, a place where there are no baseball diamonds and most kids grow up wanting to be international basketball stars. “This has been my dream. This has been his dream.”

One the father could hardly have imagined when he was in college in February 1986 and noticed a flyer looking for athletes join the Soviet Union’s fledgling baseball program shortly after the International Olympic Committee announced the sport would make its Olympic debut at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.

Until then, America’s national pastime had been ignored in the USSR, “a sport for capitalists, not socialists,” as Virmidas put it.

Still, the Soviets wanted to keep up appearances. And so Virmidas headed to the local library, where he found a book that tried to explain the history of the game. Virmidas sat there thumbing the pages, baffled.

“The person who translated the rules, he knows English but doesn’t know baseball,” he said.

Then again, neither did anybody else. There was no baseball equipment in the early days. The players poked a hole in tennis balls and filled them with water to mimic the weight of a baseball. They only had two mitts, both bummed from a local ice hockey goalie. Still, they kept at it. There was something about swinging a bat and watching a ball soar into the sky that stuck with Virmidas. The Vilnius team he joined turned out to be pretty good, traveling to the United States to play high school and American Legion teams.

“I hit home run 400 feet, not so bad?” Virmidas said. “Just three years in baseball, 400 feet is not so bad for me.”

While many of his teammates moved on, Virmidas became the Lithuanian equivalent of Abner Doubleday, serving as a coach for the one traveling team the country of 2.9 million could scrabble together. Dovydas was born in January 1993 and while his mother was a professional basketball player, when it came time to choose, there really was no choice.

“I guess dad took care of that,” Dovydas said with a laugh.

Talent, networking, hard work and a dash of luck took care of the rest. He picked up the game at 7 and by the time he was in his early teens, his fastball was in the 80s. And people were noticing. Major League scouts from Arizona and Boston came to Vilnius and watched Dovydas throw in conditions that were rarely ideal.

Ironically, the baseball program in Vilnius thrives during the long winters, when 100-200 kids show up to work out in a converted warehouse complete with batting cages, something to do while the cold outside raged. The spring and summer are different. Enrollment drops to around 40-50. Virmidas blames the lack of an actual baseball facility. His program’s outdoor “field” isn’t a field so much as a meadow with a couple of lines of chalk. Little dirt. So many bumps fielding a grounder is less about technique and more about survival. A black eye is one bad hop away.

Virmidas, the coach of the Lithuanian senior national team, regularly sends players to camps scattered throughout Europe. In Dovydas, however, he had something different. A long (6-foot-3) right-hander with natural ability and his father’s taste of adventure. Dovydas signed with the Pirates in 2009 at age 16, getting a $60,000 bonus and a chance to move to the team’s training facility in Bradenton, Florida, and finish high school while the coaching staff tried to surface his talent.

It was not the first time Pittsburgh reached outside the game’s usual boundaries in search of a prospect. This is the same franchise that signed two players from India in 2008 in what became the inspiration for the movie “Million Dollar Arm.” That same year they brought on Gift Ngoepe, a talented infielder from South Africa. On April 26 – two days after Dovydas made his debut – Ngoepe became the first player from the African continent to reach the majors.

“I think our ability to attract great athletes from other countries promotes diversity in the game and it’s the single best way to grow interest in the game in foreign countries,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said.

Dovydas’ development was painstakingly slow. He didn’t arrive with a translator in tow, so he taught himself English. Stuck in a clubhouse a hemisphere from home, he tried to fit in with players from Latin America and the Dominican Republic, most of whom couldn’t find Lithuania on a map (it’s on the Baltic Sea about 600 miles east of Moscow).

“It was hard being here by myself,” Dovydas said. “I was homesick the first three seasons. I didn’t know that much. No friends. No family.”

His routine included checking in with dad after every appearance, going pitch by pitch in some cases. Slowly, his stuff matured. He went from reliever to starter then back to reliever, the “a-ha” moment coming over the winter of 2014-15 when he went home to Vilnius with his back in agony. He didn’t throw all winter, focusing instead on strengthening his core.

By May of 2015, the Pirates had figured out Dovydas was better at 20 pitches than he was at 70. The fastball that challenges 100 mph started to find the strike zone more regularly. He split 2016 between Double-A and Triple-A, making an appearance in the Futures All-Star Game and spent a portion of 2017 spring training in the big-league camp. He struck out seven in 8 1/3 innings through five appearances with Triple-A Indianapolis and when a roster spot opened up when utility player Adam Frazier went to the disabled list, Neverauskas found himself on a plane heading to Pittsburgh.

He arrived at PNC Park in the sixth inning of a game already well out of hand. Two innings later there he was on the mound , getting Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo to hit into a double play. The ball from his first pitch and from his lone strikeout sat in his locker the next day, mementos he has no plans on donating to the Hall of Fame.

Dovydas is well aware of the ripple effect back home. Television stations showed highlights. Virmidas’ phone hasn’t stopped ringing. It was, Dovydas says, “a special moment.”

One he wants to build on. His father has been petitioning the Lithuanian government for permission to build an actual baseball field – one his son knows could turn their passion into less of a curiosity and more of a way of life. Even in Lithuania.

“Baseball is not really popular,” Dovydas said. “Basketball is No. 1. Maybe this will help get a little bit better in baseball.”

By Paul Wager

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