National Post



- Will Graves

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 Monday to clean up what was left of a lopsided loss to the Chicago Cubs, the 24- yearold 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 defending 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 said from his home in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, some 7,200 kilometres 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 look- ing for athletes to 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 U. S. S. R., a “sport for capitalist­s, not socialists,” as Virmidas put it.

Still, the Soviets wanted to keep up appearance­s. 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, travelling 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 t he Lithuanian equivalent of Abner Doubleday, serving as a coach for the one travelling 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 seven 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 l ong 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.

Enrol ment 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 ( six- footthree) 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, Fla., and finish high school while the coaching staff tried to tap into 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 Wednesday — 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 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 r outine i ncluded 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 “aha” moment coming over the winter of 2014-15 when he went home with his back in agony. He didn’t throw all winter, focusing instead on strengthen­ing his core.

By May 2015, the Pirates had figured out Dovydas was better throwing 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 All- Star Futures Game and spent a portion of this year’s 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 play- er Adam Frazier went to the disabled list, Neverauska­s was 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 aware of the ripple effect at home. TV 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.”


 ?? JUSTIN K. ALLER / GETTY IMAGES. ?? Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Dovydas Neverauska­s on Wednesday became the first Lithuanian to play in Major League Baseball.
JUSTIN K. ALLER / GETTY IMAGES. Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Dovydas Neverauska­s on Wednesday became the first Lithuanian to play in Major League Baseball.

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