Lithuanian pitcher hopes to make history

By Cory Giger

cgiger@altoonamirror.com

Arguably the greatest baseball movie ever made, “The Natural,” was based in part on a Lithuanian-American major league player named Eddie Waitkus.

Don’t know the name? Well, the following story should jog your memory.

Waitkus was a promising young player for the Philadelphia Phillies who, in 1949, was shot in a Chicago hotel room by a stalker named Ruth Ann Steinhagen. Waitkus nearly died but was able to continue his playing career, and in 1952 his ordeal made up part of the backstory for the Roy Hobbs character in the book, “The Natural.”

In the classic 1984 film, Robert Redford played Hobbs, maybe the greatest young player ever, and was shot by Barbara Hershey’s character, derailing the young man’s promising career for several years.

When it comes to Lithuanian-heritage players in professional baseball history, the Waitkus story is hard to beat. He was not born in Lithuania, however, but instead in Cambridge, Mass., to immigrants from that Eastern European country.

The only person born in Lithuania to ever play in Major League Baseball was a fellow named Joe Zapustas, who has his own intriguing tale. After emigrating to the U.S. as a child, Zapustas went on to become an outfielder for two games with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1933 – going 1-for-5 – and later that same year he played in two NFL games for the New York Giants, catching one pass for 26 yards.

That’s it – in the entire history of Major League Baseball, a Lithuanian-born player has appeared in a grand total of two games. The country has made its mark in professional basketball – producing one of the greatest big men ever, Arvydas Sabonis, as well as Sarunas Marciulonis and LeBron James’ close friend, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, but Lithuania has never been a country that comes to mind with regards to producing baseball talent.

The Curve have a young right-handed pitcher this season named Dovydas Neverauskas who hopes to make his own bit of history. The 23-year-old was born in Lithuania, signed his first pro contract with the Pirates in 2009 when he was just 16 years old and now finds himself closer than ever to the major leagues.

“After making Double-A this year, it’s maybe one or two steps away from my dream,” Neverauskas said.

How does one make it here from a country with so little baseball tradition? Numerous players from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela have played for the Curve over the years, but all of those countries have rich baseball heritage and a pipeline in place to help youngsters develop into pros.

How many kids in Lithuania play baseball?

“Not many,” Neverauskas said.

For the ones who do, the country never had great facilities to host tournaments. So, young Lithuanians such as Neverauskas had to form a team that traveled across Europe to play in places such as the Czech Republic or the Netherlands.

Neverauskas, who took up the game when he was 6 years old, played positions all over the field, just like American kids. But what set him apart was his fastball.

“My dad knew I can throw hard, and he realized I can be somebody, I guess,” Neverauskas said.

In this country, if you can play baseball, scouts will find you. Big school, little school, large city or out in the boonies, it doesn’t matter.

It’s become that way around the rest of the world, as well, with major league organizations focusing heavily on international scouting over the past decade.

Every year, about 50 of the best young players across Europe are gathered to participate in a three-week camp run by Major League Baseball. Former players such as Barry Larkin and Lee Smith attend these instructional camps, and scouts are looking for diamonds in the rough.

Former Pirates scout Tom Randolph discovered Neverauskas at a camp in 2008. Incredibly enough, Randolph also unearthed former Curve shortstop Gift Ngoepe at that same camp, and Ngoepe, who’s now in Triple-A, is on the doorstep of becoming the first player from South Africa to make the major leagues.

“You just work out there and learn some stuff, and there’s a bunch of scouts there watching you,” Neverauskas said of his MLB camp experience. “They saw me, and that’s it.”

The Pirates signed Neverauskas to a professional contract on July 9, 2009, giving him a reported signing bonus of $60,000. He was a mere 16 years old, but he could throw 90 mph, and the Bucs figured he was worth a shot.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Curve pitching coach Justin Meccage said of Neverauskas’ journey.

The right-hander, who’s in his seventh pro season, now throws as hard as 97 mph. He’s not a complete pitcher yet – few are in Double-A – and he still has a lot to work on to compensate for some of the learning curve he missed out on when he was young.

“I would imagine it would be very difficult, and that’s why you saw some inconsistencies early in his career,” Meccage said. “He had a really good start to his career, then he kind of leveled off a little bit, and now you’re seeing him take off again.”

Long before he got to Double-A, Neverauskas, still just a young kid, had a lot to learn merely about being a pro ballplayer in a new country thousands of miles away from home.

The Pirates brought Neverauskas along slowly. He didn’t pitch in the organization in 2009, but instead went to the MLB Europe academy once again. The Bucs also let him return home after spring training the first couple years of his career so he could finish high school.

“My first two years (2010-11), I didn’t spend that much time here,” Neverauskas said. “And my third year, 2012, I graduated from high school, and I came here from spring training until the end, six months.

“Missing your family and friends, going for half the year and not seeing your family, it’s not easy.”

There was culture shock, of course. He didn’t speak much English, but he forced himself to learn because no one else here spoke Lithuanian. He now speaks English very well.

On the field, he pitched for the Pirates’ rookie team in the Gulf Coast League from 2010-12, getting one game with the State College Spikes in 2012. He went to Jamestown in the New York-Penn League in 2013, low-A West Virginia in 2014, then split last season between the Pirates’ two West Virginia affiliates and high-A Bradenton.

Neverauskas has had some success but also a good bit of inconsistency in his career. He has a record of 17-20 with a 4.46 ERA in 101 games, but it wasn’t until last year that he moved to a relief role after starting through 2014. He was 2-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 31 games (five starts) between his three stops in 2015, including an impressive 1.62 ERA in high-A.

Despite appearing in just 12 games and throwing 16 2/3 innings at Bradenton a year ago, the Pirates had to be encouraged by his success and aggressively moved the right-hander up to Double-A this season. It’s the last year of his contract, and after putting nearly seven years of work into his development, the Bucs need to find out if he can handle the upper minor league levels.

“He’s got a power fastball,” Meccage said. “He’s just learning how to harness that power, and then learn to develop the secondary pitches to go with it.”

Neverauskas’ father, Virnieas, knew a long time that his son could be somebody because of how hard he throws a baseball. It’s been a long, unusual journey already for Dovydas just to get to this point, but he certainly is somebody, and he’s on the doorstep of becoming someone even more special if he can make history by getting to the major leagues.

It might seem like added pressure given where he’s from, but Neverauskas doesn’t view it that way.

“I don’t really think about it like pressure,” he said. “I just focus on the game I pitch and try to do my best.”