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Everybody Starts Somewhere: Inside the Pirates’ Education System



Pittsburgh Pirates, Dominican Summer League

This continues a series of stories surrounding the Pirates’ Dominican Academy and international development system. For Part I, click here; For Part II, click here; For Part III, click here; For Part IV, click here.

When you think of the word ‘teacher,’ the image that comes to mind probably isn’t too grandiose. 

Perhaps a teacher you liked (or didn’t like), a specific subject or image of a classroom… certainly not an individual who oversees dozens of students who hail from all over the world and speak a variety of languages. 

That, however, is who the Pirates have in Senior Education Coordinator Mayu Fielding, who has worked for the team in that capacity since 2007.

Educational Mastermind

Fielding oversees each player in the Pirates’ minor league system, with a point of emphasis on the players hailing from outside the United States.

“That could be Taiwan, or it could be Korea, or it could be Italy, or it could be Africa…Uganda,” Fielding said. “Everybody. Every single player [in the Pirates’ minor league system], so the scheduling can be a little crazy.”

With 18 teachers (including herself) in the Pirates’ system: 13 in the Dominican Republic, three in Bradenton, Florida at the Pirate City complex, one in Venezuela and one in Pittsburgh, Fielding and her staff cover quite a few bases.

They need to, with a broad spectrum of educational and life backgrounds to account for. Some players have never had the opportunity of education at any level, others speak no English, others still border on mastery of the language. Fielding said she conducts an extensive onboarding program to gauge where each person stands in their learning careers. The international free agent signing period opens when a player is 16, so almost all of them haven’t completed high school at that point.

“When I interview our players for the very first time, I want to know about them. I want to know about their families, I want to know who they are, what they feel,” Fielding said. “My next question is going to be, ‘have you ever studied English?’”

Fielding said the answer is no for many of them, pantomiming the conversations they have.

“Depending on what they say—I’m taking notes—usually they start at a zero level so, you know, ‘what is your name?’ And they’re like, they just shake [their heads] and go like ‘uh-uh,’” Fielding said. “‘Where do you come from?’ ‘Uh-uh.’”

Everybody has to start somewhere. 

Teaching Literacy

Fielding said that the journey starts with literacy in most cases, although the program later branches into English, a high school diploma and life skills courses.

“The first thing is the interview process and then, depending on their answers, I’m going to establish where they need to be,” Fielding said. “An example: I will talk to a player, and he tells me ‘I don’t speak any English…I’ve never gone to school…’ First, we start with literacy, because when you’ve never gone to school you don’t know how to react in a school environment…it’s not a test, but more like a workshop where they write and they read and we see which levels they’re at before we assign them for school.”

With that hurdle cleared, Fielding can assign players into cohorts based on their proficiency. Small class sizes are one of the keys to educational success, allowing teachers throughout the system to focus on each of their students individually. 

“Our groups are so small in the first place. The groups that we have for classes are a maximum of five students,” Fielding said. “They all are going to develop differently and at different speeds.”

Climbing the Ranks

Fielding said she promotes players to attain increasing levels of education when they’re ready to do so, keeping the pedal to the metal as they master their coursework.

“If I have a group of five and there are two that are excelling, I’m going to move them. I want them to move to the next level,” Fielding said. “Obviously the next level would be another group that has already moved along, so we create a new section for them…It’s an ongoing process.”

Fielding said the Dominican Academy offers three different educational goals for players: a GED program like those here in the United States, a Dominican high school diploma for Spanish speakers, and a Spanish-speaking high school diploma from the state of Florida.

Individual Approaches

Beyond the end goal of graduation, another focus of the Pirates’ education program is helping players acquire the confidence to learn on their own. Fielding and the teaching staff stand by to help players find approaches that work for them as they learn on their own.

“All of them are different. Some of them like to do YouTube videos, some others like to do music, some others like to do documentaries, and there’s not too many, but there’s a few who like to read,” Fielding said. “We try to make sure that they all get enough information and resources that we can provide them with whichever that is.”

The focus afforded to each individual player keeps Fielding on her toes, but it’s necessary to achieve her goal of guiding each person to success.

“It keeps me busy! It keeps me working every day…Because everybody’s doing something. Teachers are recommending someone to move on,” Fielding said. “I interview them, see where they’re at, see if we can have someone work with them on a one-on-one basis… we really work on every player the same. We want them to succeed.”

Diverse Backgrounds

One on one education helps instructors focus on a student’s specific needs, but it also helps to have friends who are in the same boat. 

Players at the Pirates’ Dominican Academy have the advantage of being surrounded by like-minded people with the same goals, whether that’s learning English or making it to the major leagues someday.

That helps their development, whether it’s because they can go to a teammate for help understanding a lesson or because they’re in an environment where they can hold each other accountable in their quest to learn. 

Players outside of Latin America don’t always have that luxury. 

Fielding said that having a personal interpreter for players in solitary scenarios helps level the playing field.

Including Interpreters

“I think it’s very important to have an interpreter [for countries outside Latin America] because they don’t have the language yet, and they need someone to be with them so that they don’t become homesick,” Fielding said, but noted that there’s a fine line between not enough support and too much. 

“I don’t like them [interpreters] in the classroom, because when they’re in the classroom the players tend to feel that they have a crutch that they can lean on. That’s not what we want. We want them to be independent at some point—even if they have an interpreter forever, it doesn’t matter, but we want them to be able to succeed on their own… and the interpreters know that.”

Fielding said the low student-to-teacher ratios really stand out in these scenarios, with players blown away by the number of staff who focus specifically on them. 

“It’s super cool because it’s a way to connect with them, and they know they have support. They have a support system. I think the entire team does a great job at that,” Fielding said. “So when we get a player [as an international free agent], we all talk to the player from our different departments and when they [the players] talk to me they’re like ‘I feel so important, I talk to so many people.’”

Building players’ confidence in English and in education sets them up for success moving forward, no matter where their playing careers with the Pirates take them.

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