Ryan Vilade figures he was born to be a baseball player.
The Pittsburgh Pirates rookie outfielder’s father has coached at the professional and collegiate levels for many years and has also served as a pro scout. James Vilade is currently an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma State.
“I’ve been going to games since I was a baby,” Ryan Vilade said with a smile recently at the Pirates spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla. “My mother used to carry me to my dad’s games.”
All these years later, the 24-year-old is trying to establish himself as a major league player. The Pirates claimed him off waivers from the Colorado Rockies on Nov. 9 and now he is trying to win a spot on the opening-day roster during a crowded outfield competition this spring.
Vilade has a deep love for baseball. It doesn’t take very long into a conversation with him to figure that out.
However, what sets Vilade apart is how much he likes to share that love with others, especially special needs children.
Vilade’s mother is a special education teacher. In addition to his work in baseball, James Vilade has long been involved in the Special Olympics.
In fact, James Vilade has a foundation called Keeper of the Game. It helps children with special needs and disabilities.
“They do a lot of different programs,” Vilade said. “They take the kids to minor-league games, do camps, do bowling events, do movie nights, just all sorts of things to let those kids be a part of the community and to help them out.
“It’s been a really big part of our family for a long time. Helping these kids out and helping them be part of the game of baseball, that has all I’ve known throughout my whole life.”
Like any professional athlete trying to gain a foothold at the highest level, the job can be stressful. However, working with the children through Keeper of the Game gives Vilade a perspective most players don’t have.
“You realize that baseball is just a game and to go and just enjoy the game, have fun and play for them, the kids who unfortunately aren’t able to go out and pursue a career in the sport they love,” Vilade said. “For me, it’s all about giving them joy and playing for them. It gives you a bigger picture rather than just coming every day to the field. You’re playing for those kids, too, and the joy of them seeing you at the field or hanging out at a bowling event or a camp — you can’t get much better than that.”
Vilade is hoping his young fans get a chance to see him play in a Pirates’ uniform this season.
The Rockies selected him in the second round of the 2017 amateur draft after he starred at Stillwater High School in Oklahoma. He reached the major leagues in 2021 for a three-game cameo but is still looking for his first half after going 0 for 6.
In 504 minor league games over five seasons, Vilade compiled a .281/.357/.410 slash line with 35 home runs and 69 stolen bases. He has yet to turn the raw power he showed as an amateur into production at the professional level.
Vilade spent his first three seasons as a shortstop but has been strictly an outfielder and first baseman since 2021.
Vilade was originally disappointed to learn that the Rockies let him go. However, he is happy now to be with the Pirates and they kept him on their 40-man roster throughout the winter despite being very active in adding veteran players.
“You hate to leave the only organization you’ve ever known because you’re going to miss your buddies from the last six years, but I’m also excited to be here,” Vilade said. “It’s great to be claimed by the Pirates and join a great organization. I know they signed some veterans over the winter but there are also a lot of opportunities for young players that I’m going to try to take advantage of.”