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Perrotto: Paul Skenes, Termarr Johnson More Than Top Prospects

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Termarr Johnson, Pittsburgh Pirates

Having the opportunity to see the Spring Breakout game last week was interesting for a few reasons.

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching prospects were all quite impressive. Six held a group of Baltimore Orioles prospects to only one hit in the seven-inning game at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla.

Paul Skenes was as good as advertised as he consistently hit 101 mph during his one inning.

It was also interesting to see the Pirates hitting prospects, specifically center fielder Lonnie White Jr. He has been hurt a lot in his professional career but it’s obvious why the Pirates pushed to get the multi-talented White to give up a football scholarship to Penn State.

However, the most eye-opening part of the event came after the game when the Pirates’ top pitching and hitting prospects hung around for a while despite it being late in the evening.

Skenes, the first overall pick in last year’s amateur draft, stayed and signed autographs for everyone who asked. He seemed to relish the interaction with the fans.

Termarr Johnson, the second baseman taken fourth overall in the 2022 amateur draft, was his usual ebullient self. He, too, took time to fulfill every autograph request and then played with catching prospect Abrahan Gutierrez’s son for another few minutes before retreating to the clubhouse.

While signing autographs and mingling with the fans doesn’t canonize a player as a hero, it does humanize them.

I asked Skenes if he enjoyed dealing with the fans. He replied by telling a story from his childhood.

When Skenes was 9 years old and growing up a Los Angeles Angels’ fan in Lake Forest, Calif., his family took a trip to Phoenix in 2011 to watch some Arizona Fall League games. They wanted to see Mike Trout, considered the Angels’ top prospect and a potential superstar.

Skenes got Trout’s autograph. Even though Skenes is now on the verge of becoming a major leaguer, that interaction remains a cherished memory. Trout has gone on to win three American MVP awards and be selected to 11 All-Star Games.

I must admit that I wondered if Skenes might be unapproachable when I arrived in spring training. In addition to being the No. 1 pick, he is in a high-profile relationship with LSU gymnast and social media sensation Livvy Dunne. The two met in college.

However, in my limited dealing with Skenes, I have found him to be an outstanding young man – please pardon me for sounding like an old fogey there. The 21-year-old is smart, personable, polite and has a sense of humor.

Johnson is the same way.

I asked him last year during spring training why he never stopped smiling. His reply: “Because I love baseball and being around the game.”

The Pirates have their challenges in sustaining fan interest, not the least of which is notching just four winning records in the last 31 seasons while seemingly being in perpetual rebuilding mode. That’s a big hole to climb out of when you play in the same market as the Steelers and Penguins, who never rebuild and always try to win.

One way in which the Pirates can win over fans is by having relatable star players.

Skenes and Johnson have both qualities. They could be great ambassadors for the franchise.

Both are so talented that they might even help the Pirates win some games. That would be even better.

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