By Michael Marcantonini
CURVE, Pa. — First-year Altoona Curve assistant coach Salvador Paniagua sits in the first base dugout and reminisces about the day he signed his first professional contract with the Boston Red Sox in 2001.
He remembers what it was like to leave home, to be thrown into a new culture with an unfamiliar lifestyle in the United States.
“It really changed a lot. I remember my first year back in 2001. It was tough, but I knew that’s what I wanted, I wanted to continue to grow. I think the opportunity was like a challenge for me,” Paniagua says, almost two decades later.
Now well into his third season as a coach after a 13-year playing career as a catcher, it’s easy to see how much Paniagua has grown as a person in nearly two decades in pro ball. Paniagua, who is fluent in English, thinks back to his early years as a minor-league player when he didn’t know any English at all and struggled to communicate with his teammates and coaches.
“I had people around me that said, ‘you need to start talking, you should start talking more,’” Paniagua says. “I used to hang out with all the pitchers and outfielders during BP (batting practice) and I started talking. I had good people to correct me when I would say something wrong and that’s how I learned. I’ve always been a quiet guy, never liked to go out too much. It was a big change for me [but] I got used to it.”
After years as the student, Paniagua now finds himself as the teacher helping current Pirates minor leaguers break through the Spanish-English language barrier. More than half a dozen native Spanish speakers have played for the Curve this season and many of them do not speak much English. Paniagua knows exactly what it’s like to be a young ballplayer from another country trying to learn a new language on the fly.
“My first time that a manager [of mine] was an American guy and he didn’t know how to speak Spanish, he said, ‘you need to learn how to speak English, it’s gonna be hard for you if you don’t speak English,’ and that’s the same with these guys,” Paniagua says, in reference to the Latin players in Altoona. “I always challenge them to speak [English]. I’ll always be there for them but I’m not gonna be there for every time [they need to speak English]. Sometimes I let them know they’re free to go and talk because that’s the way they’re going to get better, that’s the way they’ll learn a little bit and they’re still learning every day. I’m here to help them but I want to challenge them to get better with the language.
“Everything they say, even if they don’t say it correctly, it’s okay to say it, don’t be afraid to say it,” Paniagua continues. “One thing we’re using this year is don’t be afraid to make a mistake. If you’re thinking about making a mistake, you’re gonna make more. Just make it and you’ll learn from it. That’s the biggest thing that I like here, don’t be afraid to make a mistake because we’re all going to make [them] every day.”
Paniagua’s guidance of the Curve’s Latin players alone makes him an incredibly valuable member of this team and coaching staff.
“To be honest with you, Panny has been the most versatile coach that I’ve ever had on a coaching staff,” says third-year Curve manager, Michael Ryan. “Being bilingual is such an advantage, especially because of all the Latin players that we have. It helps us be able to communicate with them, it helps us know that they understand what we’re trying to get them to do, because he can let them know.
“You can see how comfortable they (the Latin players) are when they come in those doors that they have somebody (Paniagua) they can rely on and a lot of the worries go away,” Ryan adds.
Paniagua’s value to the Curve goes way beyond his bilingualism. Ryan values players and coaches who can contribute to a team in multiple ways. He has exactly that in Paniagua.
“Not only what he does with the catchers, but offensively, coaching third base, he just knows all about the game, so it just makes him so versatile and we’re lucky to have him,” says Ryan.
Paniagua spent most of his playing career as a catcher. After signing with the Red Sox in 2001, he played first four pro seasons in Boston’s farm system followed by parts of two seasons in the minors with the Mets. The Dominican native reached as high as Double-A with both organizations and played in the Eastern League with Portland (Red Sox) in 2007 and Binghamton (Mets) in 2008 and 2009.
But that wasn’t the end for Paniagua.
“Panny” went on to play parts of six seasons for the York Revolution in the Atlantic League, the highest level of independent ball. He hit .251 in 419 career games for the Revs from 2011-2016, was an Atlantic League All-Star selection in 2013 and most notably, was a key piece to York’s 2012 championship club. Three seasons after his last game in York, Paniagua is still the longest-tenured position player in team history.
Through it all, Paniagua’s experience on a baseball field made him an ideal coaching candidate following his playing days. But his role as a catcher more than anything was instrumental in his transition from player to coach.
“As a catcher you see the game, you have the game in front of you, you learn so much about pitching, hitting,” says Paniagua. “If you see the pitcher is having some trouble throwing strikes or if the hitter is having some trouble, swinging and missing, you behind the plate can see what’s going on.”
Paniagua’s work has meant so much to this year’s Curve team, specifically with catchers Arden Pabst and Jason Delay. The two backstops have combined to catch all but seven innings for the Curve in 2019 (Francisco Cervelli caught seven innings on MLB rehab on August 11) and both Pabst (fifth) and Delay (11th) rank among the league leaders in innings caught, with just one error each.
On the higher side of about a 55-45 percent split in playing time, Pabst has logged close to 600 innings and owns the fifth-best caught stealing rate in the league while Delay has been strong defensively in nearly 500 innings. Maybe the best defensive duo in all of Double-A, Delay and Pabst have contributed at the plate as well. Delay, who represented the Curve in the All-Star Game in Richmond, hit .339 with 11 extra-base hits and 16 RBIs over 16 games in May. Meanwhile, Pabst’s hot stretch came when he hit .293 with nine extra-base hits and 13 RBIs over a 16-game stretch from May 15 through June 18.
Both players are quick to praise Paniagua for how he’s helped elevate their game.
“Sal’s just a great guy, he knows a lot about the game,” says Pabst. “The attitude he brings to the field every day is very contagious, positive energy. It’s been awesome to have him around and he’s willing to do anything for us, it’s awesome.”
“He’s seen just about any situation we could see. When we’re going through the game and a situation comes up, he’s always in our ear telling us what we could’ve done better and what we did well,” adds Delay, who previously worked with Paniagua when the two were with the Rookie-level Bristol Pirates in 2017.
Ryan echoes his catchers’ sentiments toward Paniagua.
“The way that they call a game, the numbers show how valuable and how important Panny is to them,” Ryan says. “He works hit butt off with those guys, and for them to apply what he’s trying to teach them into a game, it just shows you that Panny knows what he’s doing. He helps them with game-calling, receiving, blocking, throwing.”
In describing the most versatile coach he’s ever worked with, Ryan sums up “Panny” as best as anyone can: “He just does it all.”
And he’s doing it with his family by his side, supporting him on a life journey that started almost two decades ago back in 2001. Paniagua and his wife, who are from the same little town in the Dominican Republic, have been married for 13 years. The couple has four kids: a 10-year-old daughter and three sons, ages six, three and one. All five of them joined Sal in Altoona early in the season and have been with him ever since. “Being with my wife and kids, they take me out when I start thinking too much. It’s good to have them here,” he says.
Just three years into his coaching career and almost two decades after inking his first pro contract, Paniagua is in a good place with the opportunity to add to a growing baseball legacy.
“I’m still learning every day, I have a long way to go. Especially this year, I’m learning a lot,” he says. “I love what I’m doing right now.”