BRADENTON -- There's really just one thing Gavi Nivar understands well about the American culture: playing the outfield.
The rest is still a work in progress.
The 22-year-old prospect from the Dominican Republic just completed his third spring training with Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, and fourth year in the club's development program.
But for Nivar, and thousands of young players like him, learning to live in the U.S. has been just as much of a challenge as connecting with a 90-mph fastball.
The Pirates, one of Manatee County's most recognizable businesses, have taken the concept of employee relations to new heights -- with innovative programs that cater to the team's largest worker demographic through education, social enrichment and even culinary complacency.
Like any company recruiting a young professional, the Pirates hope to gain an edge on the competition by developing the sport's fasting growing demographic -- players from the Dominican Republic -- both on and off the field.
"I have learned a lot about the English language, about the culture and the rules in the U.S.," Nivar said. "Now I can talk to other people on the streets."
There was a time when a young, gifted player, could sign a deal with a big league
squad and forget about school. No more.
The Pirates now require every young player from a foreign country who signs a contract with the team to complete courses at one of its facilities that teach everything from English, to computer literacy, the American culture and even high school-equivalent degrees.
The program has become especially vital for Dominicans, who now represent nearly one-fourth of the 200 minor leaguers in Bradenton, said Trevor Gooby, senior director of Florida operations for the Pirates.
The team also has a similar complex to Bradenton's Pirate City in the Dominican Republic, which typically houses about 75 players enrolled in the baseball academy there or training for one of the Pirates' two Dominican league affiliates.
Each must learn the American way, a trend that helps them communicate with coaches and other players on the field, while also preparing them for a life after baseball in the U.S.
The Pirates are the first team in Major League Baseball to adopt such a stringent standard, graduating 12 players with high school degrees during the last two seasons, Gooby says.
"When they come here, they aren't acquainted to what we do," he said. "We want to help them assimilate to our culture."
The Pirates also strive to make Dominican players feel at home in Bradenton.
That starts with bringing a Dominican chef to the team's local complex for about six weeks each spring to prepare dishes that Latin players are more accustomed to.
While in town, the Dominican chef works with the Bradenton cooks on incorporating Latin flavors to the year-round menu. Along with the daily entree, a side dish of beans, rice and pasta always is on hand at the players' request.
Team officials even try to teach their Dominican players about the more traditional food combinations in the U.S. to enhance their palate -- a move they hope will ultimately help enhance their bats.
To the Pirates, catering to their employees is just smart business.
"We help them adapt to our culture," said Mayu Fielding, English as a Second Language and Florida operations coordinator with the Pirates. "We don't want them to change, but we want them to learn."
The Pittsburgh Pirates have their home opener at 1:35 p.m. today against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Bradenton Marauders, the Pirate's local minor league affiliate, will open the 2012 season at 6:30 p.m. tonight at home against the St. Lucie Mets.
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.