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 Indianapolis Indians

Iron Sharpens Iron: Childhood Teammates Reunited in the Circle City

September 15, 2023 - International League (IL)
Indianapolis Indians News Release

After developing their relationship as batterymates during gritty, competitive and unforgettable summers in the metroplex of Dallas, Texas, Canaan Smith-Njigba and Ryan Vilade reunited this season as teammates in Indianapolis to share the Victory Field outfield.

Smith-Njigba and Vilade, who grew up 40 minutes away from each other in Dallas suburbs, were first brought together in sixth grade as teammates on the Dallas Tigers. The travel baseball team fielded young ballplayers from surrounding cities and grew as the roster stayed consistent, with the group of boys sticking together from middle school and into high school.

"When school was out, I knew who I was going to be with all summer," Smith-Njigba said. "I'd be with the boys, traveling together, staying in hotels, playing [baseball] and living cheap."

The Tigers' 12-player roster was small in comparison with the competition. While other teams were stacked with dedicated hurlers, most of the Tigers rotated between the mound and a variety of positions around the diamond.

"We were at that point in travel ball where teams would fly in players from around the country," Vilade explained. "It was us twelve versus teams with guys all around the country. We became a tight-knit group, and we were one big family."

Rather than follow the trends of travel baseball at the time, the Tigers stuck with what they had. Many of the players went on to play seven - or more - summers of baseball together. With time, the team had grown a reputation of being a tough draw in tournaments.

"We went from being average to one of the toughest teams to play against," Smith-Njigba said. "It got to the point when teams had to schedule us, they knew what time it was and what we were about. We went from being a scrappy team to one of the best teams in the nation."

For the little league turned pro ball teammates, some of their best memories from travel baseball transpired when they were a battery with Vilade on the mound and Smith-Njigba behind the dish. It was in those moments that iron sharpened iron.

"I remember one Saturday, [Vilade's] ball was really moving. I would give him a spot and it may be out of the strike zone, but it was so good the umpire would give us the call," Smith-Njigba joked. "He would throw a backdoor two-seamer like he was Greg Maddux."

Working in tandem, they learned to trust and bring the best out of each other.

"I wouldn't be feeling it one day and Canaan would come to the mound and tell me what pitch to throw, and I'd strike the kid out," Vilade said. "We learned as 12-year-olds to trust one another."

Following their time with the Tigers, both players had their name called during the 2017 First-Year Player Draft. Vilade was selected in the second round (48th overall) by the Colorado Rockies, and Smith-Njigba was selected by the New York Yankees (122nd overall) two rounds later.

After six seasons grinding through the minors to their respective major league debuts, the former teammates found themselves together again with the Pirates. Following Smith-Njigba's second season with Pittsburgh - he was traded from New York (AL) with right-handed pitchers Roansy Contreras and Miguel Yajure and shortstop Maikol Escotto in exchange for right-hander Jameson Taillon prior to the 2021 season - Vilade joined him. The Pirates claimed Vilade off waivers from Colorado on Nov. 9, 2022, making the pair teammates for the first time since high school.

"It was great when I saw [Vilade was claimed by Pittsburgh], it was perfect," Smith-Njigba said. "This game is so hard and such a mental game, so having someone like [Vilade] that knows me and how I am, it's great to have someone to rely on. I love having him as a teammate again, I know there's a winner next to me. Physically, he carries that presence of a guy who is going to be a big leaguer for a long time."

Throughout the 2023 season together, the two have continued to learn more about each other's game while balancing out their weaknesses with strengths, just like they did on those hot summer days with the Tigers.

"Canaan is able to be himself and be the same person every day, whether it's a good or bad day," Vilade explained.

From the outside looking in, it would appear they are competing against each other for an outfielder spot in Pittsburgh. Instead, they use friendly competition to advance each other's game.

"I try not to look at it like that," Smith-Njigba said. "I compete with myself and that's how I was taught. I believe there is enough for everyone to eat. I feel like Ryan can get the same things I can get, vice versa."

Above all, they keep their trust in one another.

"This comes back to how we grew up [and playing] winning baseball," Vilade added. "I think whenever you are focused on doing things for your teammates, you will play better."

Throughout the 2023 season, both guys have played hardnose, blue-collar baseball. Vilade leads the team with 113 games played and a career-high 61 walks. Smith-Njigba leads the team with a career-high 19 stolen bases.

"The one thing we both do is get after it," Vilade said. "We both play winning baseball, and it comes from our beginnings."

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