Talent on display in Prospect League showcase
Teams from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic playing in San Pedro de Macoris
SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic -- The drive east on Route 30 from Santo Domingo to Estadio Telelo Vargas in San Pedro de Macoris is a 45-mile trek filled with sharp curves, twists and surprises, but it's sunny and beautiful and it's distinctly Caribbean.
There are sneaky potholes, honking horns and motorcycles buzzing dangerously in and out of traffic, but there's also a crystal blue sea and majestic palm trees a few hundred yards to the south, escorting vehicles through most of the highway to the historic ballpark.
There goes the delivery truck carrying about 1,000 white chickens again, and there's that black Chevy Tahoe that slams on its brakes for no apparent reason.
Is that a souped-up moped? Somebody just told another hilarious joke. The cool breeze is invigorating.
It's Sunday morning on a big blue charter bus, and each seat is taken by eager teenagers from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on their way to this week's MLB Amateur Prospect League showcase in San Pedro. Puerto Rico manager Luis Matos sits in the front row, bobbing his head to reggae music when something outside his window catches his eye.
"You see that? See those kids playing baseball on that dirt lot and having a blast?," he asks. "That just gave me goose bumps. That's what we used to do when we were kids. We need to get back to that in Puerto Rico. Passion and instruction. That's how we are going to get more kids in the big leagues."
The road to the big leagues is difficult, and it's a different kind of challenge for players from the Dominican Republic than for players from Puerto Rico, because they operate under a different set of rules. Their path to the Major Leagues always begins somewhere, and on this day, it began in the parking lot of a hotel on Maximo Gomez Avenue with 25 teens from the Dominican sitting on one side of the bus and 25 teens from Puerto Rico on the other.
The ultimate goal on this day for the teenagers is to impress scouts in hopes of signing with a Major League club. The immediate goal is to figure out the lyrics to the salsa song blaring over the radio speakers. Matos, who spent parts of seven seasons in the big leagues, knows what this week's showcase means to the future of baseball on his beloved island.
"We were down for a decade or longer, but there is no reason we can't rise again and have three or four players from Puerto Rico on each team in the All-Star Game again," Matos said. "We need to take it step by step, but we are going the right way. We need to work on player development and work on the mental side, also. That's what this is all about."
The four-day event, which features two teams from Puerto Rico and two from Major League Baseball's Amateur Prospect League, made up primarily of players eligible to sign when the 2014 international signing period begins next July 2, is the culmination of recent initiatives in Puerto Rico.
In May, Major League Baseball and the Department of Recreation and Sports of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico joined forces to create an after-school baseball program designed to help develop high school players. In addition to the after-school program, MLB, through a partnership with the Puerto Rico Scouts Association, supervised the annual Torneo de Excelencia, the largest high school tournament on the island, in June.
The teams from Puerto Rico competing this week are made up of players from the after-school program and students from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School.
"What we learned is that the players from the Dominican need to play games, so we created the Amateur Prospect League, and in Puerto Rico, they have very organized leagues but they've lost track of enhancing skills like bat speed, running and throwing, which is what is concentrated on over here in the Dominican," said Rafael Perez, director of Dominican operations for MLB. "So when we say that the Dominican Republic needs what Puerto Rico has and Puerto Rico needs what the Dominican Republic has, that's what we are referring to. It's about becoming a complete player. In the end, they all win, because they are being scouted by Major League Baseball scouts and opportunity is what it's all about."
This is an important time for baseball in Puerto Rico.
Overall, the number of Puerto Ricans in the Major Leagues has declined since the commonwealth became subject to the First-Year Player Draft in 1989, but there were 13 players from Puerto Rico on Opening Day 25-man rosters this season, compared to 11 last year.
Last month, 19 players with ties to Puerto Rico, including six from the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School and two from Carlos Beltran's academy, were selected in the Draft. Two others signed after participating in the second-annual MLB Showcase for players who weren't drafted.
Last year, shortstop Carlos Correa, who attended the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, made history as the first Puerto Rican player selected with the No. 1 overall Draft pick. Correa and infielder Jesmuel Valentin, who was selected by Dodgers with the 51st pick, were among the four players taken in the Draft from the Academy. Overall, 25 players from the island were drafted in 2012, and four more Puerto Rican players were signed after competing in the inaugural showcase that followed the Draft.
In 1997, a player from Puerto Rico either scored or batted in every run in the All-Star Game. Sandy Alomar Jr., playing for Cleveland and one of eight Puerto Ricans in the game, was named the game's Most Valuable Player, and Kansas City's Jose Rosado was the winning pitcher for the American League. This year, Cardinals teammates Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran were the only Puerto Ricans named to the starting lineups in the Midsummer Classic.
However, there are reasons to be optimistic.
Correa, Cleveland's Francisco Lindor, Toronto catcher A.J. Jimenez and San Diego outfielder Reymond Fuentes all played in the Futures Game earlier this month in New York. Cubs shortstop prospect Javier Baez is also a player from Puerto Rico who is on the rise.
"There is a young generation coming up, and they have the potential to be the next generation's Juan Gonzalez, Robby Alomar and Carlos Baerga," Matos said. "We'll be there again one day. Not now, but in the future. They are coming soon."
In the meantime, it's time to enjoy the ride.