Miami one of NCAA's best at preparing players for majors
FEB 13, 2014 12:15p ET
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Early Tuesday afternoon, the University of Miami baseball team found refuge from the heat inside the home dugout at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field.
Minor league pitchers Chris Hernandez and Kyle Bellamy played catch before tossing bullpen sessions.
With both college baseball and Spring Training set to begin this weekend, current and former Hurricanes were gearing up for another season. Miami, a four-time national champion, boasts a talented pool in professional baseball.
''It's obviously coming from a good program,'' Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso said. ''They've done a great job over the years there -- Gino DiMare, Jim Morris and J.D. Arteaga. It's becoming a regular habit for us to be in the big leagues.''
Since 1966 when the first UM player, Bob Biletnikoff, was taken 16th overall by the New York Yankees in the draft, all 30 Major League organizations have selected a Hurricane. At least one player has been drafted in all but four of those years (1970, 1973, 1987, 2003).
Ten former Hurricanes are currently on 40-man rosters: Alonso, Sanchez, All-Star reliever Chris Perez (Dodgers), catcher Yasmani Grandal (Padres), second baseman Jemile Weeks (Orioles), infielder Ryan Jackson (Padres), infielder Danny Valencia (Royals), catcher Chris Herrmann (Twins), 2011 National League MVP Ryan Braun (Brewers) and World Series champion center fielder Jon Jay (Cardinals).
Many of them come back during the offseason to train at the university.
''It's good because every day here there's pro guys here working out,'' Morris said. ''Our guys can see how big and strong and how hard they work and how much they condition to try and get ready for the next year. They're a good example for our guys from that standpoint.
''And they talk to our guys, too. You'll see them out there talking. ... That's a good thing and that's positive for our guys to be around players that are good and successful.''
Freshman first baseman Zack Collins, who was selected in the 27th round of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft by the Cincinnati Reds, has become friends with Alonso, Hernandez and Bellamy.
Collins' workout schedule overlapped with theirs. Players he grew up watching had suddenly become peers and imparted wisdom.
''Just pretty much keep your head on straight no matter how good you do,'' Collins said. ''There's always someone out there doing better. Keep working hard. It definitely says something because they obviously like being here. They wouldn't come here if they didn't like the people around here or the facilities.''
Thanks to coach Ron Fraser, the late College Baseball Hall of Famer, Miami went from a program nearing contraction to a powerhouse in the 1980s.
For 42 straight seasons, the Hurricanes have made regional play -- an NCAA record. During that span there has been 23 College World Series appearances, the last coming in 2008.
Eight players from that team were drafted that June, including three in the first round (Alonso, Weeks and right-hander Carlos Gutierrez).
''We always played on a big level here,'' said Hernandez, who was a freshman that year and is currently with the Red Sox's Triple-A team. ''Every weekend was a big-time game or series, so it got us used to the pressure, got us used to the fans.
''As we climb in the minors it kind of gets the same way with more fans (and) pressure since you are seeing better hitters and players that want to get to the next level.''
The program has influenced baseball in South Florida for decades, developing generations into players and fans.
All-Star third baseman Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles said he always wanted to attend Miami before being drafted third overall in 2010. He had been committed to Florida International University.
His son attended Morris' baseball camps at the university. As a kid, Lowell's weekends meant trips to the Light.
''That was the highlight of my childhood,'' Lowell said. ''There was no Marlins, so the Hurricane players were put on a pedestal. It's winning, it's tradition, and I think a lot of guys feel they're at home. You get a lot of Miami guys that go to Miami and stay here. You don't see a lot of guys who grow up in Miami leave.''
What sets the program apart from others around the nation is the camaraderie between the players, even after they've moved on.
Last month, Jay hosted a celebrity bowling event to raise money for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Miami-Dade.
Many of his former teammates, including Alonso, his junior-year roommate Weeks, Sanchez and Valencia came in support. Braun, Sanchez's roommate in college, was in Sanchez's wedding.
Jay was scheduled to speak to the 2014 team Wednesday afternoon before heading off to Jupiter, Fla., for Spring Training.
''It's something that's great,'' Jay said. ''As a group we can start a little movement who grew up here. It's something special we have going here.''
During Cactus League play in Arizona, Bellamy lives in a house with former teammates Jason Hagerty (AAA Padres), Blake Tekotte (AAA White Sox) and Dennis Raben (A+ Royals).
The 26-year-old, who is recovering from his second Tommy John surgery in three seasons, credits the private school's size to the family atmosphere. Miami doesn't have as many sports teams (17) as state schools Florida (21) and Florida State (20).
''At the time, this (upgrade) wasn't built,'' said Bellamy, who is in the Chicago White Sox organization. ''We all worked out together. My freshman year at 5 a.m. you would see all the drones -- as you'd call them -- just robot into the weight room and everyone's in there working out. It's just a close-knit family because there's not many athletes. We all kind of stick together.''
Freshman outfielder Willie Abreu and Collins have gone to UM baseball games together since they were 6 years old. More than a decade later, they're teammates wearing pinstriped orange and green uniforms.
Now, the players they grew up watching -- like Alonso and Jay -- expect them to carry on the Miami tradition as the next generation of Hurricanes.
''It's unreal,'' said Abreu, who was drafted in last year's 14th round by the Reds. ''It's crazy to think they were in your shoes not too long ago. They went through the troubles you went through and they're going to keep battling. ... It makes me happy because I hope I can be like that and give back to the program.''