It wasn’t too long ago when a little island in the northeastern Caribbean, a sunny place with less than four million people and only three times the land mass of Rhode Island, was baseball-mad.
Puerto Rico was a hotbed for big-league talent. The standard-bearer was always Roberto Clemente, but the US territory’s love for the game only increased in Clemente’s long shadow. Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda. Sluggers Ruben Sierra and Carlos Delgado. Recent Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and future Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez. For decades Puerto Rican talent filled All-Star rosters: Juan Gonzalez, Javy Lopez, Carlos Beltran, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Sandy Alomar, Mike Lowell.
Yet somewhere along the way, Puerto Rican baseball lost its mojo. As recently as 2000 there were six Puerto Ricans on the All-Star rosters; in 2010, Yadier Molina was the only one, and in 2011, it was only Molina and Beltran. The talent pool has dried as baseball lost its spot in the middle of Puerto Rico’s sporting heart. And in recent years Major League Baseball has noticed, pouring more resources into developing Puerto Rican talent and starting an annual Puerto Rican player showcase after the draft for passed-over players.
“There was this tremendous pool of players at one time in the big leagues, and it’s just not there anymore,” said Kim Ng, senior vice president for baseball operations for Major League Baseball and in charge of international baseball operations. “We’re trying to give it a little shove. We want to help Puerto Rican baseball. Clubs probably don’t scout as aggressively in Puerto Rico as they used to. Given its history, given the fact it was at one time a tremendously prolific country for its size and population — I don’t want to let this thing go.”
All of which was a pretext for the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, when a tall, powerful, slugging, teenage shortstop who learned the game from his construction worker father became the highest-drafted Puerto Rican baseball player in history.
Carlos Correa will have more than just the pressure of millions of dollars and huge expectations on his shoulders after being drafted first overall by the Houston Astros. Correa, ranked No. 5 in MLB.com’s Top 100 draft prospects, has the pressure of a little island’s baseball tradition hovering over him.
Correa’s work ethic has his Puerto Rican coach singing his praises. The kid wakes up at 5 a.m., travels more than an hour to school, works out for 3 1/2 hours every afternoon — on the track, in the gym, hitting, taking grounders — then heads back home to his little fishing village, where he practices more with his father. On top of that big-league work ethic is a relaxed big-league demeanor, which was on display last week when he was in California for a tryout with the San Diego Padres.
“I’m just relaxed, I’m just enjoying the moment,” Correa told FOXSports.com days before the draft. “No pressure. Just keep doing my job, working hard every day, like Roberto did.”
Roberto would be Roberto Alomar, a fellow Puerto Rican who lives close to Correa, a Hall of Fame middle infielder whom Correa has idolized since elementary school. Yet the better comparison — and the one that made scouts dreamy-eyed — is to tall, powerful Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
One assistant scouting director for an American League team gave a report on Correa to FOXSports.com that sounded strikingly similar to a young Alex Rodriguez: “Correa has big power potential that will play regardless of where he ends up in the field. Most people seem to think he’ll end up at third base at the big-league level. Even though he has raised some eyebrows by blowing off some workouts with scouting directors in attendance and he was not the best of performers on the summer showcase circuit, people can’t question his bat life.”
That sort of potential — a cannon of an arm that reaches 97 miles per hour, a quick bat with pop, and a strong work ethic — could make him a future standard-bearer for Puerto Rican baseball. Carlos Beltran is having a resurgent year for the St. Louis Cardinals, but he’s 35. Molina and Edwin Encarnacion are both nearing 30. Puerto Rico needs a new face of the game.
Edwin Rodriguez, who manages Correa for Team Mizuno, the top Puerto Rican youth team, has been having six to eight of his players drafted every year for a few years, but the level of Puerto Rican talent reaching the big leagues in recent years isn’t what it was in the past.
“Since I saw Carlos for the first time at 14, I always knew he’d be a star,” Rodriguez told FOXSports.com. “I think we hit an era in Puerto Rico where we struggled a little bit because of the different options the kids were getting. Similar to the African-American community in the US.”
Baseball, he said, was losing its popularity with Puerto Rican youth. In a place where baseball was once king, they could now play basketball. Or soccer. Or dream of becoming a rapper. All of which was to the detriment of baseball.
But sometimes all that’s needed is one homegrown star to get a place motivated to play a sport again.
“Correa’s been a big impact already here in Puerto Rico, motivating a lot of kids,” Rodriguez said. “Kids are being more dedicated, practicing hard, and we need that.”
And so does Major League Baseball.
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