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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Puerto Rico Return: Academy Hopes To Expand Islands Big league Numbers
By Juan C. Rodriguez
September 7, 2003
GURABO, Puerto Rico · When former major league pitcher Edwin Correa was a minor league coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the early 1990s, the organization put a newly signed Puerto Rican player in his care.
Correa asked him what position he played. The left-handed teenager said he signed as a pitcher, although he'd never set foot on a mound.
"That's what gave me the idea to start something here," said Correa, 37, a native of Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. "There was a need."
What Correa started could one day turn the recent drip of Puerto Ricans into the majors back into a deluge. The Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, a one-building enterprise on a university campus 30 minutes south of San Juan, looks to do just that and more.
Correa recognized the declining number of Puerto Ricans entering professional baseball. Before 1989, Puerto Ricans -- like their baseball brethren in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the rest of Latin America -- were not subject to the draft. Teams could sign players at 16.
That all changed in 1989, when Puerto Rican prospects became draft eligible like American high schoolers and collegians.
By most accounts the effect devastated the pipeline.
In the 1980s, Puerto Rico produced future major league standouts Pudge Rodriguez, Ruben Sierra, Juan Gonzalez, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado and Roberto and Sandy Alomar.
Though a handful of marquee players such as Javier Vazquez and Jose Vidro have come through the draft, just 39 Puerto Rican-born players were on Opening Day major league rosters.
Dominicans could boast double that number (79). By 2004, chances are more Venezuelans will open the season in the majors than Puerto Ricans.
As of Opening Day, 46 percent of minor-leaguers were born outside the U.S. proper. Puerto Ricans accounted for 113 compared to 1,437 Dominicans and 793 Venezuelans.
"Everyone has [pointed to the draft]," said Marlins Director of International Operations Fred Ferreria, the Yankees' Latin American scouting director around the time Puerto Ricans' draft status changed. "It became a lot more difficult to select. You had to play your cards just like you do in the States.
"It stayed that way, and I think less kids got active in baseball for that reason. The free agents weren't being signed in bunches like they are today from the Dominican and Venezuela. It was just zeroing in on the draft and that was it."
Five more Canadians were selected in the draft last June than Puerto Ricans (22). Although Canada is a much larger territory, Correa finds the disparity surprising for a country where Roberto Clemente is a deity and baseball reigns as the pastime.
"And  was an excellent year for Puerto Rico," Correa said. "That tells you that no one's being taught. Look in 2005 how many of those have been released. That stat will tell you a lot. They might sign, but how many will last?"
Correa hopes to remedy that through the academy, believed to be the only institution of its kind.
Unlike countless baseball training programs throughout Latin America, this one includes a demanding academic component that makes players as attractive to colleges as the pros.
The need was so great, upward of 2,000 boys have inquired about enrollment. To select its first class, the goal was to conduct three tryouts, evaluate 150 boys and pick 100.
Seven tryouts and more than 1,000 candidates later, the academy had its inaugural class of 103. Those who made it through the first round of open auditions went to a pre-selection phase that included an interview and academic exam.
Major League Baseball was so impressed that it pledged $200,000. A grant from the MLB Tomorrow Fund is being used to renovate one of the practice fields behind the administrative office.
Numerous Puerto Rican major-leaguers such as Delgado, Gonzalez, Vazquez, Vidro, Luis Lopez and Joey and Alex Cora have subsidized scholarships to cover the $5,500 annual tuition for needy players. They also conduct clinics in the offseason.
"Carlos Delgado, I'll call him and say, `Carlitos, I need three scholarships,'" Correa said. "In three days, the check is here. ... We'd like to involve them all. I've always said this isn't Edwin Correa's school. This is Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School. It's what we want to leave the youth of Puerto Rico on behalf of everyone who's played this sport professionally at some level."
Four years in the making, the academy is in its second academic year. The inaugural class will graduate next spring, its members eligible for the 2004 draft. Correa estimates at least 30 could be selected.
The academy strives to prepare kids for the demands of professional or collegiate baseball. At 7:30 every morning, 153 boys age 15-17 meet at the administrative offices at the Universidad del Turabo, which has given the academy use of some academic and athletic facilities.
Their day begins with three hours of either baseball-specific or physical training. At 11, they shower, shed their workout uniforms for academic outfits, have lunch and are in the classroom from 1-5 p.m.
The program, which employs 22 coaches/trainers (most former professional players) and seven teachers, runs on trimesters. That enables the students to complete three years of high school in two.
By 17, they are draft eligible and no longer at the same disadvantage as Latin American counterparts, many of who sign at 16 with shaky educational foundations.
If Hector Pellot, 17, wasn't in the academy he'd probably still be identified as one of the country's top prospects.
Because Puerto Rico lacks a high school league, he'd compete in a local circuit with others his age, practicing twice a week and playing games on weekends.
"I would be working, but not with the same intensity and without the help of professional coaches," he said.
"They don't have the same quality of staff you have here. It may be a person that wants to help a group of kids. There are teams that have good coaches, but it's not the majority."
Added Correa, who won 16 games with the White Sox and Rangers before a shoulder injury ended his career at 21 in 1987: "You see fathers coaching. They have some knowledge and deserve credit because they're in there working, but they don't have the training to teach. Time passes and when [the player] gets to 17, 18 years old, you realize the essential, the fundamentals, the mental part of what the kid has to learn he doesn't have."
Everything Correa gives them through the academy is based on easing the cultural shock they'll experience upon starting a pro or college career in the States. By the time the boys are seniors, they're instructed totally in English.
"They don't only help you get stronger physically, but also your mind," Pellot said. "They give a lot of lectures on how to control your nerves, your temperament, how to block out things that make you lose concentration. In all those things you get better."
Whether the boys have flourished more as players or students is debatable. Eighty percent have grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher.
"I've had parents crying, telling me they've never known their sons to study," said Lucy Batista, the school's administrator. "They get emotional upon seeing the dedication they have to that part of it."
The city of Gurabo has donated land for construction of a new facility that will include three stories of classrooms, a library, locker room, practice fields, batting cages, and a sheltered infield.
Eventually, the academy will incorporate middle school kids and expand the program to other career tracks in baseball, such as sports journalism, public relations, scouting and management. They'll also offer a softball program for girls.
"Before I was a second baseman," said Jeffrey Dominguez, 17. "I didn't have much of an arm. I was much less than what I am now. They moved me to short, I've gotten stronger, and [the academy] has helped me a lot in terms of maturity and just taking things seriously, knowing there's a future for me. ... I realized from this I can make my life."