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College An Option For P.R. Players Aiming For Big Leagues

By Gabrielle Paese

June 18, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Bethune Cookman head baseball coach Mervyl Melendez knows more about what makes a good major league ballplayer than many big league scouts. With an eye for raw talent, Melendez scours Latin America looking for high school kids who might make it to the big show three years down the road.

Melendez isn't interested in the guys who went in the top rounds of the high school draft. He already knows those players will sign minor league deals and go directly Class A and double A. The kids he's after are the ones who got drafted, but in the later rounds.

"If you're not picked in the first five rounds of the draft coming out of high school, and you're not being offered a lot of money to sign, then it's better to go to college," explains Melendez, whose Division I program has gained national attention in the United States. "If you don't have the maturity level and you sign out of high school, you're just going to get lost and languish in the minor league system."

Six of Melendez's players have been drafted in the past three years. In addition, all six had been completely overlooked in the high school draft.

"This is like a big game of chess," said Juan Figueroa, Bethune Cookman's first baseman, who hit .383 this past season for the school, with 58 RBI, 48 runs and 75 hits. "My best option was a four-year college. You have to go where the scouts can watch you. In junior college, the scouts only get to see you for one year and you're always stressed out and under pressure to play well during that time. In Division I you have two years to prepare and study and the scouts have three years to watch you and make a decision."

Figueroa, who was not drafted out of high school, was selected in the 37th round this year by the Marlins. In his contract, the Aguada native wants a clause saying that the Marlins will pay for his last year of college.

Melendez and his pupil, Figueroa, are riding a wave that's having a ripple effect in Puerto Rico. In the United States, more and more high school players are foregoing the minor leagues, opting instead to go to college.

"You can definitely see a trend with the number of college players going up," said John Manuel of Baseball America. "When Mark Prior came out of high school in 1998, he was the 41st pick by the Yankees and was offered $1.5 million. He turned them down and signed with the Chicago Cubs in the first round [second pick] out of college for $10.5 million. Obviously he's an exception, but even major league clubs like the A's and the Blue Jays are drafting players out of college. It's less of an investment they have to make and they're minimizing their risk."

Of the 1,498 players in last week's high school draft, 706 are college players and 292 came from junior colleges while 494 were picked straight out of high school, according to Baseball America.

Edwin Correa, the former Texas Ranger pitcher turned principal of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy High School in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, likes the message major league baseball is sending.

"Our message is that education is first," said Correa, who graduated his first class of 41 student athletes this past weekend.

Thirty of Correa's 41 graduates will go on either to junior colleges or four-year programs. The school made history this spring when 12 of its seniors were picked in the draft, an unprecedented number for a lone high school.

"They have the option of signing or going to college and it's always better to have options," said Tony Bernazard, a major league baseball Player's Union executive. "Other countries have other problems. In the Dominican Republic you have children who are dropping out of school because they want to get into the baseball academies. But of those players, only three percent make it to the major leagues. When you study, you have a way to help your family. If you get to the big leagues, magnificent, but if you don't you can always get a job thanks to your education."

Puerto Rico was included in the stateside major league draft process in 1989 and since then, critics have disdained the decision because it has meant fewer Puerto Ricans going into organized baseball. The island averages about 25 players per year in the draft, according to Bernazard. This year, 35 were chosen and the top picks were Luis Rivera (143rd in the fifth round, Angels) and Adrian Ortiz (156th, also fifth round, Cubs).

Correa said he's hopeful his school will spark a trend and serve to feed more Puerto Rican youngsters into college programs like Melendez's, where they can develop and perhaps sign contracts to play organized baseball later down the road.

"There are more than 3,000 schools [colleges and junior colleges] where baseball is played and they need players," said Bernazard.

Santurce regroups

For all their high-priced players and coaching staff, the Santurce Cangrejeros couldn't make it to the finals. Ousted by the scrappy Coamo Maratonistas in the quarterfinal, Angelo Medina's Cangrejeros are already regrouping for next season. There's talk Medina might hand the franchise over to either Ricardo Carrillo or even Salvador Vilella. Either is more than capable of running the team; Carrillo is the current co-franchise holder and former league president while Vilella is the GM of the Puerto Rico men's basketball team. Of course, should Medina decide to hand over the reins, he'd have even more free time to contemplate a run at the P.R. Olympic Committee presidency in elections scheduled for November.

Will Mayorga be ready in time?

Ricardo Mayorga missed this week's press conference in New York. to hype his October fight against Felix "Tito" Trinidad. He participated via conference call because authorities in his native Nicaragua restricted his travel following charges he threatened to kill and do bodily harm to a 22-year-old man. Mayorga is also rumored to be 30-some pounds over the 160-pound middleweight limit he'll need to meet to fight Trinidad. Given Mayorga's legal problems, it's logical to think Trinidad's comeback fight might be in danger. But Felix Trinidad Sr. isn't at all worried.

"Right now the promotion for this fight is going really well. I'm sure that whatever needs to be done, Don King will deal with it when the moment comes," said Trinidad Sr. "There is no problem that doesn't have a solution."

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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