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Figueroa Makes National Team… The Haines City Junior Will Compete In The Pan Am Youth Championships.

Figueroa Makes National Team

Emily Badger, Sentinel Staff Writer

July 9, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

They'd gotten through the third, and the fourth and fifth names on the roster, and Steven Figueroa was starting to get nervous. Eighteen total, with 14 to go, then 13.

The junior from Haines City sat in a late-night meeting with 35 of the most talented, under-16 high school players in the country, all invited to attend the USA Baseball Youth National Team Trials in Phoenix, Ariz., last week. Eighteen would be selected for the national team, set to compete at the end of the summer in the Pan American Youth Championships in Mexico.

Figueroa knew he had a strong shot -- he headlined the first intrasquad game of the week by going 3-for-4 with two doubles, a triple and four RBIs -- but that didn't calm his nerves.

Then they called his name.

"I was so happy, I stood up and thanked God," Figueroa said after returning to Florida this week. "I immediately called home at like 10:30 -- 1:30 in the morning here."

Surely his parents didn't mind the middle-of-the-night wake-up call?

"They didn't care because they were all surprised," Figueroa said.

The last player from Kissimmee to make the national team -- and he went on to win a gold medal for the United States -- was Gateway left-handed pitcher Joe Torres. His eventual fate after leaving his hometown?

Torres was drafted in the first round by the Anaheim Angels and signed for more then $2 million in 2000.

Next week's Major League All-Star game in Houston will include nine former USA Baseball players, providing even better context for the elite company Figueroa is about to join. The group includes Yankee infielders Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez, Giants outfielder Barry Bonds and Rockies first baseman Todd Helton.

Forging his own path on the national team, Figueroa will split his time between third base, the outfield and the mound, although his best potential is considered behind the plate.

"Ever since I was little, since I started playing at 12, that was my dream to represent the United States," said Figueroa, who was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico before moving to Florida three years ago.

He'd ultimately like to play in the majors. Any team will do, although he's grown up a Yankees fan and a devotee of Tigers catcher and Puerto Rican Ivan Rodriguez.

For the rest of the summer, Figueroa will continue playing with his high school team. Then in August he'll join the national team for training before the games in Mexico start Sept. 3.

He'll be a little late for school in the fall, but he's expecting his teachers, coaches and teammates to forgive him.

Figueroa Will Represent Country

The Haines City standout is a member of the USA Baseball Youth National team.

By Jeff Berlinicke | Special to the Sentinel

July 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

HAINES CITY -- Just three years ago, Steven Figueroa spoke little English and felt like a stranger in a strange land.

Today, the Haines City High student is preparing to represent the United States at the USA Baseball Youth National team that will play in the Pan American qualifying tournament that begins in September. Comprised of players ages 16-and-under, the 18-player team includes nine Floridians. On August 28, the team, will head to Aguascalientes, Mexico, to begin

preparations for the tournament.

Figueroa spent most of his life in Puerto Rico, dreaming of someday being a baseball player. The trouble was, there were few opportunities.

"When I was 6, I wanted to start playing baseball," Figueroa said in unbroken English. "There were just no baseball teams where I grew up.

When I was 12, they started a league in my hometown and I started to play. Then we came to the States."

It didn't take long for Figueroa to master several positions. At Haines City, he plays catcher, but for the national team, he'll play third base and shortstop. He also pitches and can hit 88 mph on the radar gun. When the national team had its first gathering last month in Arizona, Figueroa played third base, which is his favorite position.

"I prefer third to anything else," Figueroa said. "I like to be in on the action as much as I can. You know you aren't going to get a lot of action in the outfield."

His versatility is something that impressed Luis Roman, coach of the Kissimmee Panthers, Figueroa's Amateur Athletic Union team. Figueroa's attitude also impressed Roman.

"He's just a great kid," Roman said. "He was a catcher, and I just told him I needed him at third base. He didn't say anything. He just went and grabbed his glove. I can tell him to play anywhere on the field and he won't say anything."

While his Haines City and AAU teams were successful, Figueroa had his heart set on making the national team. The player identification process for selecting the national team began in June at the USA Junior Olympic Baseball Championships in Arizona and Florida. The annual event features 144 teams, 72 of them in Arizona, and the other 72 in Palm Beach County.

More than 2,500 players participated, trying to earn one of the 18 slots on the national team.

Figueroa said he is looking forward to representing his new country, but there's still the matter of education once the business is done with the national team. He enjoys Haines City High and credits the faculty for getting him acclimated to the new culture in America.

"It was tough learning English, but I have had excellent teachers at Haines City," Figueroa said. "I'd like to go pro one day to play baseball, but first I want to go to college and get an education."

Roman said Figueroa's potential is unlimited.

"Every coach in Orlando is still trying to figure out how to get him out," Roman said. "With the talent he has, he can make it into professional baseball. After that, it is all up to him. He has baseball instincts."

Figueroa said adjusting to life in America has not always been easy for him. But he still has an innocent attitude about everything that's happened to him in the past three years.

"I love baseball," Figueroa said. "I have loved it since I was little, and I love it even more every day."

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