A rich legacy, a new reality
Puerto Rico’s pipeline of talent to Major League Baseball has slowed. Changing that has proved to be difficult.
Heliot Ramos walked over to the first base dugout under the lights at Parque Las Lomas Willie Ronda, a recently renovated jewel in Rio Piedras, a bustling section of this island’s capital city. The sun had set a few hours earlier, but the mid-January night’s warmth did not disappear with it. Lathered in sweat, the 17-year-old high school senior wore shorts and a T-shirt.
He was the final player at the ballpark after his weekly baseball practice with Los Potros de Las Lomas, the kind of prospect Puerto Rico’s player developmental system aspires to produce to restore some luster to the island’s proud baseball tradition. In a few months, he will make a life-changing decision when a Major League Baseball club drafts him.
Puerto Rico once had a veritable pipeline of teenage talent to the major leagues. It has produced four Hall of Famers, beginning with Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder who became the first Latin American inducted in 1973 following his premature death in a plane crash. But the flow of Puerto Rican talent dwindled by the end of the 1990s, and major league teams shifted their attention — and money — elsewhere in Latin America, particularly to the Dominican Repub-
lic and Venezuela.
The reasons for the decline lie both on the island and with MLB, but most here point to the league’s decision in 1989 to incorporate Puerto Rico into its amateur draft.
It placed Puerto Rican high school players under the same set of rules as those on the American mainland, creating an uneven playing field for the island’s ballplayers who lack the training facilities, exposure and educational support afforded their U.S. counterparts.
A burst of young talent in recent years, headlined by Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who became the first No. 1 draft pick from a Puerto Rican high school in 2012, has renewed hopes about Puerto Rico’s potential. It has coincided with a surge in baseball programs and a decision by MLB to increase its investments on the island.
Ramos is a sturdy but unassuming 6-foot-2 presence with pop in his bat and a cannon of an arm in center field. His draft stock rocketed last July with an MVP performance at the 2016 Under Armour All-American Game a world away at Wrigley Field in Chicago. In Baseball America’s latest list of top high school players, published in November, Ramos was ranked 24th overall and first in Puerto Rico.
He is one of eight Puerto Ricans who have signed a letter of intent to attend Florida International University in Miami as part of the top-ranked recruiting class in NCAA Division I for Coach Mervyl Melendez, a Puerto Rico native. College is a legitimate backup plan and leverage Ramos said he is ready to use in negotiations with an MLB club.
“If I’m not drafted in the first three rounds, then I’m going to college,” Ramos said.
But players like Ramos remain outliers. He needed a full scholarship to attend a private bilingual high school and required further assistance to make the transition feasible.
Many on the island aren’t so lucky. Puerto Rico’s poverty rate is double that of the poorest U.S. state, and its public education system recurrently produces graduates without the necessary language skills to compete for U.S. college admissions.
Most ballplayers, even talented ones, cannot escape the systemic disadvantages derived from Puerto Rico’s ambiguous position between two baseball universes.
“Heliot is the first step” in the island’s revitalized baseball system, said Wilson Ronda, the San Diego Padres’ scout in Puerto Rico.
A new reality
Ramos realized he was a legitimate prospect early last summer, when he surprised talent evaluators with his speed and power at the Perfect Game national showcase in Fort Myers, Fla. Nearly a year later, he’s one of a handful of intriguing draft-eligible Puerto Rican talents.
“It’s a strong class this year,” Washington Nationals scouting director Kris Kline said. “We have eight to 10 reports turned in. That’s more than usual.”
In the pre-1989 world, when Puerto Rican ballplayers were able to enter the major leagues under the same rules as those in other Latin American countries, Ramos and his peers would have been eligible to sign with a major league club at the age of 16. It was an open market, and professional teams could spend as lavishly as they wanted on signing bonuses for talent. By 1988, prices for top Puerto Rican prospects had climbed to $300,000.
To gain control over the size of those bonuses — as well as what the league head office considered to be shady dealings by some clubs on the island — MLB in 1989 decided that Puerto Rican players would have to enter the big leagues through the draft. The decision dramatically altered the economic model for Puerto Rican baseball, which had been tailored to groom top players to sign as 16-year-old free agents.
Puerto Rico didn’t have high school or collegiate baseball like that found in the United States. Under the rules of the draft, however, players had to wait until completing high school to sign professional contracts. When they did, they were up against Americans who not only benefited from two years of high school baseball but were advantaged by a superior education system and could therefore choose to go to college if the signing bonus offered wasn’t satisfactory.
It also meant major league teams had less incentive to nurture promising Puerto Rican players because they had no guarantee they would be able to draft them. Instead, MLB clubs invested millions of dollars building baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, whose players can sign professionally at 16, and largely turned their backs on Puerto Rico. Today, the majority of MLB clubs only have part-time scouts on the island and others, including the Washington Nationals, don’t have a scout living in Puerto Rico at all.
“The draft deincentivized teams from investing in Puerto Rico,” said Lou Melendez, who worked in the baseball commissioner’s office for 29 years and currently serves as an adviser to the MLB Players Association. “Why would a club invest money in players that could end up getting drafted by another team? It doesn’t make sense.”
The impact on Puerto Rico’s presence in the major leagues was dramatic, though not initially detectable because the final wave of Puerto Rican teenage signees was extraordinary. Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar and Ivan Rodriguez headlined Puerto Rico’s golden generation in the 1990s, which produced eight all-stars in 1997. But by the early 2000s, the plunge was evident: Puerto Rico went from 2000 through 2008 without producing a first-round pick, and just 16 players were drafted from the island in 2010.
Edwin Rodriguez, who became the first Puerto Rican-born manager in MLB history in 2010, said MLB failed to anticipate the calamitous effect the draft would have. “The draft was a disaster,” Rodriguez, 56, said in his office at the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, where he is in his second year as director. “And we’re still paying the price.”
Building baseball academies
A year ago, Ramos would have had an hour-long commute home to Maunabo, a town on the southeastern coast, ahead of him on this school night. But for his senior year, Ramos received a full scholarship to attend Leadership Christian Academy, a private bilingual school that has a partnership with Los Potros. He lives a few minutes from the ballfield with his financial adviser, Willie Joe Ronda, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 2003, during the week and returns home on weekends.
“It’s like we’re family,” Ramos said in Spanish.
Baseball was Ramos’s primary motivation for transferring to a school that is a few minutes from the Los Potros’ home park in Guaynabo, a city on the outskirts of San Juan. It features batting cages and a full-sized gym, and more baseball amenities are under construction on the roof of one of its two buildings.
But academics were not dismissed. The thinking was the private school would better prepare him for college or professional baseball because all classes are taught in English except for the Spanish courses. Ramos said the classes are harder, but he adapted, and his English has improved.
“Regular,” Ramos said in Spanish with a smile. “I need to practice more. It’s all about confidence.”
Regular is better than most in Puerto Rico. Though the official languages are English and Spanish, 80 percent of the more than 3.4 million Puerto Ricans surveyed spoke English “less than very well,” according to U.S. Census data released in 2015.
Baseball academies have sprouted in recent years to train aspiring ballplayers and help
them meet their educational requirements, including teaching them English. The two largest, the Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy and the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, are accredited high schools that have students split the day between conventional classes and baseball.
Others are more unorthodox. At Next Level America Academy, which was founded in 2007, students take online classes in English in a makeshift classroom at the stadium before lunch and baseball practice.
Homework isn’t assigned, said Pedro Leon, a former player agent who founded the academy, to allow students to get enough sleep. So far, the academy has had one student reach the major leagues, Minnesota Twins first baseman Kennys Vargas.
“I don’t want a baseball factory,” Leon said. “I started this program so more Puerto Ricans had another option.”
All of the operations claim they are placing education first, but even the more established institutions are being met with a level of skepticism by those who see them primarily as moneymaking operations.
“The emphasis should equally be on education and it’s not,” said former major leaguer Eduardo Perez, who was on the board of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School for a year. “It’s still about getting guys drafted and making the majors . . . . Yeah, you can be drafted and taken in the 34th round. But does it matter?”
Rodriguez said MLB gives his school $275,000 a year and another $25,000 in scholarships, which the MLB Players Association matches. Rodriguez estimated the donations account for just 4 percent of its total annual budget, but MLB’s backing adds valu- able cachet. The league gives Beltran’s academy $50,000 annually.
MLB has taken a more handson approach recently, staying out of academics and focusing on talent development. In January, Ramos was one of 63 draft-eligible high school seniors to participate in an annual two-day player showcase, established in 2014.
The year before, MLB started the Elite Talent development program in five regions for 14- to 18-year-olds.
Other MLB enterprises include an after-school program for 12and 13-year-olds in two regions, an eight-week summer league and a team to play games against the baseball academies. MLB is also contemplating building its own academy in Salinas, a town on the southern coast, similar to the one it launched in Culiacan, Mexico, in January.
“MLB realized Puerto Rico was at rock bottom and needed help,” said Tito Stewart, a former minor league pitcher who oversees a region for the Elite Talent development program.
Last August, MLB and the players’ union pledged to invest $2.5 million apiece over the next five years “toward the support and creation of baseball development programs” and to hold games and events on the island.
The money also was allocated to avoid embarrassment. Marquee Puerto Rican players had threatened to skip this month’s World Baseball Classic, according to people with knowledge of the situation, because Guadalajara, Mexico, was chosen over San Juan as a site for first-round group play. San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium had hosted a round in each of the first three tournaments and was preparing to host again.
In all, Rodriguez said, MLB has “done a good job” aiding Puerto Rico, but he insists it can do more. Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rico’s manager in the WBC, pointed to the $140 million MLB collected from overage taxes levied on clubs’ international spending in 2016, money that is allocated to international development, as a place to start.
“The money’s there,” he said. “You have to use it.”
Gaining some leverage
Seven years ago, Henry Ramos, Heliot’s older brother, graduated from Alfonso Casta Martinez High, the same public school Heliot attended for three years, also as one of the island’s top baseball prospects.
But his English was poor, and he didn’t have a college commitment, leaving him without convincing bargaining leverage on the size of a signing bonus. And clubs knew that.
The Boston Red Sox selected Ramos, an outfielder, with the 173rd pick in the fifth round of the 2010 draft and gave him a $138,200 bonus. Seventeen picks earlier, the Toronto Blue Jays had selected shortstop Dickie Thon Jr. Thon, whose father was a major league all-star, graduated from Academia del Perpetuo Socorro, a prestigious San Juan private school, and had landed a commitment to play college baseball at Rice. The Blue Jays convinced him to go pro with a $1.5 million signing bonus.
Thon was a rare case, a top Puerto Rican prospect with the option of playing college baseball in the United States. Henry Ramos’s experience remains far more common — even Correa’s $4.8 million signing bonus as the top pick in 2012 was $2.4 million under the slot value — and it informs his brother’s path today.
“Heliot might not sign,” Willie Joe Ronda said. “He wants to play professional baseball, but his dad wants nothing to do with professional baseball. If they don’t give him money, he’s not going to sign.”
“I’ve heard from past bosses say, ‘I love Puerto Rican ballplayers,’ ” said Wilson Ronda, the Padres scout who is Willie Joe’s brother. “And I say, ‘Why? We don’t sign a lot of them.’ ‘Well, because they don’t cost as much as an international player and the Puerto Rican player that would get $1 million if he were American gets $200,000.’ ”
Among the first things Ramos did when he began his senior year in September was take the SATs to make him eligible for college admission. That decision, coupled with his considerable baseball talent, allowed him to secure a scholarship offer from FIU.
“If I recruit 50 Puerto Rican kids a year, 48 are discounted by going through their credits and SAT scores,” said Mike McCrary, the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at La Salle University. “I’m really just trying to find the ones that I can make eligible.”
Some players who don’t consider college drop out of high school for an unregulated home schooling program called “modulos,” placing themselves under the guidance of advisers who promise they will prepare them for the draft.
“They tell a player they will pay for everything — trainers, travel, whatever. ‘Just drop out and I’ll pay for that,’ ” said Rodriguez, who added he doesn’t know of a single player who has received a college commitment through this route. “It’s illegal. And I’d like MLB to come here and do something about it.”
Ramos will move to the United States for the first time later this year to play baseball either as a student or a professional. He doesn’t know which yet. He will decide this summer.
It is a place many more of the island’s ballplayers hope to find themselves in.
“My brother tells me I should always have a plan,” Ramos said.
Manuel Ruiz, left, is one of the instructors at Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School, where students learn in classrooms and on the field.
Prospects at Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School split their day between taking classes and practicing their sport, including catchers, second from top. Puerto Rico has fallen behind the Dominican Republic and Venezuela in producing top-notch baseball talent.