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.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JORGE CASTILLO

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.

AN­DREW IN­NER­AR­ITY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

PHO­TOS BY AN­DREW IN­NER­AR­ITY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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