Selling Dreams to Puerto Rico’s Young Ballplayers

Academic and athletic success promised to many young Puerto Ricans once they finish high school results, in most cases, in a frustrating outcome: they remain unsigned in the major leagues and unable to achieve quality education.

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Many young Puerto Ricans with Major League dreams get caught and with nothing in a poorly structured recruiting system.

Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”

Yogi Berra

A rifle is not a baseball bat, but with luck, there are baseball bats that, combined with books, avoid that rifle. For Edwin Calderón Santana, the bat turned into a rifle, and today he spends the days of the pandemic in a room at Fort Lewis, a military base in Washington state. The soldier pauses his routine and reminisces.

“I wanted to be a baseball player, that was my dream since I was little,” says the 24-year-old guy. During the video call he goes over the incident he believes he has overcome. He concludes, as if going back in time, that he would not be far from his family forced by economic circumstances if he had known that that night he was called “a college kid” for the first time would be the beginning of a story that today, almost three years after its “happily ever after…,” would end in deceit.

Edwin Calderón Santana

“I spent a semester at Morthland College, in West Frankfort, Illinois, and returned to Puerto Rico. Soon after, I got a new offer from Olive-Harvey College in Chicago. But I got injured and it was all over. I had to go back to Puerto Rico again because I couldn’t play,” he says wryly, as he turns around and proudly points to the single-starred flag that he keeps in his room, as a reminder of his new sacrifice.

“I was promised transportation, food, everything … But when we got there, things were different. Even the players themselves denied me transportation. That bothered me a lot, because they promised me things and then none of it was like they told me,” says Edwin, who begins to calmly pick apart his immediate past.

Like many other Puerto Rican baseball players, they sold him a dream when he finished high school: Locking down college studies at a junior college, on the basis of getting the chance to be in the annual major league Draft.

Eight years ago, Edwin was one of nine “lucky” Puerto Ricans who got a scholarship after investing more than $1,000 in the services of Selective Recruiting (SR), a for-profit agency in Miami, Florida, that did business on the island between 2012 and 2015.

Under the presidency of the notorious scout Joe Cubas — famous for being involved in major defections of Cuban baseball players, such as those of the brothers Liván and Orlando Hernández — SR sought to get college scholarships in U.S. mainland institutions for young boys   ages 16 to 18. But the entity never complied with the obligations imposed by the General Corporations Act (No. 164-2009), and the Department of State proceeded to cancel its certificate of incorporation, as it failed to submit a single annual report with detailed financial statements.

“You have to analyze the offers well. Everything has to be in writing, not verbal. They told me a lot of things,” Edwin recalls about those pipe dreams that made him decide on a two-year college.

According to research by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, less than 40% of all students entering two-year institutions of higher education in the United States complete a degree or certificate within the next six years. Until 2012, 11.5% of those who completed their degree did not do so at the institution they originally got into.

Edwin would be the first in his family to go to college. He was a natural sports talent. In baseball, he had the skills to defend any position in the infield and outfield. His speed was enviable, to the point that he participated in several school championships in 100- and 200-meter track events. He was one of those players who ended up with a dirty uniform. In addition, he graduated high school with honors. He and his family saw baseball as an opportunity to escape poverty.

“When I got to Puerto Rico I went to play in the Double A Youth league, but I needed to work. So, I joined the Army, which became my second choice. My dad always told me that I had to use baseball to get my education. And I went [to a junior college in the U.S.] with that in mind. Signing up [as a professional baseball player] was always a dream. I entered a biology program, but many factors conflicted. From the most basic things as not having a car, to living in a house off-campus, which had 28 bedrooms,” he says of his stint at Morthland College, where his brother and at least three other Puerto Ricans whom he played with in a team in 2014, also left without earning an academic degree.

Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

Many of the young people who leave for the United States enrolled in junior colleges end up returning to Puerto Rico before finishing their studies due to countless obstacles including difficulty with English and racism.

The institution closed its doors in 2018. Edwin laughs when he finds out and is silent for a moment.

Morthland College, whose athletic program operated under the umbrella of the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA), closed after a review by the U.S. Department of Education ended the private college’s access to federal aid for its students. The Illinois Board of Higher Education also took action against the institution, after the Department of Education reported “illegal” activities, such as the disbursement of Title IV funds to ineligible students who were enrolled in online classes without being regular students.

“I would say that my college experience was about survival,” says Edwin, and with good reason.

According to the most recent statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics, the dropout rate among junior college students under the age of 19 doubles compared to universities, with figures of 38.5% and 15%, respectively. The dropout rate among Hispanic students, meanwhile, shows a marked difference, with figures of 40.6% in junior college and 21.4% in four-year universities.

Upon his return to Puerto Rico, Edwin enrolled at the Universidad del Este, now Universidad Ana G. Méndez Carolina Campus. But the regulations of the Interuniversity Athletic League (LAI, in Spanish) imposed a punishment of “non-participation for a year,” which, as a general rule, applies to anyone who comes to Puerto Rico after being in an American academic-sports program and wishes to continue their career as a student-athlete on the island.

“My mom couldn’t work. I joined the Army to help my mom,” he remembers, wiping away a few tears from his face, like a breaking pitch he didn’t see coming.

Today, just a few months before leaving for Germany, Edwin is one of those Puerto Rican baseball players who did not get a degree or certificate in junior college. He says he is comfortable in a military uniform but acknowledges that things should have been different and that he would have prefered wearing sneakers rather than boots.

The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) made a request for information to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) about how many Puerto Rican players get financial aid in baseball programs and the type of scholarships they receive. It also requested information on changes in academic programs or reclassification rates among Puerto Rican baseball players, graduation and retention rates, dropout rates and their causes, readmission rates, and numbers on transfers of Puerto Rican baseball players to institutions belonging to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

However, the NJCAA, through its vice president and director of Compliance and Eligibility, Brian Beck, said it is still working on developing a platform to collect demographic statistics that will make it possible to conduct a study of student success metrics among student-athletes.

From the community to “college”

More than 3,500 miles away from the soldier, in Luquillo, Antonio “Tato” Robles rests on the abandoned bleachers of the Brisas del Mar community ballpark. The veteran athlete recalls that these days the town’s Little League program would mark its 50th anniversary.

“When we started the Little League program, we did it because we had to build community. It was a way for children and young people to develop on the right path and end up being good citizens. In that first tournament, in 1971, the kids played in jeans and T-shirts that we got for them,” he says.

Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Antonio Robles founded the Little Leagues of Luquillo 50 years ago.

“But that began to change. The time came when boys could play ball and study in the United States, so I made contacts at some two-year schools, particularly at Indian Hills Community College, in Iowa. I sent many boys to study there. I did not charge a penny for that and I think it was a great contribution,” he says.

Tato, who for more than three decades was the owner of the Cariduros de Fajardo Double A baseball team, recognizes that, although going to a junior college may represent a great opportunity for some, it can also be a nightmare. He has seen it with his own eyes.

“I remember that once, a coach for the New York Mets and scout for the Detroit Tigers, Juan ‘Yunque’ López, said to me: ‘Tato, don’t recommend someone for school out of the kindness of your heart or because you are a friend of the parents.’ He told me that if those boys performed badly, we closed the doors for others,” said Tato, while his son Tony, the coach of the Guerrilleros de Río Grande Double A team, listens to him by his side. He asks for a turn.

Tato’s son admits that “many times we were wrong to brag and said ‘oh, I went to the United States’.”

Tony studied at Chipola College in Florida. He started in Physical Therapy and the first semester went quite well, he remembers. But he found it difficult to combine classes in English (not his first language) with the time baseball required. He came back, studied at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacao, where he won a LAI baseball championship in 1996 and completed his BA.

“By this I mean that sometimes it’s better to stay here. There are people who, unfortunately, profit from this, because there’s profit for them,” Tony says.

Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Antonio ‘Tony’ Robles did not have a bad experience at the junio college he attended in Florida, but he ended up returning to Puerto Rico to finish his studies.

He continues. “They pick a boy, send him over there and get him a scholarship. And many people pay for that opportunity. I think it is cheating yourself and your parents. I know of boys who say they have a scholarship, when they have none. They live out of loans, they come back and they have to work with that debt on their back. And I’m talking about boys we’ve seen, who play Double A and that often use part of the money they earn in those games to survive there,” he says with the certainty of someone who, for the past 25 years, has seen how things work in the locally called “Sunday baseball”.

In the Sandín neighborhood of Vega Baja, Don José Guzmán Torres remembers when his baseball player son went hungry in Iowa. He says that the family bet on the boy’s talent and that they trusted the opportunity to get a scholarship at a two-year academic institution. Don José insists it was a huge mistake to send his son to the United States.

“That moment was very difficult for me to get over. I called him and he said he was fine, but he wasn’t fine. He went hungry. Later I found out, in the long run, that he went hungry. At one point he came back with many sores on his body. I asked him what that was, and he said: ‘I can’t even wash clothes, I don’t have anywhere to do laundry.’ It was really tough,” the father recalls.

In the town known for its slogan “Melao Melao,” where Juan “Igor” González, Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez and many others who grew up mixing sugarcane, beach and baseball, Don José tries to explain his son’s hardships, who after a year suffering needs in the United States was able to return to Puerto Rico and finish a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

“A father who is poor has nothing with which to help,” he says. “You can find a school, but you have to send him money. We sent money every week and despite everything he told us he was fine, when it wasn’t true. He was going hungry. He came back in shambles,” recalls a father who today claims to live at peace, because, despite the challenges, his son “has made something of himself and works for the Municipality of Vega Baja.”

When don José is asked about those who offer scholarships for junior college, the local entrepreneur simply talks about “buscones,”(schemers) local individuals who take economic advantage of young people in the island’s parks. In the Dominican Republic, these “buscones” are known as part of an underground industry to sell baseball players to MLB organizations.

While in Latin America the “buscones” make headlines for exploiting baseball prospects starting at 12 years old, in Puerto Rico the business happens by selling dreams of higher education opportunities. Contrary to the rest of the Latin American countries, Puerto Ricans have to finish high school to be eligible for the draft. Don José assures that there are “‘buscones’ anywhere who just sell dreams to the players” so that they invest in something that “is just a business.”

After a year in college, Don José’s son finished studying at the Ana G. Méndez System, where he did not play LAI baseball. Francisco ‘Fran’ Guzmán, 26, practices today in Sandín Park, where Iván and “Igor” played on weekends as children, the only recreational space left for the community.

The baseball culture survives there, right next to an indoor court that Hurricane María destroyed and just a few meters from what was the Rosa M. Rodríguez School, an abandoned complex that still displays the government’s “Tus Valores Cuentan” propaganda, a program of the Department of Education of Puerto Rico which has been historically immersed in corruption scandals, based on teaching principles such as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, justice and kindness.

The park represents the quiet memory of Puerto Rico’s socio economic collapse.

“We were 13 Puerto Ricans [at Ellsworth Community College]. They told us we were going to make progress. I remember that the head of the school came to see me pitch right here. They sell you the dream that you are going to play, but I came back in a year, because there was also a lot of racism. And that’s despite the fact that we had a Puerto Rican coach in the team. He was really bad to us,” says Fran, who is now a pitcher for the Tigres de Hatillo Double A team.

“Out of the 13 Puerto Ricans, four of us finished our studies and two [of those four] did so by returning to Puerto Rico. The other two managed to go into the NCAA and moved on to Division I,” says the baseball player who is also an accountant and completed high school at the International Baseball Academy & High School in Levittown as part of the class of 2012.

Francisco admits that when he graduated from high school he received offers to play in the NCAA Division I, but he did not follow that path because he did not speak English and had to take the SAT, a standardized test for college admission in the United States, a requirement that was not necessary to go to junior college. Going to a two-year institution was the easiest route.

“I didn’t have to take the SAT. I went with the idea to play baseball, really. I didn’t even know what to study,” he recalls. Francisco enrolled in a program to become an Athletic Trainer. “[It’s] what most [Puerto Rican] players who go to college study,” he laughs. He adds that he only took a first aid course that year. He had to pay for it out of pocket. Or rather, from his family’s pocket, who helped him “because the scholarship was not full.” Francisco regrets it.

“Not everyone in his senior year has the mental capacity to make an intelligent decision and not everyone has the support of their parents, which in my case was very important to finish studying accounting in Puerto Rico,” he said.

Juan Ríos is also training in the Sandín park. He is 25 years old and a few days ago he completed his bachelor’s degree in engineering at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus (RUM, in Spanish). In a few hours, he will have his first job interview. He believes he owes his studies to baseball, since he was awarded a scholarship when he began studying at the UPR in Arecibo and after it was possible to transfer to the RUM, he was able to complete his degree debt-free, “thanks to baseball.”

Photo by José m. Encarnación Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Juan Ríos plays for Playa de Sandín in Vega Baja. Instead of going to a junior college, he completed an engineering degree at RUM.

Juan had offers from several junior colleges, but he chose to stay at the UPR when he saw how his cousin Francisco Guzmán was doing in Iowa. He decided to stay in Puerto Rico and take advantage of a full scholarship. “And it worked for me,” he says, highlighting the financial assistance that, although helpful, is now part of the past, since the UPR doubled tuition costs and slashed athletic exemptions by 50%, due to the economic crisis in Puerto Rico.

“I have seen many friends who went [to college] and came back empty handed. I owe a lot to my family, because without their advice who knows what would have happened, “says the surveyor engineer, who reports to the Playa de Sandín team, national runners-up in the last Class-A Baseball tournament.

The boxscore of that game, however, has more complex statistics.

A market of dreams

Omar Rosado describes himself as a talent recruiter, whose “goal” is “to help young people without means.” To do this, he launched O.R. College Baseball Scouting, an organization that, according to the information included in the State Department’s Registry of Corporations, is nonprofit, since through “donations” it seeks to offer counseling to young athletes at the college-level recruitment process in the United States.

“We give the players the opportunity to be seen on our platforms by all schools,” says Rosado with great confidence from his car, where he connected via video call.

“We started to help young people without resources five years ago. We created a tool through which boys register in two [digital] platforms that we have so that they can be exposed to different school coaches, whether they’re from a two-year or four-year university,” he adds.

His corporation’s registration at the State Department, however, is dated July 29, 2019. “I was, as they say over there, under the radar in terms of income and things like that,” he explains.

Rosado assures that in five years he has managed to place more than 450 players in stateside colleges. He speaks proudly of the O.R. Puerto Rico Showcase, an initiative that in its first edition sent 50 of the 114 participating players to the United States, he said. At the end of 2020 Rosado hopes to hold a third edition of this event in which he anticipates the visit of more than 30 coaches.

“In the first two years when I started in the recruitment process and helping baseball players, I was only able to place [in higher learning academic institutions in the United States] between 30 to 50 baseball players a year. Many people think that this is an easy process, but this is a process in which one has to establish credibility with the coaches,” Rosado added.

Working a case of a baseball player who wants to go to college from Puerto Rico has a price, he warns. “It can range from $400 to $800. To start the process, the player has to make a down payment. Because introducing the player to the coaches requires making a video for the player, which is done by someone else. You have to pay the person who makes the video for their time. Once we have the video, we recommend them,” he continues, adding that all the offers are available on his website.

O.R. College Baseball Scouting offers three packages on its website. The first includes orientation, recruiting benefits, entrance to a showcase, making a video, and athletic counseling, at a rate of $500. The second combo offers the same services, although for another $100, it includes academic counseling, a personalized recruitment plan, and an “elite” video. The third plan is priced at $800 and includes a comprehensive recruiting network that promises a personalized approach, as well as athletic and academic “counseling.”

Rosado says his nonprofit organization is a success, although he currently does not have a statistical report or detailed documents to support his claim.

“The player has it detailed on our website: videos, platforms, a logo that we create when the commitment ends…It is not just getting a commitment, we announce it on the networks and the player can feel happy and grateful.”

Rosado mentions that he also works on student cases in the Dominican Republic, Panama and Colombia. He says it is hard work that takes up a lot of time, although he says that this is not his livelihood.

“I have a staff, an infield coordinator, a trainer, someone who handles paperwork, someone for social networks, photos, videos… Without their support, we would not be successful. This takes a lot of time, it is a 24/7 job,” says the man who performs as president, secretary, vice president, treasurer, undersecretary and assistant treasurer of O.R. College Baseball Scouting, according to the corporation registry.

Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalim

The coronavirus pandemic has also put on hold the aspirations of many players

A game of uncertainty and ignorance

Carlos, who has a different name, trusts his talent. At 18 years old, he has already tried what it is to be a college student during the last NJCAA tournament, but he was not satisfied with the academic-athletic experience and he looked for a second college to keep his college dream alive in the United States. To accomplish that mission, he claims to have paid $400 to O.R. College Baseball Scouting and now he’s waiting to find out when to report to his new team. Despite the misgivings, he’s waiting for good news to defeat the uncertainty which, he says, the pandemic has generated.

“In college, you learn many things, including English, which is basic. You know?,” says Carlos, who is in full physical condition during the month of June. “You have to go to college, because it’s good,” he adds, confident and proud to belong to a technical study program in which he has not yet taken a single course of his major.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 40% of students who attend community colleges in the United States are enrolled in at least one remedial class, which aims to prepare the student for academic complexity for which they are not properly prepared. For example, math or English courses as pre-basic, before giving way to courses that are part of their major track.

Remedial courses are charged as a regular tuition class and allow students like Carlos to play baseball, although they do not advance on their degree credits.

Contrary to Carlos, Manuel is waiting to experience college life for the first time in a two-year school in the United States. He will graduate from high school this summer and says his goal is to sign up as a professional baseball player. He decided on a junior college because at O.R. Baseball Scouting, he was told that that was for the best. And he’s happy because he wants to be in the Major Leagues.

“They told me that [junior colleges] are better, that they are cheaper and that lately they expose the players more,” he says, not knowing that the data shows otherwise.

In the past decade, the largest number of draft players selected from NJCAA colleges was recorded in the 2010 edition, with 175. The NJCAA has never selected more than 175 baseball players in an MLB rookie draw in a maximum of 40 rounds (1,200 selections). Since the 1981 draft, approximately two-thirds of all selected players who have signed professional contracts at the United States come from a four-year institution.

“I paid about $250 for the exposure, but Omar [Rosado] lowered the price,” Manuel said, happily, while at the same time saying he is confused because, despite the orientations he has received, he’s still unclear as to which NJCAA division he will play in.

Pablo, meanwhile, confirmed to the CPI that last year was “spectacular” in his first experience as a college player, referring to his athletic performance in an institution that competes in the NJCAA’s Division III. Now he moved on to a second college, because he says that where he was, he didn’t perceive much seriousness in the sports program, and he did not see much future there. He claims to have paid $150 to O.R. Baseball Scouting to get into a second college.

“I’m not lying about this. I switched because it really wasn’t what I wanted. If I didn’t want to go to practice, I didn’t go,” he says shyly. “I don’t know if this opportunity will be better, but one has to take risks. The school is what you make of it,” he said, specifying that the new school is also part of the NJCAA Division III, a level where there are no scholarships for athletic skills.

According to ScholarshipStats.com, a website that collects statistical data from multiple sources, including the National Intercollegiate Athletics Association (NAIA), the NCAA, and the NJCAA, colleges and universities award more than $3 billion in athletic scholarships each year. Most are not full scholarships; they only cover a fraction of college expenses and do not guarantee a debt free degree.

Years lost

From his living room, somewhere in the United States’ western coast, the first Puerto Rican coach in the Major Leagues, Edwin Rodríguez, speaks like someone who knows. In a video call, the baseball veteran says that the Puerto Rican baseball player recruitment method for junior college is a ticking bomb.

“It’s critical, and I would say, even tragic,” says the former Team Rubio coach. “Not only are they entering athletic programs where they have limited playing time, but academic preparation is also not in line with their plans. They finish two years at these junior colleges and have two academically wasted years.”

According to the coach of the Chihuahuas de El Paso, the Triple A affiliate of the San Diego Padres in the minor leagues, the tragedy begins with the lack of responsible guidance and the absence of real options. That, in his view, leads to embarking on an ineffective route for Puerto Ricans, not only to complete an academic degree, but also to reach the Major Leagues.

According to the Baseball Reference website, players who have signed up as professionals since 2000 include only eight born in Puerto Rico who have played at least one game in the majors after being selected in the draft as junior college students. Only one, Willie Collazo, appears as selected from a four-year university after transferring from a junior college.

“It seems like nobody’s paying attention. There are fraudsters who take advantage of this situation and the desperation of parents and the young people and sell them dreams for a certain amount of money,” says Rodríguez. He adds that many junior colleges do not have an interest other than financial. He further notes that, “right now, if you give me 10 minutes, I can get 10 scholarships at a junior college. Anyone can do that. The quality and value of that scholarship, the productivity, that’s what is in question.”

The coach refers to the fact that there are coaches who are hired “to assemble a team to win and make the team an attraction to boost (college) enrollment.” Rodríguez does not hesitate in saying that there are few junior college coaches who care about the academic development of the students. Using almost the same words as Edwin Calderón Santana, the baseball player who is now a soldier to help his family financially, Rodríguez points out that “the philosophy is to focus on winning games, because if they don’t win games, the value [of the institution] decreases.”

Rodríguez believes there may be a solution to this crisis. He believes that the LAI and the Department of Sports and Recreation (DRD, in Spanish) have the administrative tools to turn things around for Puerto Rican youth. He proposes doing joint work to improve the academic-athletic offer at the university level in Puerto Rico. He says the trend in MLB is signing the collegiate baseball player [from four-year institutions] and says the high school prospect is less attractive to teams.

“In other words, if Puerto Rico’s collegiate program [LAI] is non-existent, the high school program is non-existent, the rounds of the rookie draw are shortened, and the number of minor league teams decreases, then we’re not attractive,” he says, further explaining the fact that none of the players recruited since 2013 from an academic institution on the island has debuted in the Major Leagues.

The coach said that since 2017, he has been discussing with the LAI an action plan with MLB and the MLB Players Association. The initiative seeks to increase the collegiate baseball tournament in Puerto Rico to no less than 30 games and for MLB to financially support the participating programs, including transportation expenses for students, workshops for coaches and game equipment. The idea, according to Rodríguez, is to create structures on the island so that young people receive a quality university education while playing ball.

LAI Commissioner Jorge Sosa explained to the CPI that the organization does not accept the support from MLB, because students would lose study time, because “not all universities have baseball parks and 16 play baseball.”

“We have to play in public parks, and the condition is that we have to play without turning on the lights [of the municipal parks]. And I don’t take away teaching time from the students,” said Sosa.

Rodríguez, however, disagreed with Sosa’s position and acknowledged that he is concerned about inaction in the context of a draw for Major League rookies that, due to the pandemic, was reduced this year from 40 to just five rounds. In other words, the 30 MLB organizations distributed 160 players instead of the more than 1,200 that are ordinarily selected. At the end of the five rounds, which concluded on June 11, no player developed in Puerto Rico was chosen.

This year, of the 160 players selected in the MLB draft, two-thirds were college graduates of four-year schools, while only five came directly from a junior college. In Puerto Rico, there are more players who sign up with a professional organization after completing high school than those who sign up with a higher academic degree.

“The LAI isn’t attractive to major league organizations or the young people. They barely play eight or 12 games,” Rodríguez insists, adding that the quality of the game is not worth it for talent scouts. “And we’re seeing opportunities decrease at the professional baseball level, and how opportunities drop at the academic level in the United States, Puerto Rico’s options are almost non-existent. And what are the boys with a high school diploma and who have in mind to continue practicing the sport going to do? They’re going to be canceled out,” he says.

Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

Puerto Rico does not have a solid infrastructure that supports players who, after finishing high school, are not selected in the draft but want to pursue a professional career in baseball.

Bottom of the ninth

Right now, Víctor Caratini and Roberto Pérez are the only Puerto Ricans with junior college experience active in the Major Leagues. Caratini has just learned that in a few days he will have to report to his team, the Chicago Cubs, since MLB will launch a shortened season of 60 games, starting the last week of July. The 26-year-old baseball player agreed with Edwin Rodríguez’s proposals on college scholarships and stressed the importance of taking a critical look at the education of baseball players.

He was one who stumbled over several obstacles along the way due to lack of guidance: after not being selected in the 2011 draft, he missed an academic opportunity at Southern University. Still, he vindicated himself playing in youth tournaments on the island, until an acquaintance offered him an opportunity at Miami Dade College. The Atlanta Braves selected him in the 2013 draft.

“Another key point on this issue is that there are guys who don’t know how to speak English and go to a junior college to end up taking classes to learn English. Although they let you play taking those classes, the issue is that you cannot transfer to a four-year college, because you can fall short on credits,” Caratini said from his home in Coamo, putting into context the problem of remedial courses, to which we made prior reference.

But there are many things that can work against the young guys. Major leagues recognize that his case is an exception to the rule, so he speaks clearly and precisely, as if he were in the park giving signals from the catcher’s position. He also talks about the “buscones” in Puerto Rico.

“That bothers me. There are many buscones, man, who sell dreams to parents and children.” He adds that it is important to recognize that there are several leagues at the university level, different organizations and different conferences with very varied academic and sports levels. He further claims that those details have to be analyzed responsibly before making a decision.

Caratini begins to play with his memory.

“For example, here in my town they sent some guys to New Mexico, to a military academy. They had to do the military routine every Monday and they stayed for a semester, they turned around and came back here [to Puerto Rico]. They sold them the dream that they were going to school.”

The Cubs catcher speaks from what he experienced and continues to live through within the baseball culture. He takes the opportunity to offer a recommendation: “you have to look for as much information as possible about the university or college…because that way you avoid finding a different reality than what they offer.” However, he acknowledges that it is a delicate process, “because not everyone has the resources or their family’s support.”

At least five Puerto Ricans who were not selected in the 2020 draft signed professional agreements with major league organizations this summer. They received bonuses as negotiated by the MLB Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association in the context of the pandemic: any player not selected in all five rounds of the draft could be hired for a maximum salary amount of $20,000.

Only one undrafted Puerto Rican, Jean Carlos Correa (the brother of Carlos Correa, star of the Houston Astros and first pick in the 2012 draft), signed after completing college studies at a four-year institution. After starting his college career at Alvin Community College, the infielder graduated from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. At the same time, Steven Ondina rejected an $850,000 offer from the Cleveland Indians in the draft. He opted for a scholarship at Florida International University and to try his luck in the 2023 draft.

According to Baseball America, in 2019 Major League Baseball teams came together to invest $79.2 million in signing bonuses for players recruited in draft rounds that were eliminated this year (from six through 40). That represents an average of just over $2.64 million saved per team if we compare the 2019 scenario with the 2020 scenario, which also won’t have minor league tournaments.

In this inning, however, it’s unclear if what’s at stake in Puerto Rico is academic or athletic success. Puerto Rican players lose out without good direction. By taking a turn at bat after finishing high school, they strike out with their eyes on the ball of professional play or swinging for college offerings that are not in the strike zone. From the bleachers, you can observe a lot by just watching.

 

This story was the result of a reporting grant from the Journalism Training Institute at the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, with the support of Fundación Segarra Boerman and Fundación Angel Ramos.

José M. Encarnación Martínez is a member of Report for America.

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