PR Academy alums chasing dreams in college

PR Academy alums chasing dreams in college

PR Academy alums chasing dreams in college
HOUSTON -- The wave is steadily growing, and the first breakers have already begun to wash over the field of college baseball. Four players from Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy in Puerto Rico are at the Urban Invitational, a highlight in their respective freshman seasons.

Right-handed pitcher Jose Atilano and infielder Victor Caratini are part of the team at Southern University, while Alabama State boasts catcher Richard Gonzalez and shortstop Emmanuel Marrero.

All of them are dealing with their own adjustment period to life and baseball in the continental United States, and Southern coach Roger Cador thinks it's the beginning of a trend.

"They're doing very well academically. They're committed to the weight room," said Cador. "They remind me of what happened in the African-American community 50 years ago. You couldn't fail. You had to succeed because you couldn't go back home. These kids have to succeed, because they don't want to go home to what they left. They want to go home with something better."

Indeed, all four players are hundreds of miles from home and enrolled at an institution that teaches classes primarily in English. Only one of the four -- Gonzalez -- was comfortable enough to be interviewed without an interpreter, and he spoke about his experience at school.

"It's tough, but you get used to it and the coaching staff makes you feel at home," he said. "It's great to be playing college baseball. It was my dream. I think the weather is the toughest part, and the food. But we have a lot of fun here. We're a family, and we do everything together."

That family atmosphere is created in part by coach Mervyl Melendez, who's in his first season at Alabama State. Melendez, a Puerto Rico native, won 11 conference titles in 12 seasons at Bethune-Cookman University, and he was also named conference coach of the year eight times.

Now, Melendez finds himself trying to turn around a program that hasn't had a winning season since 2000, and he's leaning on some of his countrymen to help him. Both Gonzalez and Marrero are starting for Alabama State, and they know that their coach can empathize with them.

"It's an easier transition because we know how to deal with them," Melendez said. "We can communicate, and they understand our language, which can usually be a big barrier. It's always difficult to recruit regardless, but we go out and try to find the players that will best fit into our system."

Alabama State, in fact, has five players who hail from Puerto Rico on its roster, and Southern can add seven more of its own. Cador said that Melendez may get first choice of the players from his fertile homeland, but he also added that there's plenty of talent to go around.

"We're looking to sign more and more kids from there," said Cador. "It's been happening for a couple years, and it's going to continue to happen. Because of the difficulty of getting the better African-American kids, we have to compete and go get someone else. We want to get the very best kids. And I feel we deserve them, because we've proven that we can be successful at this level."

Both Caratini and Atilano are reserves for Southern, but Cador thinks they will eventually break into his lineup. Gonzalez, meanwhile, said he learned the value of speaking English early, thanks to a brother -- also named Richard Gonzalez -- who played at Virginia Commonwealth.

Gonzalez was already a talented player when he enrolled at the Urban Youth Academy in Puerto Rico, but he credited the school with helping him round out his diverse package of skills.

"We trained all day," said Gonzalez. "It's hard work, and you don't take a day off. You go to school, you go to the field and you go to the batting cages -- whatever it will take for them to make you better. I feel like I improved a lot with my time at the academy. Every day helps you be a better player."

His teammate, Marrero, echoed that sentiment.

"It made me better by practicing and taking ground balls every day," said Marrero via an interpreter. "It made me a better person on the field and off the field. It's hard to be far from home, but I'm getting used to it. I have to keep working hard, doing the little things and working every day."

The four players got to sample a big league atmosphere at Minute Maid Park on Friday and Saturday, and they were admittedly wide-eyed over the experience. But that's just a microcosm of their daily existence at college and a reward for all the hard work they put in at home.

"It's like a dream come true," said Caratini, through an interpreter. "I'd like to thank the program for giving me the opportunity to come to the United States and play baseball. It definitely helped prepare me to step up to this challenge and play D-1 baseball. Hopefully, I'll get drafted one day."

Gonzalez said that he had been offered a professional contract last summer and that he opted instead to get his education, a tactic he hoped would help him to mature on and off the field.

That's what it's all about, said Melendez, and that's what the Urban Youth Academy is trying to accomplish in Puerto Rico. Major League Baseball operates similar facilities in Houston and Compton, Calif., and another is scheduled to open in New Orleans this summer.

The early returns for Puerto Rico's academy have been impressive, and even if it doesn't yield future big league players, it can make a difference in society by helping more kids get an education.

"I'm hoping that the new rules, as far as the Draft is concerned, will help and that we'll have more players going to college," said Melendez. "As you know, the percentage is very low for them to make it to the Major Leagues. But let's get them an education and see what happens after that."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.