A Top Mets Prospect Let Baseball Wait Until School Was Done

17METS1-superJumbo.jpg

A report by James Wagner for the New York Times.

Some of the factors that make the Mets’ Amed Rosario one of the top prospects in baseball are quickly apparent — even to those without the trained eye of a scout.

There is the quick foot speed, for instance, the wiry strength in his 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame, the assured way he wields his glove at shortstop and the way he swings his bat at the plate.

Nor do his numbers really need an analytics interpretation. Last season, at the age of 20, Rosario hit .324 while playing in Class A and AA, often against players at least a year or two older than him. That pretty much speaks for itself.

In trade talks over the winter, Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ general manager, said Rosario’s name did not even come up much because rival teams had figured it out for themselves: Rosario was too good to be made part of any deal.

“He can be an outstanding player,” Alderson said in December.

But what also stands out about Rosario is his educational background, which makes him somewhat different from a lot of his peers from the Dominican Republic.

“A good majority of the kids that play baseball are from economically depressed situations,” said Omar Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in New York and went on to become the general manager of the Montreal Expos and the Mets.

For that reason, many of those youngsters set aside their education in their early teens to try to make it to the major leagues and earn the kind of money that would make a huge difference in their families’ lives.

But Rosario did not leave school early. His father, Germán Abad Rosario, was a criminal lawyer in the Dominican Republic and later a judge. His mother, Nerys Valdez Rosario, was a business administrator and, like her husband, has a college degree.

“Education in my family is everything,” Rosario said.

Rosario’s two older sisters are lawyers, and his youngest sister is in college. His parents told him that he could sign with a major league team, but only when high school was done. So soon after his graduation from Colegio Rosario in Santo Domingo in 2012, at the age of 16, Rosario signed with the Mets for $1.75 million, the most money they had ever given an international amateur.

His father negotiated the deal.

Speaking in Spanish recently after a workout at the Mets’ spring training facility, Rosario reflected on the dynamics of Dominican baseball and how they force youngsters to make big decisions at an early age.

“Some youngsters — not all, but some — don’t have the opportunity to do both baseball and their studies,” he said. “Some come from humble backgrounds and have to support their families.”

Some, he added, might not yet rate as big prospects but sign anyway so they can get at least a little bit of bonus money to help their families.

According to Rafael Perez, the director of Dominican operations for Major League Baseball, just 18 percent of the Dominican teenagers who signed with a major league team last year had completed high school — a rate, he said, not much different from that for the non-baseball-playing population.

“The big mistake people make,” Perez said in a recent telephone interview, is comparing that rate to figures in the United States. “You have to understand the system down here,” he added. “Amed is the exception.” He said he wished there were more Dominican teenagers like Rosario because “education is a very wise investment.”

In a sense, it was Rosario’s father who broke the mold for his family. His own parents did not attend college, but through soccer he landed a scholarship to Universidad Nacional Pedro Henriquez Ureña in Santo Domingo to study law. After practicing as a criminal lawyer, he became a judge.

Rosario’s mother studied public administration at Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo.

“Because of our professions, we know that education is ultimately very important, whether it be as a baseball player or doctor or whatever,” Rosario’s father said. “It’s important as a human being.”

Like many youngsters in the Dominican Republic, an island nation of 10 million people that has produced the largest number of major leaguers outside the United States, Rosario became enraptured with baseball at a very young age.

When he was just 3, he used half of a broomstick to hit kernels of corn tossed by his father in the backyard. When he improved his hand-eye coordination, he hit plastic balls in the field behind a nearby church and then graduated to real baseballs on a real field. He was still a little kid.

At age 8, he joined a league called Liga la Javilla, where his father served as his main instructor. As Rosario grew bigger and began to display significant baseball skills, his parents had to draw a line.

“Here, if a kid has talent, the parents take him out of school and have him study on Saturdays because he has a chance to make it,” Rosario’s father said. “But we thought that if what we were doing with Amed worked, then there wasn’t a need to take him out of school.”

So Rosario’s mother checked his homework daily. His father trained him on the field. Every evening after his father came home from court, the two would practice for several hours. After Rosario’s father left his position as a judge eight years ago, he dedicated more time to Rosario’s training.

Some notable major leaguers from the Dominican Republic did graduate from high school, including David Ortiz and Moises Alou. Some, like Albert Pujols and Jose Bautista, have continued their education in the United States. Others wanted to continue their studies, like Juan Lagares, a Mets outfielder, but couldn’t — because it got in the way of baseball.

“Amed did well in doing both,” said Lagares, who signed with the Mets at 17. “I stopped studying to train. I reached only my third year of high school. I would have loved to finish but my situation wouldn’t allow it. I trained too far away from home. I couldn’t do both. For others, it’s because of money.”

Although Major League Baseball is not in the education business, teams have come to recognize that more schoolwork can be instrumental in developing major league players. Perez said that last year six more major league teams added programs at their academies in the Dominican Republic so that young players can continue to pursue a formal education, bringing the total to 11 teams. The Mets have provided classes since 2006.

“We cannot control what happens before they sign, but we are trying to take charge to supply them with knowledge,” said Perez, who formerly served as the Mets’ director of international operations. “I’m one of those that believes that true education starts at home. But we do try to provide them with the knowledge that helps them make decisions.”

Kevin Morgan, a roving instructor in the Mets’ minor leagues who has worked with Rosario since he signed, said he had watched him become more comfortable in English and adjust quickly to his surroundings.

“It all comes from his background,” Morgan said. “It’s been a big influence on him. He’s very professional and has a great work ethic. He listens very well and tries to apply everything we tell him.”

Rosario started his minor league career in a rookie league, playing in Kingsport, Tenn., at 17, which made him younger than most of the players at that level. Initially, he said, he felt overwhelmed by a new culture, language and competition.

“I remember in my first year, sitting in a restaurant by myself in Kingsport, where there weren’t many Spanish speakers, and I told myself that I have to learn English — if not, I’m going to starve to death because I can’t order food,” he said. “Now, I go by myself and can order without issue.”

While his foot speed and defense improved with time, Rosario always possessed a quick bat, which he credited to his father’s hitting drills. And all of those skills may be on display every day in the major leagues as soon as the 2018 season.

Although the Mets’ current shortstop, Asdrubal Cabrera, was a key player for the team in 2016, he will be 32 in November. If the Mets exercise his $8.5 million team option for the 2018 season, Cabrera will be back, but could shift to second base or third or a backup role to make room for Rosario at shortstop.

And even if Rosario is not quite ready to take over as the starting shortstop when the 2018 season begins, the job seems almost certain to be his at some point.

For the moment, with a major league career beckoning and a large bank account already in place, Rosario remains something of a homebody. He said he does not drink alcohol. His idea of fun is hanging out with his family, using his PlayStation 4, playing with his Boston terrier and Rottweiler, or getting dinner with his friends. He recently secured a Florida driver’s license, but he still lives with his parents in Santo Domingo in the off-season.

“I can’t live without my mom’s food,” he said with a smile.

While his mother still worries about making sure her son eats well, his father manages the rest, including hitting ground balls to his son in the off-season, or throwing batting practice. His father has become a baseball trainer for other budding prospects in the Dominican Republic, and he has also pushed education with them, using his son as an example.

“My parents were always there, supporting me to finish my studies,” Rosario said. “And for me, too, really, you never know. Baseball can be a short career.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s