AL ROY Carlos Correa leads new baseball era in Puerto Rico

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Carlos Correa
Carlos Correa’s career is off to a running start following his AL Rookie of the Year season with the Astros. (Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)

Carlos Correa had barely turned 21 when he first experienced a taste of postseason play with the amazing Houston Astros. So, predictably, a reporter was quick to query whether he was jittery about the buzz and electric atmosphere that is part of October baseball.

“I’m ready,” Correa responded with a confident smile. “I’ve been preparing for this moment since I was five years old.”

Sometimes, actions speak louder than words, which is why Carlos Correa deserved to kick off his MLB career by garnering the American League Rookie of the Year award. Since being called up to The Show back on June 8, all the dynamic shortstop from Puerto Rico did was slash .279/.345/.512, clobber 22 jacks, drive in 68 runs, steal 14 bases and rack up 108 base knocks in 99 games. In the playoffs, it was more of the same with another pair of big flies. What’s more, Correa did most of the heavy lifting when another budding Astros star, George Springer, went on the shelf from July 2 to September 4 with a broken wrist.

At 6′-4″ and 205 pounds, Correa’s size is typical of modern day shortstops, not unlike Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. What’s unique is he also possesses the traditional tools needed for that position, displaying quick feet, soft hands, superior range and a rocket arm. He can make Derek Jeter-like plays in the hole to his right without bothering to make the patented jump throw. Carlos merely plants his feet and fires a seed to first base with laser precision. But this kid with humble beginnings never toots his own horn, instead crediting early success to his devoted parents.

“My dad taught he how to work hard every single day,” Correa revealed after receiving word that he won the ROY honors. “He’s the guy who made me what I am today, both as a player and a person as well.”

Carlos Correa’s story is a slice of Americana that’s rare for Latino families these days, which is why there’s a need to emphasize its importance. As a young boy, Carlos used to stand across the narrow street in front of his house and throw a baseball against the wall, using the rebound to practice his fielding skills. Then when Carlos Sr. returned home after working two jobs, father and son would head to a nearby field to hit, with the youngster taking around 100 swings on a daily basis. At the age of 15, Correa was accepted into the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, which meant more sacrifice because the school was a hour away by car from the family’s residence in Santa Isabel. Carlos would make it all worthwhile, graduating as class valedictorian while grooming for an opportunity of a lifetime. In 2012, he was selected in the first round of the amateur draft by Houston, and signed for a bonus of $4.8 million.

Correa would have setbacks, including a fractured right fibula in June of 2014 that would finish his season. Fortunately, that strong work ethic learned from his dad would result in a speedy rehab period, and he had plenty of support from thousands of friends and fans. You see, Carlos is a young man who has been a celebrity in Puerto Rico since his late teens, and he understands that fame comes with great responsibilities. His boyish looks have become the face of baseball on the island, and Carlos constantly takes the time to sign autographs on the street, pose for pictures and lend a hand in charity events. He carries himself with class, and ironically, mirrors Jeter in many ways.

Of course, Correa isn’t the only fish in the sea. Another excellent player born on the island is Francisco Lindor, 22, who also plays shortstop and is the pride and joy of the Cleveland Indians. Many here on the mainland think Lindor should have been the top rookie in 2015, although his power numbers were only average, and without Correa, Houston would have never made the playoffs. It’s interesting, however, that Lindor was also a first-round pick and selected in 2011 before Springer and Miami Marlins star pitcher Jose Fernandez. Another member of that bumper crop of big shots was Javier Baez, the Bayamon native soon to be 23 who banked a $2.6 bonus from the Chicago Cubs.

In 1989, Puerto Rico became subject to amateur draft rules like all 50 states, and the number of prospects dropped off dramatically for over two decades. Why? Because international free agents from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela could be signed for a lot less money, and operational overhead for organizations was also more attractive. Top executives seemed to forget that Puerto Rico was once a hotbed for talent and produced stars like Roberto Alomar, Carlos Delgado, Edgar Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez and the great Roberto Clemente. This strategy backfired, though, at least in Venezuela, when the cost of doing business became more difficult under the regime of Nicolas Maduro, not to mention violent crime. Now, only a handful of franchises have ties there, forcing teams to take a closer look at Colombia, Curacao and yes, our own territories.

Thanks to high school showcase events and various other MLB-sponsored tournaments, things are starting to change in Puerto Rico. In 2012, 25 players were drafted, and New York Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran has associates operating an academy on the island. He calls Carlos Correa a “hero” and the youngster deflects such praise. But truth be told, Correa is the driving force behind a resurgence of baseball on the island. And thankfully, it’s coming at a time when folks there need some positive vibes.

I’m not trying to put Carlos Correa on a pedestal. Still, it’s not often when a professional athlete comes along who can make a difference and seems up to the task. It’s rare when such an individual remembers his roots and has a burning desire to give back to his community. Correa, so far, is clearly that kind of kid. And that’s why I think he’s special.

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