Carlos Correa Jr.: Special bonds
The shortstop from Puerto Rico is expected to be a high first-round pick.
Carlos Correa Sr. didn't play much baseball growing up. He loved the game, but spent most of his time working and fishing. By the time he graduated from high school, the urgent task at hand was to build a house for his wife, Sandybel, and his soon-to-be-born son in their hometown of Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico.
Correa knew the house, in Santa Isabel's Barrio Velazquez, would be swamped during tropical storms unless he built it a little higher than ground level. Like everyone else who grew up nearby, he knew it took only one good day of tropical rain for the levels of the Coamo River to rise and its drainage sewers to back up. A storm over several days and the streets would be ankle-deep in water. A hurricane meant moving to higher ground, to the shelter at the high school. Correa built the walls with cement and used pieces of zinc for the roof.
By the time he was done, Carlos Javier Correa -- Carlos Jr. -- was born.
And over the next decade and a half, baseball grew to be a very big part of the Correa family's life in the raised house near an alley where Carlos Sr. and Jr. spent hour after hour playing catch. A neighbor who watched the two every day first suggested that Correa register his son, then 5, in the parent-pitch category, known across the island as the Pampers league because the players are so young. Carlos Jr. loved it, even if he didn't yet fully understand the game. He had a huge swing and a good eye for the ball, so the coach put him at first base.
"I said, 'You tell me what to do with him and I'll teach him,'" says Carlos Sr., who made it his mission to practice every day with young Carlos. "The neighbors said, 'You are going to burn him out.' But I knew he was smart and would learn."
Learn he did. On Monday, Carlos Correa Jr., now 17, enters the 2012 MLB first-year player draft tagged with first-round potential. ESPN Insider Keith Law thinks Correa, who is 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, could go as high as fourth. Joey Sola, an Astros scout on the island, calls Correa the best prospect from Puerto Rico he has seen since Carlos Beltran.
Correa, who has been at pre-draft showcase workouts for the past two weeks, says he is trying to remain focused amid all the excitement by keeping in mind the advice he received from Sandy Alomar Sr.
"He told me to always anticipate the play and not to let myself get distracted," Correa says.
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The government of Puerto Rico refers to places like Barrio Velazquez where Correa grew up as "comunidades especiales," which literally means "special communities" but has come to mean much more. Special, in the case of Barrio Velazquez, means the community is on a flood plain, alongside a river headed down from the La Cordillera Central mountain range into the Caribbean Sea. Special, in some cases, means it is impossible to provide basic services like water, electricity, phone or cable. Special can also mean that most of the community's residents lack higher education or meaningful jobs.
Like the hundreds of other "special" communities across the island, Barrio Velazquez falls into more than one of these categories. But folks own land there and raise families and formed a community. They need help from FEMA every time there's a hurricane or a flood, but at the same time, this is the place they call home. When the last big hurricane hit in 1998, when Carlos Jr. was 4, the Correas' house lost most of the roof; the ensuing rain soaked all their belongings.
To pay the bills and support his family, Carlos Sr. worked general construction. He took all the jobs he could find; in some months, there was more work than others. But always, he found time to take his son out to the alley next to the house to play catch.
By the time he was 7, Carlos Jr. was doing a little bit of everything for his Santa Isabel team in the American Amateur Baseball Congress. The AABC is the same league in which Roberto and Sandy Alomar Jr., who grew up in nearby Salinas, got their start. Carlos Jr. could hit and pitch, and he was playing shortstop.
"I remember he was tall for his age, had an incredible arm and had hit something like 150 home runs for his Pampers league team," says Raul Cintron, a local broadcaster. "What was remarkable about him was that even at that age, he was so well spoken, I interviewed him on the radio show in Salinas."
His AABC team, in the Playita Cortada sector of town, was eliminated early on. But when the island's winning team, from the Northeast shore in Rio Grande, put its final roster together for the league's championship series in Atlanta, they called Correa's coach and asked to borrow him. They'd seen the 7-year-old play, and they knew he could help.
Carlos Sr. was thrilled, of course, but extremely worried at the same time. It was going to be difficult to get his son to practices on the north side of the island, an hour-and-a-half drive each way, and even harder to find a way to send him to the tournament in Atlanta.
"We knew that the Rio Grande team would help with the costs, but we also knew that one of us would have to go along to Georgia too," says Sandybel, Carlos Jr.'s mother. "We knew we couldn't afford it."
To supplement the family's income, Sandybel worked at a local supermarket and sometimes for a water bottling company. But even with that extra money, it was hard for the family to make ends meet. Many in the town of Santa Isabel banded together to help. Correa's original Santa Isabel team donated the proceeds from its canteen sales toward the family's travel fund; other community members helped Carlos and Sandybel organize charity softball tournaments to raise money. Sandybel spent all her spare time making alcapurrias and empanadillas, fried turnovers.
"Parents stopped by and donated cases of soda, water and chips, which we turned around and sold at the canteen," says Sandybel. "Little by little, we raised enough money to make the trip."
It was worth it. The Rio Grande team was down 6-0, but Carlos struck out eight straight batters to help the team come back and win the title. He was named the tournament MVP.
Carlos was invited back to Atlanta the following year to play for Rio Grande, and his parents faced the same challenges. Once again, the community banded together to help. That second year, Correa won the tournament's home run derby and was the most dominant pitcher of the tournament.
Correa outgrew the Santa Isabel team quickly, and by the time he was 11, his parents were making the daily trip over the Cordillera Central mountain range into Caguas for practices with a more challenging team. Correa also showed promise in his schoolwork and was awarded a partial scholarship to a small English-language school, Raham Baptist Academy; the school had close ties to Emanuel Biblical Baptist Church, which his family and many members of his barrio attend.
Carlos Sr. added a maintenance job with the local government of Santa Isabel to his construction jobs. He badgered a company that installs doors and windows to give him extra work and took on as many odd jobs as he could in order to pay the bills. Meanwhile, Sandybel was struggling to hold on to her employment at a supermarket. The couple's second son, Jean Carlos, was also playing baseball but Sandybel's part-time grocery store shift called for afternoon and evening hours, making it impossible for her to drive the boys to practices.
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"They would schedule me to work until 11:30 p.m., and I would explain that I had to pick Carlos up from practice and they would tell me, 'You have too many activities,'" says Sandybel. "It got to a point where I just had to quit."
The couple's third child, a daughter, was born three years ago, just at the time when the MLB-subsidized Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School in Caguas was taking a good look at Carlos Jr. But even with his son as a scholarship student at PRBAHS, Carlos Sr. says he had no idea how they were going to afford it all. The transmission on their high-mileage family car had died and they had no way to make the trip back and forth over the mountains to Caguas.
Correa's mother-in-law lent them her SUV, but the logistics and the driving quickly became complicated. Then, once more, the community pitched in. One of Correa's coaches, Jose "Papo El Zurdo" Rivera, worked extra evening hours with him on his hitting and enlisted the help of another coach, Yamil Rivera, to improve his speed on the basepaths.
"He could always hit with a lot of power and strength, but we needed to make adjustments, to get him away from those long swings and teach him more bat speed," says Jose Rivera. "What I enjoy the most about Carlos is that he listens and applies the corrections right away."
The evening training took its toll on the family. Late one night coming down the mountain from Caguas, Carlos Sr. crashed his mother-in-law's SUV. No one was hurt, but the vehicle was totaled.
The PRBAHS staff stepped in to help. Hitting coach Francisco Melendez, a first baseman for the Giants, Phillies and Orioles in the '80s, agreed to pick up Correa at a McDonald's along the highway each day at 6 a.m. and return him there at 6 p.m. Correa continued to work with his coaches outside of school and added an evening batting practice with his younger brother at a semipro ballpark near his home.
"Some nights, there would be as many as 100 people out there cheering him on for practice," Carlos Sr. says. "It made me realize that what we were doing was not a sacrifice for us at all. He is such a dedicated kid; we never had to tell him to practice or do more, and he never complained about the long days and the hard work."
Rivera, his hitting coach, took him to two showcase events, including a tournament organized by the Perfect Game scouting service. There, they received valuable feedback to make adjustments in Correa's swing.
"We added one-handed bat drills and then short bats to help him follow through faster," Rivera says.
Jorge Posada Sr., a scout for the Rockies and the father of former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, says Correa has "five tools -- plus the sixth, which is his physique." Posada Sr. praises Correa's athleticism and power and compares him to fellow Puerto Ricans Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios at his age.
"I watched him hit two monster home runs at the Tournament of Excellence [in May]. There is a lot of potential there," Posada says. "He is playing shortstop right now, but who knows where he will end up? Could be first, right field, center, third base. He is lean, so he is probably going to fill out a little bit."
As much as Correa Jr. is hoping to go quickly in the draft on Monday, he is prepared for the alternatives. In late 2011, he accepted a full scholarship to the University of Miami. Although baseball is the main focus at the PRBAHS, school principal Lucy Batista is especially proud of Correa's academic accomplishments. A 4.0 student, he will graduate next week as class valedictorian.
In a recent interview, Correa was mum about his batting average with his Mizuno showcase team, but was quick to point out his SAT score: a 1560.
"If I didn't play baseball, I would probably study accounting," he says. "I would like to learn how to manage my own money. But if I get a contract, the first thing I would like to do is help my parents pay off their debts."
When Carlos Jr. was 14, the family moved to a newly built government-subsidized home a few miles from their old barrio. The housing project, for 70 families, was part of the state's effort to relocate homes in flood plains. The Correas gave up the land and home they owned but were able to secure a low-cost mortgage and gained a new house.
Barrio Velazquez is not yet finished with the Correa family, though. Those who remain there took up a collection to help the entire family fly to the MLB offices in New Jersey for Monday's draft. And for Tuesday, they have organized a huge party, even printing up T-shirts and hiring an orchestra to perform for Correa's triumphant homecoming.
A "special" community indeed.
Gabrielle Paese is a deputy editor for ESPN.com and the former sports editor at The San Juan Star in San Juan, Puerto Rico.