Island hoping in baseball: Can MLB reclaim Puerto Rico?

In Southern California, where three teams play within driving distance, a kid can attend a Major League Baseball game just about every day, dreaming about playing on the field in front of him. We tend to forget about the kids scattered hundreds or thousands of miles from the nearest ballpark, and the dreams confined to television and, perhaps, a family vacation.

Carlos Correa was 8 when the major leagues came to him.

The Montreal Expos, nearing the end of their life, played a slate of home games in Puerto Rico in 2003 and 2004. The Chicago Cubs visited the island. Correa caught a game, and dreamed.

"I saw Sammy Sosa," Correa said. "I was hoping I'd be playing at that level at some point."

Or, perhaps, surpassing it.

Sosa, who is from the Dominican Republic, made the All-Star team seven times, the first time at 26. Correa, the sensational shortstop for the Houston Astros, is the favorite for the American League rookie-of-the-year award. He is 20, the leader among all major league shortstops in OPS, the only shortstop in the past century to hit 17 home runs in his first 77 games.

"As he gets more experience, you'll see some of those numbers really jump off the charts," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said.

Correa already is what the Dodgers hope Corey Seager can become: an impact hitter playing a premium defensive position for a championship-caliber club.

In his first five days in the majors, Correa batted sixth three times — "the lowest he'll probably ever bat in his life," Houston Manager A.J. Hinch said. Correa has batted no lower than third since then, and Hinch said he has played shortstop "as easily and as good as anybody" in the league.

That is particularly relevant to the Dodgers. Seager is listed at 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, supposedly bound for third base. Correa, five months younger than Seager, is listed at 6-4, 210. From the day he was the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, Correa was supposed to grow into a third baseman.

Hinch said he saw no reason Correa could not hold down shortstop in the same manner as "lean and long" stars such as Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez and Troy Tulowitzki.

Said Correa: "I worked in the off-season to stay lean, to eat healthy food, to stay at shortstop. Hopefully I can stay there for a long time. I don't want to move to third."

What gets Correa particularly excited is the revival of baseball in Puerto Rico, and the chance for the next generation of kids there to see a big league game in person.

"The island would definitely support that," Correa said, "especially if there were some Puerto Rican players involved in those games."

MLB plans to play games in Puerto Rico next season — not with Correa there, but as a celebration of the legacy of Puerto Rican great Roberto Clemente. The tentative schedule calls for Clemente's Pittsburgh Pirates to play all or part of a four-game series in San Juan next season, against the Miami Marlins, according to a league official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans have not been finalized.

The mayor of Montreal has asked MLB to let his city play host to a few regular-season games, but that would prove nothing. The league already has witnessed the enthusiasm there for the return of baseball. The league has yet to see a financing plan for the estimated $2 billion necessary to acquire a team and build a new ballpark.

Games in Puerto Rico would put an exclamation point on MLB's efforts to revitalize baseball there, including the establishment of an academy, the creation of a summer league and the introduction of training programs and showcase events.

When MLB forced Puerto Rican prospects into the amateur draft in 1990 — just as sports such as basketball and volleyball blossomed in popularity — the unintended consequence was that teams redirected their scouting efforts to the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, where teams can sign whomever they like.

"It would be a lot better if it was like that," Correa said. "But MLB made the decision and we've got to respect it."

Fewer Puerto Rican prospects meant fewer natives — and more mainland imports — in the Puerto Rican winter league. The number of teams in that league dwindled, according to Angels pitcher Hector Santiago, with some offering free admission as an alternative to empty stands — a dismal scene on an island that produced such stars as Clemente, Roberto Alomar, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Edgar Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, Bernie Williams and the catching Molina brothers.

Now, Correa leads a promising group of Puerto Rican youngsters that includes Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor — the possible runner-up to Correa for AL rookie of the year — Cubs infielder Javier Baez, Minnesota Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario and Dodgers utility player Enrique Hernandez.

Of the 25 players on the World team in last year's Futures Game, six were born in Puerto Rico. The starting pitcher for the World Team this year: the Twins' Jose Berrios, from Puerto Rico.

Santiago did not grow up there, but he has relatives there. His fiancee is from Puerto Rico, and he is getting married there this winter. He has played winter ball there for several years, once with Correa as a 17-year-old teammate.

"He was really skinny," Santiago said.

Santiago has no doubt MLB games would draw well in San Juan.

"That would be so sick," he said. "If they get big league teams to go over there, I guarantee it will sell out."

They need to get Correa over there, without depriving an opponent of a sellout crowd in its home city. Coming to San Juan in 2017, hopefully: the Astros, as the visiting team, against the Tampa Bay Rays.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin

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