Players return to the classroom

Learning experience -- to a degree

In the Dominican Republic, where boys commonly drop out of school at 12 or 13 to play baseball, little importance has been placed on higher education. That's been especially true of major league teams, which have benefited from their prospects' early dedication to the sport.

Now that's beginning to change. Four years ago, the Cleveland Indians began sending every player in their Dominican program back to school as many as five nights a week. By the end of that first year, three players had graduated from grammar school and five more had earned high school diplomas.

The New York Mets quickly moved to copy the program; this winter the Pittsburgh Pirates will do the same. And now the Florida Marlins are sending their players to college.

Two weeks ago, 11 Dominican and Venezuelan players with the Marlins' affiliate in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League finished a certification program in sports management at Northwood University, something the Marlins hope to repeat next year.


Feeling the heat from the draft

With the deadline for signing selections from the June draft fast approaching, the Washington Nationals are apparently nowhere near an agreement with No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State.

And while the Dodgers and Angels have signed their top picks, both teams have some work to do a little further down their draft lists. Teams lose the right to negotiate with any draft pick not signed by midnight on Aug. 17, and of the 51 players the Dodgers took, 21 remain unsigned, including Kansas high school pitcher Garrett Gould, one of the team's two second-round picks.

Mississippi State first baseman Connor Powers, an 11th-round pick, is the only other selection from the top 19 rounds still unsigned, and the Dodgers are unlikely to reach terms with him.

The Angels have locked up 31 of their 54 picks after signing Santa Monica High pitcher Tyler Skaggs, a supplemental first-round pick, to a $1-million bonus Friday. Still unsigned are pitcher Josh Spence, a third-round selection; Washington quarterback -- and outfielder -- Jake Locker, whom the team gambled its 10th-round pick on; and five others selected in the first 19 rounds.

The Angels say they are still talking to Locker, but they're less optimistic a deal can be struck with the Australian-born Spence, who turned down the Diamondbacks a year ago.


Glimmer of hope for the Pirates?

It's been another long season in Pittsburgh, where the Pirates have been methodically dismantling their roster while sliding to a major league-record 17th consecutive losing season.

Lost amid the turmoil, however, is the huge improvement the Pirates have made defensively. Last season, only four National League teams committed more errors than the Pirates, but as of Saturday they were tied for the league lead -- and for second in the majors -- in fielding percentage despite the fact they've traded away three-quarters of their opening-day infield.

Infield coach Perry Hill, who joined the Pirates this spring after missing two seasons to deal with family problems, deserves much of the credit, says third baseman Andy LaRoche.

"The numbers speak for themselves," says LaRoche. "The stuff he said was just real simple. And it made sense. I thought I was a good defensive player, but there's so much more to learn out there. [He's] done wonders for our whole defense."

-- Kevin Baxter

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