When it comes to baseball, Puerto Rico is an international powerhouse. The U.S. territory plays as a nation in the World Baseball Classic and has finished second in the last two WBC tournaments. On March 13, the Puerto Rican national team retired all 24 Israeli batters in their 10-0 mercy-rule win in the 2023 installment of the WBC.
Puerto Rico has had an incredibly rich baseball history ever since the first organized game took place there in January 1898. Although Puerto Rico does not have high school or college baseball competition like the United States does, specialized baseball academies such as the Next Level America Academy (NLAA) are helping train the next generation of Puerto Rican baseball players.
Founded in 2007 in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, the academy’s goal is to help its players get college-level opportunities in the United States at all levels of competition.
“95% of our student athletes get into college at different levels,” said Pedro Leon, a former Major League Baseball (MLB) agent who now helps out with the NLAA.
According to Leon, the team is on a 30-day trip across Florida where they will be competing against several college baseball teams. The team will also play seven games in the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational, which is a spring break tournament that hosts over 250 colleges across all divisions.
Ian Torres, a left-handed pitcher for the NLAA, said that the competition is always intense when he and his teammates face off against older high school and college players.
“It’s very competitive,” Torres said. “There are stronger guys, they’re intelligent. They know how to play baseball.”
On days the team has not played in games, they have traveled across Florida to visit various colleges and MLB Spring Training sites to meet today’s MLB stars.
On Monday, March 13, the team attended the Tampa Bay Rays Spring Training game at Tropicana Field against the Detroit Tigers as a guest of Rays manager Kevin Cash, who has built a solid relationship with the team.
“Kevin Cash is a good friend,” Leon said. “He gave free tickets for all the kids to come to the game.”
Leon said that the Rays/Tigers game was a special event for the team because many of the players had never seen a MLB game before. Leon also added that this is the first time some of the players have ever been to the United States.
One of those players is Alejandro, a 15-year-old pitcher for the NLAA. Like Torres, Alejandro described the differences in the college players they have faced on this trip compared to the competition that they are accustomed to facing in Puerto Rico.
“It’s been very great,” Alejandro said. “Seeing the college guys in real life: They’re big, they’re buff. They play with their minds.”
Alejandro, Torres and the rest of the team are all talented baseball players, but they are also avid baseball fans as well. Both players said they love to watch Rays ace Shane McClanahan, so they were probably thrilled to meet him when the team visited the Rays at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in February.
The NLAA also loves supporting MLB superstars who call Puerto Rico home such as Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez, José Berríos and Edwin Diaz. One player that Leon said the kids are extremely fond of is Atlanta Braves outfielder and 2021 NLCS MVP Eddie Rosario.
“He’s a great guy,” Leon said. “He’s a humble kid that grew up from the projects, and he knows how successful baseball life can be.”
Whether the NLAA players want to be the next Shane McClanahan or the next Francisco Lindor, one thing remains the same: All of the players have major aspirations of playing baseball at an elite level.
Leon knows that every player’s path in the game of baseball will be different, but he says if the players are strong in their faith and prioritize their family life and education, they can achieve their wildest dreams.
“Be Jesus Christ first, then family, then education, then baseball,” Leon said. “It’s important you follow those steps because if you try to change any one and move baseball to the top, you are going to fail.”