Baseball is family affair for the Valentins
Former big leaguer Jose giving back to native Puerto Rico
The alarm clock goes off every weekday morning at 4:30 in Manati, Puerto Rico. That's when former big league infielder Jose Valentin rolls out of bed, starts up the bus, scoops up nine local kids and heads east. By 7 a.m., he arrives at the far-away Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School in Gurabo, where he makes a modest living as a instructor.
Valentin, who earned millions through 16 seasons in the Majors and is beloved in his native island, doesn't have to make sacrifices like these as a 41-year-old retiree. But he does it because he's obsessed with the game, he loves working with kids, he badly wants to improve the state of baseball in Puerto Rico -- and one of those nine kids he takes to school every morning is his talented son.
Jesmuel Valentin Diaz, a switch-hitting middle infielder who just began his senior year, has already verbally committed to Louisiana State University and -- if all goes well -- projects to be selected somewhere within the first five rounds of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
Jesmuel is the oldest of three for Jose, who also has a 13-year-old baseball-playing son named Yomar -- "Watch out for him in a few years," he says of the youngster who played in the 2010 Little League World Series -- and an 11-year-old daughter who's just as active in sports.
For too long, Jose lived the demanding, time-consuming life of a Major Leaguer in the United States while his family stayed behind in Puerto Rico. Now, as his oldest heads into the most critical juncture of his baseball life, Jose wants to make sure he's there to witness every second of it.
No matter how many miles he has to drive.
"People tell me all the time, 'You're crazy,'" Jose said. "The reason I do it is because of my son. If I don't do it for him, who's going to? ... I love my son. I want him to be, first of all, a good student, a good human being and get a scholarship. I want him to feel that I'd do everything for him to try to get him to be a good person."
Jesmuel is your typical Major Leaguer's son. You'd expect nothing less from a kid who spent most summers -- from May to August -- traveling with his father, roaming the clubhouse with his father and on the field in Major League ballparks across America.
Filled out nicely at 5-foot-10, Jesmuel is a natural shortstop who mostly plays second base at the PRBAHS -- home to another highly regarded prospect in senior shortstop Carlos Correa -- and often attends premier showcases in the U.S.
"Whichever team is going to pick him," Jose said, "they're going to have a good kid."
Jesmuel has good gap-to-gap power and solid arm strength, but he needs to improve from the left side of the plate and his defense could use some shoring up, according to a local scout.
His best trait? The type only bloodlines can really provide.
"It's his knowledge of the game," the scout said in Spanish. "He has the abilities, but he has been raised in the big leagues, visiting his dad in the big leagues, so he knows about that environment. That helps a lot. It's the same situation as Roberto Alomar."
Jesmuel, in a sense, wants to be his father. He wants to be in the big leagues, he wants to be an infielder and he wants to have that kind of tenure. Since 2009 -- when lingering injuries forced Jose to retire after getting a Spring Training invite by the Mets -- Jesmuel has, at last, had his father at his side, working with him every day and offering him the type of knowledge he was previously only exposed to in spurts.
Now he's hoping to make a name for himself.
"I want people to look at me because I have the skills, not because my name is Valentin," Jesmuel said. "I think I'm a good player and I have a lot of passion for the game. I have it in my blood. I play hard, and I give it my all, 100 percent."
Jesmuel is one of over 200 teenagers benefitting from the PRBAHS, which is run by Major League Baseball as part of its Urban Youth Academy initiative. Unlike the two up-and-running UYAs in Houston and Compton, Calif. -- which offer free baseball and softball as after-school, weekend and summer programs -- the PRBAHS is a full-on all-boy school, which offers scholarships and a full academic curriculum.
In the 10 years since the school began, 64 players have been drafted and about 96 percent have gone on to attend two- or four-year colleges.
"I wish I had something to go to like that Academy," Jose said. "They have everything, baseball-wise, academically, they offer scholarships. It's great."
In terms of baseball institutions of this quality, there's also the soon-to-be-opened Carlos Beltran Baseball Academy and a couple others in Puerto Rico. But not many. And as any baseball-loving local will tell you, interest in the sport that used to be the No. 1 priority in the island has greatly diminished.
Evidence can be found in the Majors, where only 27 native Puerto Ricans are active as players -- compared to 115 from the Dominican Republic and 81 from Venezuela.
There are two main reasons for the disparity: Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, its players are subject to the First-Year Player Draft, putting them in competition with kids from the continental U.S. who have more at their disposal; and as Valentin will point out, a lot of other sports -- most notably soccer -- have made their way into the island, and the government no longer pumps a lot of its resources into baseball.
"We have to remember that baseball is so big for this country that we can't let this sport go away," said Jose, who accumulated 1,348 hits and made two postseason appearances while playing for the Brewers, White Sox, Mets and Dodgers. "It's a shame that every time you turn the TV on, you're not seeing too many Puerto Rican players like you used to."
Academies like Beltran's and the PRBAHS can help. But more needs to be done.
And that's a big reason why Jose does what he does.
"He does it out of the goodness of his heart," PRBAHS director Luis Cintron said in Spanish. "I don't know anybody like him that would do that. Here in Puerto Rico, there's a lot of good players who came out of here and give back. But none I see with the humility of Jose Valentin."
Valentin, formerly the owner of a well-known Puerto Rican professional baseball team, the Santurce Crabbers, now gives the PRBAHS his full attention.
But he has his sights set on eventually being a big league manager.
He recently managed a local amateur team and loved it. In October, he'll help coach the Puerto Rican National Team when it takes part in the Baseball World Cup in Panama. And eventually, he wants to return to the U.S. and be a big league skipper.
He feels he has a lot to offer.
"I think I can be a good manager," Jose said. "I would like to take my chances and see if I can be one of those Puerto Ricans that are managing in the big leagues. Or a coach. I would do it; start in the Minor Leagues. I'd do it as a coach or as an instructor. That's my goal -- to make it to the big leagues again."
Jose says he's received offers from the Red Sox, White Sox, Indians and Mets to begin that journey as a scout, but has turned them down. Right now, it's all about his kids.
And this season, he only wants to watch.
Jose will still make the bus trips, and he'll still instruct the students at the PRBAHS. But he's going to step away from actually coaching the teams, because he doesn't want to put too much pressure on his oldest son and because he just wants to sit back and observe like a typical father.
Once Jesmuel finishes his senior year, he'll probably be done at the PRBAHS.
"We're graduating together," Jose said.
"It's a big sacrifice my dad is doing, not only because he loves to be in baseball, but because he lost time in the States without us," Jesmuel said. "He wants to be with me in my hardest year, support me 100 percent and be beside me. It means a lot."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.