Baseball continues to blossom in Colombia

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CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Jhonier de Avila darted far to his left, fielded the ground ball and hurled it across the diamond so hard that it popped the first baseman's mitt.

The shortstop picked up another one cleanly, this time with his backhand, and he whipped it to first in one motion.

"Manos de seda! Mano de seda!" his teammates howled from the dugout. "Suavecitas, suavecitas. Vamos, vamos, Niño, vamos!"

Hands of silk, they called him. "Soft hands, soft hands. Go, go, boy, go!"

On Monday, de Avila was one of 34 prospects from Cartagena, Barranquilla and Cali at the showcase organized by the Colombian Association of Baseball Agents and Trainers at Estadio Takurika.

In many ways, de Avila, 16, and his friends represent the future of baseball in the country. Colombia's team fared well in last year's World Baseball Classic -- finishing 1-2 in its pool, dropping two extra-inning games -- and the nation's professional baseball league is looking to expand from four teams to six teams. But Colombia's youth is its driving force.

Colombia is in the spotlight this week as the site of Major League Baseball's showcase for Venezuelan teens eligible to sign when the international signing period begins on July 2.

"Colombia is an important baseball market and we saw it as fitting to hold such a large event here in Cartagena," said Joel Araujo, MLB's senior manager of international talent development. "We are certain our club evaluators will continue to scout the country heavily during the next few days."

There have been 21 prospects from Colombia to sign with Major League Baseball teams since the international signing period began last July 2, and close to 30 total signed during the previous international signing period.

There have only been 20 players from Colombia to play in the Major Leagues, a list that includes names like former infielders Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, pitchers Ernesto Frieri, Julio Teheran and Jose Quintana, infielder Giovanny Urshela and catcher Jorge Alfaro. But there have been hundreds to sign professional contracts since Luis Castro became the first player from Colombia to play in the Major Leagues in 1902.

There are currently 102 players from Colombia in the Minor Leagues.

"Baseball in Colombia is in good shape, maybe in the best shape than we have ever been," Cabrera said. "We have so much interest from players and so much faith in what we are doing. We have the facilities, we have the coaches and we have had professional baseball in our country for many, many years. What you are seeing now is the next generation of Colombian Major Leaguers in the making."

Cabrera has been working teenagers through his Prospect Sport baseball academy since 2007, and he currently trains 18 prospects. The site of Monday's showcase at Estadio Takurika was his home field.

"Growing up, I never had the chance to be trained properly to become a professional baseball player," Cabrera said. "I was lucky enough to have my father and my brother, who had been in professional baseball during that time, to help me with everything I needed to know. These kids deserve the same chance."

Former Minor League infielder Edinson Renteria, the older brother of former All-Star Edgar Renteria, is the president of the Colombian Professional Baseball League, and he has experienced the ups and downs that comes with management. The league is made up of teams from Baranquilla, Cartagena, Monteria and Sincelejo. It could eventually include teams from Santa Marta and Medellin.

"We have a few new stadiums and we are working on more," Renteria said. "There's progress and there's a lot of talent here. I think people are seeing that. We just want to continue to grow internationally."

Teheran is the only Major Leaguers not to participate in the country's league since its creation in 1948. However, the long list of the league's alumni includes Brooks Robinson, Willie McCovey, Cecil Fielder, Vladimir Guerrero and Magglio Ordonez.

"Baseball in Colombia has had phases where it's stopped, started, stopped, started, and now in the phase where has started again with some sponsors that have been able to keep the program at a very competitive level," said Danny Laboy, a former general manager with the Monteria team that has worked with several Major League teams during his 30-year career.

"The league has some quality coaches. We have an influx of players now committing to play in Colombia in terms of prospects from organizations, not just from the Atlantic and independent leagues. I saw a regression in terms of some sponsorship, but I like the direction that they're heading in."

Laboy is not the only one to like how the sport is developing in the country.

"I am so happy, because these kids are tremendous and we are signing more players every year," Cabrera said. "These kids want to be professionals. That's what their mindset is. We want to help that become a reality and help baseball in our country grow."

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