ARUBAN PARADISE? O's academy no day at beach, but 4 prospects dream on

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Caracas, Venezuela -- Instant-headache weather. Oppressive heat. Stifling humidity. Under these conditions, on the thirsty grass of Estadio Baudilio Diaz, the home of the Orioles' Venezuelan baseball academy, teen-agers try to prove they are worthy of a contract in America.

Adjacent to the baseball diamond is a spacious white building. Homemade barbed wire, crafted out of broken glass from soda bottles, lines the wall surrounding the building, keeping intruders at bay.

The teen-agers, as many as 25 at a time, sleep in bunk beds. They stay as long as four months at a time, and maybe 10 percent are offered contracts. This room over here will become a video room. That one a weight room. Over there, that will be a kitchen. The next room a dining room. One day, the building will have air conditioning. Today it is an oven.

Six months old, the building is in its infancy, much like the Orioles' program to recruit Venezuelans.

"I think Venezuela is a real gold mine for talent," said new Orioles manager Phil Regan, who has managed in Caracas for the past six winters. "It's an untapped area. There is no question it is not as well-scouted as the Dominican."

Arturo Sanchez, who once played for Regan with the Caracas Lions, teaches at the academy and scouts Venezuela. Chu Halabi, director of Latin American scouting for the Orioles, lives on the island of Aruba, a major tourist destination off the coast of Venezuela.

"Chu is like a father to every one of us here," pitcher Calvin Maduro said during a workout.

Without Halabi's efforts, the Orioles wouldn't have four Aruban prospects trying to make history, trying to become the first natives of Aruba to play in the majors.

The four prospects -- right-handers Maduro and Sidney Ponson, left-hander Radhames Dykhoff and outfielder Eugene Kingsale -- speak four languages. Just about every native of the Dutch property speaks four languages: Papiamento is the native tongue, Dutch is taught in the school from first grade, English and Spanish from the fifth grade, and television programs are in Spanish.

Ponson, 17, was considered by many to be the best pitching prospect in the Gulf Coast League. He went 4-3 with a 2.96 ERA, walked 17 and struck out 53 in 73 innings.

Projecting Ponson as a prospect was not difficult, Halabi said, because of his family tradition.

"Everyone on the island knows the name Ponson," Halabi said. "His mother made the name famous. She is one of the best athletes on the island."

Ponson was offered more money to sign with the Atlanta Braves, but turned them down. "They could have offered me a mountain of gold and I still would have signed with the Orioles because I have learned so much from Chu and I want to learn more," he said.

Halabi grows extremely animated when discussing Kingsale, 18.

"He is very raw, but you're talking about a great talent, great talent," Halabi said. "Next to [Kim] Bartee, he is the fastest player in the organization. He's going to grow bigger and stronger and he's going to be quicker. He can catch anything anyplace. The only thing short is his arm."

Dykhoff also is raw, thanks to his late start.

"He lives about 150 yards from where I live, but he never wanted to play ball," Halabi said. "I saw him playing with my son when he was 13. He was throwing rocks at a rabbit and he was throwing hard. I told him to come play catch with my son. He doesn't have the instincts a player who has played the game his whole life has. It comes into play covering first base, fielding comebackers, things like that."

Maduro, 20, had as many strikeouts (123) as hits allowed for Single-A Frederick in 1994 and is the most advanced of the Orioles' Aruban prospects.

Aware of Halabi's passion for fishing, Maduro vows that if he one day signs a million-dollar contract, his first purchase will be a fishing boat for his beloved coach.

Halabi saw Maduro pitching in a Little League game at the age of 10. Three years later, Halabi taught him a changeup that now is considered among the best in the organization. Halabi also took Maduro to spring training that year to give him a taste of what hard work could bring him.

Not that those at the academy aren't used to hard work.

The players work out from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. They never leave the field or the building, except to eat two meals at the same restaurant every day.

"We have to be careful to make sure they stay in the building," said Sanchez. "It's one of our rules. They can't go out. If we catch somebody going out, we send them home. We have a responsibility with their families and also with the Orioles."

Maduro put it more bluntly: "They will shoot you just to steal your shoes."

Even Halabi has paid a price. A physical education teacher in Aruba, Halabi, 49, has thrown so much batting practice over the years he has had two arm operations and has been told by his doctor he never will be able to throw a baseball again. "I'll be throwing batting practice in March," Halabi promised.

The Orioles hope his efforts and those of all at the academy will allow the organization to make up for lost time in Venezuela.

The Montreal Expos, Houston Astros, New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox are well-grounded in procuring this talent, each having am academy in Venezuela. The Seattle Mariners are in the process of constructing one and the Colorado Rockies are looking into building one.

The Toronto Blue Jays also are successful in scouting Venezuela.

The Orioles' tradition here can best be put in the form of H HTC question: What do Wilson Alvarez, Luis Aparicio, Tony Armas, Dave Concepcion, Vic Davalillo, Bo Diaz, Andres Galarraga, Ozzie Guillen, Cesar Tovar and Omar Vizquel have in common? Two things: They all are natives of Venezuela; and none originally signed with the Orioles.

The Orioles are trying to change that. And, at least in Halabi's eyes, they are succeeding, with the race on to become the first Aruban in the major leagues.

"I would say Maduro is two or three years ahead of the others," Halabi said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he is in Double-A sometime next year. And I guarantee you Kingsale and Ponson will be in the majors. I guarantee it."

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