Wesley Rodriguez of George Washington High in New York City is hoping to tread what has been a rare path in recent years: going from the Big Apple to the big leagues.
In the quarterfinals of the New York AAA city championship on May 26, George Washington High starter Wesley Rodriguez threw four perfect innings. He struck out eight of the 12 Manhattan Central batters he faced. None of them hit the ball out of the infield, and he never reached a three-ball count in the Trojans’ 12–2 win. But after the game, Rodriguez sounded almost disappointed in his performance. “I’m usually more overpowering,” he said. “They put the ball in play a lot today.”
So dominant is Rodriguez, an 18-year-old righthander from the Bronx, that four perfect innings can feel like a letdown. The numbers from his senior season, however, inspire high expectations. Rodriguez threw 43 2/3 innings for George Washington, striking out 92 batters while allowing a grand total of 10 hits and one earned run, giving him a 0.21 ERA. And while he also batted .550 with 12 home runs, professional scouts are more interested in his 98-mile-per-hour fastball than what he can do at the plate.
That makes Rodriguez the most promising high school player out of New York City since ... Yankees reliever Dellin Betances in 2006? Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez in ‘05? Journeyman righty Jason Marquis in 1996? Or maybe even since fellow George Washington alum Manny Ramirez, who was drafted in '91 and went on to become a 12-time All-Star.
On Monday, Rodriguez could hear his name called in one of the first three rounds of the MLB draft, but even if he doesn't, he is sure to be taken at some point in the three-day long event. Baseball America ranks Rodriguez the 77th best prospect in the draft. MLB.com has him 101th, and MLB.com draft expert Jonathan Mayo expects Rodriguez will be selected between the second and fourth rounds. Rodriguez’s coach, 32-year veteran Steve Mandl, says scouts should know better. “If he’s not in the first round,” Mandl says, “they’re not doing their job.” If Rodriguez is selected 80th or better, he’ll be the highest-drafted player from a New York City high school since Marquis, a Staten Island native, was taken 35th overall by the Braves 19 years ago.
More than 15 major league teams have reached out, Rodriguez says, and scouts would pack behind the George Washington backstop whenever he started. The attention could be daunting, but only to a point. “When you’re about to accomplish something, and you have a great chance at it, you get nervous,” Rodriguez says. “But when it’s time for me to go to a game, stretch out and do what I have to do for the game, I have tunnel vision. I don’t worry about nothing, I don’t think about nothing, I don’t see nobody. I just see me and the catcher.”
At 5’11” and 200 pounds, Rodriguez has a thick frame, but his power on the mound comes easily. His delivery begins slowly, then explodes toward the plate as his right arm whips forward. But as fearsome as he is on the field, off of it, Rodriguez is polite and charming, with a soft voice and an easy smile. Before, during and after games at George Washington, he can hardly reach the locker room without an acquaintance or admirer stopping to shake his hand, like he’s the mayor of Washington Heights, the upper Manhattan neighborhood where the school is located.
Rodriguez struts with superstar demeanor but speaks with bench-player modesty. He acknowledges his talent only to deflect credit and ascribes his young success to God, his mother, his brother and various coaches—anyone but himself. Told of Mandl’s effusive praise, Rodriguez grins widely and shakes his head. “That’s his opinion. Everybody has their own opinion. I just play baseball to my best potential.”
Rodriguez has committed to the University of Pittsburgh, but college ball isn’t what he fantasizes about when he falls asleep. “One of my goals is to get drafted,” he says. “My dream is to make it to the MLB, and to be a Hall of Famer.”
New York City once produced legendary baseball players with regularity. Seven Big Apple natives—Waite Hoyt, Frankie Frisch, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Phil Rizzuto, Whitey Ford and Sandy Koufax—debuted in the majors between 1918 and ‘55 and wound up in the Hall of Fame. The first MLB draft, in 1965, saw five players from New York City high schools selected among the first 200 picks.
But the city’s player development pipeline soon dried up. Since that first draft, New York City high schools have produced just seven first-round picks and only one superstar—Manny Ramirez, who hit 555 home runs in his 19-year career. The trend has only worsened with time. In the 23 drafts since Ramirez was selected 13th overall by the Indians, not a single New York high schooler has been taken in the first round, and only four such players have been among the top 100 picks in a given year.
The best player in baseball, Angels outfielder and New Jersey native Mike Trout, is from the Northeast, but the region still faces several disadvantages in producing elite talent. There is the weather, which prevents players from earning experience and exposure as often as players can in warm-weather hotbeds such as California, Florida and Texas. There is also the rise of AAU and other off-season travel teams, which have increased the cost of elite youth baseball in the U.S., largely closing off the sport to inner cities.
Major League Baseball has attempted to address the decline of baseball in urban areas through its Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities program, and there are independent organizations, like Harlem RBI, which also attempt to give the sport a boost in New York. To Harlem RBI executive director Rich Berlin, the reason basketball and football have overtaken baseball in American cities is mostly economic. While other sports have large urban pipelines here, baseball has invested heavily in Latin American countries, where a dollar goes further and prospects come cheaper. American players who reach the professional ranks are typically the ones who can afford to spend time developing their skills. According to a 2014 Wall Street Journal story, the average annual cost of a season of travel ball is roughly $2,000 per player. The decline of baseball in cities, Berlin posits, comes down to “either a lack of investment or a lack of the right kind of investment from anyone who cares about it.”
Meanwhile, the warm-weather talent distribution means teams have less reason than ever to scout urban areas. Players from suburbs and the South benefit both from being better players and from the perception that they’re better players.
All of this makes Rodriguez the rarest of draft specimens: a legitimate prospect from a cold-weather inner city. But he has several circumstances in his favor, including playing at one of the most baseball-crazed high schools in New York.
The George Washington Trojans are a “baseball team on the hill,” both literally and figuratively. Sitting atop Fort George Hill, just north of 193rd St., is a program with a legendary coach who boasts 31 division titles in 32 years and has had 20 players drafted—four of whom have reached the majors. On June 3, the Trojans won their fourth city championship, beating Tottenville, 1–0, at Yankee Stadium. Rodriguez got the final two outs.
Given all of George Washington’s baseball history, it means something when Mandl—a member of the National High School Baseball Coaches’ Hall of Fame—calls Rodriguez the best pitcher and one of the best hitters ever to emerge from his program.
Rodriguez began playing baseball around eight years old, when his mother, Yendy Gomez, decided the family’s apartment in the Bronx could no longer contain his energy. She remembers Wesley and his older brother Xyruse (who played baseball at George Washington and then in junior college at Central Arizona) running around and careening into her decorations. “They used to break everything, playing baseball in the house,” she says. “[Wesley] would always be playing and playing and playing and playing. I was like, ‘I can’t with this kid. I need to put him in baseball or something because he’s driving me crazy.’”
Baseball insulated Rodriguez from the negative influences in his neighborhood. He says he was never tempted to join a gang because he found companionship elsewhere—his friends were all baseball players.
Gomez says her son always stood out above his peers on the field, but it wasn’t until he was in high school that outsiders began to notice. In the summer of 2014, Rodriguez took part in the prestigious Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., as well as the East Coast Pro showcase. In addition to catching the attention of college and professional teams at such events, Rodriguez had a chance to see for himself that the competition he had faced in New York City couldn’t match the quality of baseball around the country.
“When you grow up in New York, the baseball here it’s not all that powerful,” he says. “And then you go out there to Florida, you face kids from everywhere, and you see the real competition. Some kids don’t like it because they face reality, but I did.”
Rodriguez, who began his high school career at third base and shortstop and pitching out of the bullpen, didn’t become a starter until this spring. His relative inexperience on the mound means he’s had limited strain on his arm, which might appeal to professional teams, but it also means he’s some missing polish. Rodriguez concedes his off-speed pitches need work.
That, plus the questions about the competition he faced at George Washington and the concerns about Rodriguez's physique—MLB.com’s draft breakdown said, in part, “one scout made a Bartolo Colon body-type comparison"—will likely prevent him from being selected in the first round, but he shouldn’t last long after that. And if Rodriguez is selected in the first four rounds, as expected, he’ll be bucking modern stereotypes of where top prospects come from. Last year, the highest drafted player from New York City was Gio Abreu, a righty from the Bronx who went to the Rangers in the 14th round as the 426th pick overall. In 2013, the city’s top draftee, Queens infielder Andrew Florides, was selected by the Blue Jays in the 27th round, 805th overall. When Rodriguez hears his name called, he will have overcome winter weather, inferior competition and the city’s pitfalls.
“There are a lot of good kids in New York that want a chance, just a chance,” says Rodriguez. “Some city kids just need one chance.”