Teen Sensation Rafael Furcal, the majors' youngest player, is on the Braves' fast track

April 23, 2000

Braves fans have spent a lot of time rooting for shortstops named
Rafael. First there was Rafael Ramirez, who manned the position
from 1980 to '87 and set the franchise record for steals by a
shortstop, with 27 in '82. Then, in '91, came Rafael Belliard,
who for the next eight seasons worked his magic with the glove
while distinguishing himself as one of baseball's lightest
hitters. (Belliard, who last played in the majors in 1998, had
two homers in 2,301 career at bats.) As a new decade dawns,
Rafael Furcal has arrived--from the Dominican Republic, like the
Rafaels before him--to become Atlanta's shortstop and leadoff
hitter of the future. He's so fleet, he seems destined to own
Ramirez's stolen base mark. "I looked at his numbers in the
minors, and they were unbelievable," says Braves catcher Eddie
Perez, referring to the 96 bases Furcal swiped in 126 games last
season for two Class A teams. "Then I saw him play, and I
believed."

The 5'10", 165-pound Furcal, who at 19 is the first player born
in the 1980s to reach the majors, made a similar impression this
spring on Atlanta's coaches, who decided that the youngster was
ready to jump from the low minors to the majors. "Every time you
watch him, you see something good," says hitting coach Merv
Rettenmund. "At the plate, in the field, on the bases--he doesn't
play like a 19-year-old."

"We felt he could help us win and we could help his career
along," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who has used Furcal as a
backup at short and second base. "We had no fears about bringing
him up."

Raised in Loma de Cabrera, a small town near the Haitian border,
Furcal was spotted in 1996 by Braves scout Felix Francisco, an
acquaintance of a coach in Loma de Cabrera. What Francisco saw
was a mite with an above-average arm and decent speed, if not
enough to make up for his lack of size. "He ran a 7-flat for 60
yards," says Francisco. Furcal worked with the local baseball
coach, who was also a track coach, to improve his mechanics. He
also took to running in the hills around Loma de Cabrera. "In a
few months he was down to 6.7," says Francisco. "Most guys don't
improve by more than a 10th of a second in a year."

Francisco persuaded the Braves to sign the 16-year-old Furcal in
November 1996. After a season with Atlanta's Dominican
instructional program, Furcal set an Appalachian League record
with 60 stolen bases. His 96 steals last year led professional
baseball. Figuring Furcal would arrive in the majors sometime in
2001, Baseball America named him the Braves' top minor league
prospect earlier this year. "I played well in spring training,"
Furcal says, "but I'm very surprised I made this team."

He showed he belonged in his first big league at bat, a 12-pitch
epic against the Rockies' Rolando Arrojo on April 4 in which he
fouled off eight straight pitches before striking out. After
getting six hits and three steals in his first 14 at bats, Furcal
cooled off and was hitting .273 at week's end. He had also drawn
raves for his arm--teammate Chipper Jones calls it one of the best
he's seen--and his wise-beyond-his-age nature. "He needs to play,"
says Perez. "When I see him sitting next to me on the bench, I
think, Man, I want this guy in there."

--S.C.

COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN

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