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SportsBaseballMets

Bobby Abreu helped build Venezuelan pipeline

Bobby Abreu of the Mets runs out his

Bobby Abreu of the Mets runs out his fifth-inning double against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citi Field on Thursday, April 24, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Bobby Abreu was playing in a tournament in his native Venezuela when a scout approached him about turning pro. If he chose to sign, he'd be sent to Valencia, home to a newly-built baseball academy on the grounds of the Venoco oil company.

The Astros established the facility in 1989 -- the first of its kind in Venezuela -- in hopes it would pump out prospects at the same rate that oil flowed from the country's once-booming fields.

In Abreu, just 16 at the time, the Astros saw another prospect they could sign on the cheap.

"Fine," Abreu told the scout. "Just talk to my mother."

So began Abreu's career, one that helped spur a wave of Venezuelan players who have reshaped the game.

When the Mets outfielder retires following Sunday's season finale, Abreu, 40, will be one of the last of a generation of Venezuelan players cultivated by the Astros, beneficiaries of a visionary experiment to find inexpensive talent that could be acquired by the bulk.

"I am very proud," said Abreu, who announced his retirement on Friday. "Very proud."

He couldn't have known it at the time, but Abreu had agreed to enroll at what became a legendary finishing school, one that spawned growth and turned Venezuela into a baseball powerhouse.

The early graduates read like an All-Star Game roster, including Johan Santana, Melvin Mora, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia and Abreu, perhaps the best of them all.

Of the 318 Venezuelan-born players to have appeared in the big leagues, Abreu ranks third in hits (2,469), fourth in home runs (288) and third in RBIs (1,363).

Abreu traced his success back to the academy, where he said players were taught "how to play the game right, all the fundamentals, all the techniques, situations in the game.

"It makes you learn quick," Abreu said. "True competition is what does it."

The experiment worked so well that the Astros found themselves turning talent away. They once cut another academy hopeful, Magglio Ordonez, who went on to make six All-Star games.

Soon, Abreu was gone, too.

He signed in 1990, one year after the Astros set up shop in Valencia, then steadily climbed the organizational ladder until debuting in 1996. His first manager, Terry Collins, quickly saw that Abreu "had all the skills."

Indeed, Abreu could run, throw and hit, a product of the disciplined approach that became his signature. But the Astros could only protect 15 players in 1997, when Major League Baseball held an expansion draft for the Diamondbacks and the Devil Rays.

The choice came down to Abreu or Richard Hidalgo, another product of the Venezuelan pipeline.

By then, Collins had been fired by the Astros and hired by the Angels. But he heard that Abreu might be the odd man out with his former club. So, at a fall league game, when Phillies general manger Lee Thomas asked Collins if he could recommend a lefthanded hitting outfielder, he had a quick answer.

In a prearranged trade, the Devil Rays took Abreu in the expansion draft, then flipped him to the Phillies for shortstop Kevin Stocker.

Abreu went on to play 18 seasons in the big leagues for six teams, though he'll be remembered most for his nine years with the Phillies, where he was twice named an All-Star.

"Lee thanked me afterwards," said Collins, the Mets' skipper, and also Abreu's last manager.

Abreu's lasting legacy, however, runs deeper than his playing ledger.

Alex Carrasquel, the majors' first Venezuelan-born player, made his debut as a pitcher for the Washington Senators in 1939. His nephew, Chico Carrasquel, was a five-time All-Star for the White Sox and was traded away to make room for countryman and future Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio. But only when the Astros' academy began bearing fruit did the numbers begin to spike.

In 1996, Abreu was one of 30 Venezuelan-born players in the big leagues. That number swelled to 94 in 2013, the most in any single season in history.

Without the fanfare of Derek Jeter's finale, Abreu will bow out Sunday against his original team, the Astros. They are led by Jose Altuve, a Venezuelan who is chasing the first batting title in franchise history.

In the Mets' dugout, Abreu will share final hitting tips with 23-year-old shortstop Wilmer Flores. He was born in Valencia, where the Astros' academy stood until it was shuttered in 2008.

By then, it had outlived its usefulness. Emboldened by the Astros success, scouts flooded Venezuela, in search of the next Abreu.

Said Flores: "What he did helped us to be here now."

New York Sports