To think that, a year ago, Leonel Vinas seemed to be on a path to nowhere. Yes, he had graduated from Freeport High School in June 2009, but he didn't have any concrete plans, and he kept finding trouble.
His life changed when his friend Herman Hernandez introduced him to Ray Negron, who introduced him to Hank Steinbrenner. And Tuesday in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood, Vinas met Brian Cashman, who officially signed the righthanded pitcher to a professional contract.
"I've been to Japan and China to try to find players," Cashman, the Yankees' general manager, said at Out 27, a neighborhood restaurant owned by huge baseball enthusiast Miguel Montas. "It's great to be able to look around the corner, in our backyard, and find someone."
Vinas, 19, served as the ace pitcher for Hank's Yanks, the 18-and-under baseball team sponsored by Yankees general partner Hank Steinbrenner, that excelled last summer, winning the Baseball Heaven championship in Yaphank. Just as memorably, Vinas outpitched Mariano Rivera Jr. in an August game at Yankee Stadium.
At Hank Steinbrenner's behest, Vinas traveled to Tampa after the season and pitched in front of vice president of amateur scouting Damon Oppenheimer, senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman and vice president of player personnel Billy Connors. After three such tryouts, the Yankees offered Vinas a signing bonus in the low four figures. He's hardly a top prospect, yet he'll get a chance to show his stuff in spring training.
"When it comes to baseball, I'm never nervous," Vinas said.
Born in the Dominican Republic, he moved to Freeport when he was 11 years old. He pitched for Freeport High School, he said, but didn't get much attention from professional scouts.
"Our team wasn't really good," Vinas said. "Nobody really came over."
Upon graduating, he hung out with a troublemaking crowd. Hernandez, an area youth baseball coach who had known Vinas for years, kept an eye on the young man. So when Negron and Steinbrenner agreed to put together a team, coached by the Yankees adviser Negron, Vinas ranked among Hernandez's highest recommendations.
"I told him, 'This will get you out of the streets,' " Hernandez said. "He took off and straightened up."
Steinbrenner and Negron are planning another Hank's Yanks team for 2011. The venture will get more publicity because top players such as third baseman Matt Duran (of New Rochelle) and William Jerez (Grand Street Campus in Brooklyn) could get strong attention in the 2011 amateur draft.
"Now we're hoping to keep the other kids out of the streets," Hernandez said.