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On a summer afternoon in 1971 Jose Abreu, a righthanded pitcher and one of three children of a family living in San Cristóbal, Dominican Republic, accepted a $2,000 bonus to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "It was the most exciting day of my life," he would say later. There was a problem, however: Abreu hadn't completed even his first year of high school, the equivalent in the U.S. of ninth grade.
A few days after Abreu signed, he quit school. He was 17 and, the scouts said, un gran prospecto. A helluva prospect. The following spring Abreu reported to the Dodgers' spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla.; three weeks later he was released. Embarrassed, he returned home, where three months later he was signed by a scout for the Minnesota Twins. Abreu lasted parts of two seasons in Class A ball, appearing in 12 games, before receiving his final release.
"My biggest problem was always that I couldn't speak English," Abreu recalls. "Once, in my second pro season, when I was pitching with the bases loaded, my coach came to the mound to tell me how to work against a certain batter. I didn't understand what he was telling me, but it must have been something like: 'I can't talk to you. You can't talk to me. We've got problems.' Not too long after that, I got released. For good." Abreu never returned to school. Today, at 27, married with two children, he is unemployed, except for a job pitching in the Dominican professional summer league.
"I was probably the best student in my school," Abreu says. "I know I would've stayed in school if it hadn't been for baseball. If I'd stayed in school, maybe I'd be a doctor today. Maybe I'd have a profession. Maybe I'd have a car. Maybe I'd have some money."
Abreu shrugs, helplessly.
"But what could I do? When the scouts told me I had a chance of making the big leagues, I had to make a choice: stay in school or go to the U.S. to play baseball. The choice was easy. We're poor people. When somebody offers you $2,000, you take it and you don't look back."
On an August evening in 1980, Jose Rijo, Abreu's nephew and a righthanded pitcher from a family of 10 children, also in San Cristóbal, accepted a $3,000 bonus to sign with the New York Yankees. "It was the best thing that's ever happened to me," he'd say later. There was a problem, however; Rijo had completed only his first year of high school.
Several weeks after Rijo signed, he quit school. He was 15 and, the scouts said, un gran prospecto. A helluva prospect.
"My teachers told me they're going to miss me," Rijo said in April, several days before leaving San Cristóbal to join the Yankees. "I told them, 'Now, I'm going to the school of baseball, to the school of the big time.' My math teacher told me, 'Well, you quit school. Now, at least do 100% to make it to the big leagues.' "
Later Rijo told his mother and his uncle Abreu—his father no longer lives at home—that he intends to finish high school during the off-season. His uncle laughed.