At 21 Lebron is no longer even remotely a prospect. With most of his bonus money spent, he lives with his family in the outskirts of Patillas, a town in rural southeastern Puerto Rico.
"I spend my time working a little, joking around and doing some exercises," Lebron says. "I work part-time at a small laboratory owned by a friend. I help my friend make false teeth. I earn from $100 up a week, depending on how many pieces I make. It's an interesting job, but I'd rather be playing baseball. Please tell the scouts that I'm still a prospect."
Rafael Montalvo, a righthanded pitcher from Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, may be a latter-day Lebron. He was signed by the Dodgers last year at 14, having been discovered in a youth league game when he was 13.
"He impressed me right away," says Dodger scout Rafael Avila, a Cuban-American who lives in Santo Domingo. "I started working with him every two or three months, whenever I'd go to Puerto Rico. I'd help him with his delivery and his motion. And I got to know his parents. I didn't want to sign him so young, but I had to rush because he started getting offers from other clubs. I made his parents an offer and they accepted. You know, some of these poor people need the money pretty bad."
Montalvo quit school in the 10th grade to accept, he says, a $15,000 bonus to sign with the Dodgers. "I was eager to play baseball since I was a little kid," he says. "The Dodgers gave me the opportunity to play. I talked to my parents and decided it was what I wanted to do. I have no plans to go back to school. This winter, I'll play winter ball."
Montalvo appeared in 14 games last season for the Dodgers' rookie league team in Lethbridge, Alberta. He had a 4-2 record and 4.94 ERA. This season he has played sparingly for Lethbridge because of an injury to his right elbow.
Avila, like other scouts, resents the suggestion that he's exploiting youngsters like Montalvo. "Exploiting them? No, helping them," he says. "As an example, I found a kid last year in a little village on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. The kid couldn't read or write. All he could do was hit a few line drives and ground balls. He didn't know anything about anything else. He'd never seen a big city. He didn't know how to handle a fork and a knife to eat his food. He didn't even know how to get dressed.
"I took this kid with me to Santo Domingo, put him in a boardinghouse, paid his rent, gave him clothes and taught him everything. My wife spent many hours teaching him how to read and write. I spent $3,000 on him for six or seven months with no security, because I hadn't signed him yet. Finally I signed him, and he reported to spring training this year. Some day soon, after he reaches the big leagues, he'll become, a free agent and try to make a million dollars. That's exploitation? No way. I'm proud to say I've given this kid a chance to have a better future."
Two days before Jose Rijo was to leave home to join "the school of the big time," he was having lunch in a Santo Domingo restaurant overlooking the Caribbean.
"Anything to drink?" a waiter asked.