TORONTO — It was hard to miss Shawn Ross walking amongst a group of youth baseball players. He stands at six-foot-two, 185 pounds, an athletic, physically imposing presence when placed next to the teenagers assembled during scout day of the Puerto Rico 12 Baseball Showcase Tournament in San Juan earlier this summer.
But, despite size and pedigree — he’s entering his sophomore year playing at Clarendon College in Texas — there was still a rawness to the 19-year-old.
The shortstop displayed fluid footwork and quick hands while fielding ground balls in front of MLB scouts, yet a few of his throws fell short of first base. Minutes later, when he was strapping on batting gloves and preparing to take swings, Ross leaned over the dugout railing at Hiram Bithorn Stadium and motioned to his friends, who were seated in the stands to his right.
He shook his head and let off a sheepish smile, as if to say, “I just didn’t have it.” One friend yelled back, “Bring it down,” placing both arms near his chest and calmly lowering them downward to his midsection. “Like Javy Baez.”
Ross, a native of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, acknowledged in an interview on that late July day that he was simply nervous. Evaluators from major-league teams were keenly observing his every move and those were men who held the key to Ross’s dream of being drafted by an MLB franchise.
Fast forward to the present and Ross is in an entirely different mindset on the diamond. When competing at Tournament 12 — the Canadian iteration of PR12 — in Toronto this past week, the anxiousness had rinsed away like mud off a bicycle.
“Here I didn’t feel nervous,” Ross said upon the conclusion of the five-day tourney. “I felt confident. I trust myself more here, because of PR12.”
The Puerto Rico tournament was designed by former Toronto Blue Jays star Roberto Alomar as a way to foster baseball in his homeland. The Hall of Fame second baseman, in partnership with MLB, staged the inaugural tournament this past summer, bringing together 150 kids in one easy-to-reach location for scouts.
Alomar spoke at length to the youth about his passion for helping them grow. PR12 wasn’t a here-today-gone-tomorrow initiative, he insisted; it was one of the bricks they could use to build a strong foundation for their future, whether in baseball or outside the game.
Alomar selected six Puerto Rican players from that crop and placed them on teams in September’s T12, offering them a chance to showcase their skills in front of scouts at Rogers Centre. It marked the first time that a group from the island was invited to the annual Canadian staple. The message he wanted to send to them was simple.
“I am proudly Puerto Rican,” Alomar said. “I have a commitment to the youth and the more opportunity I can give them, I’m gonna support them.”
The six foreigners were placed on several T12 teams that featured Canadian players and North American coaches. It was a new experience, but one Alomar deemed as vital for their development.
“Some of them haven’t flown on planes before, some haven’t been in the States,” said Alomar. “I know, for a fact, they haven’t been in Canada. It’s important for them to see what it’s like to go through customs for the first time. Get to know other types of people … And also, see all the different cultures.”
Alomar, of course, spent five seasons playing in Toronto in the early 1990s. His time in the city served as an off-the-field education. As a young man, he was exposed to a different way of life in a country that was unlike what he had experienced in Puerto Rico or any previous stops during his baseball career, which professionally began in the San Diego Padres organization. The Puerto Ricans at T12 carry similar blank slates, in terms of developing perspective.
“Sometimes we see these guys and say they are old in the game of baseball,” he said. “But they are not old in life. They still have opportunities beside a professional.”
The six players varied in age: Three are in the early stages of high school, while the other half are nearing or in their 20s. Landy Peña is among the former. The 16-year-old is enrolled in the Leadership Christian Academy baseball program in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico and is not yet draft eligible. But it’s clear, based on Alomar’s heightened interest in the switch-hitting infielder, that Peña holds tremendous promise.
“He said I look like him when he was young, that’s why he wants to see me at second base,” said Peña, who grew up playing shortstop. “He said I looked better at second, the way that I move: My athleticism, the double-play turns.”
Through one-on-one instruction at PR12 and T12, Alomar has preached to Peña the benefit of standing more upright in his fielding stance before the ball is hit, so he can generate a stronger lateral first step on plays to either side. Before, he was too crouched.
“He told me this year is going to be good because I’m going to expose myself playing,” said Peña.
For Ross, there’s a similar hope that the upcoming year will be fruitful. As a junior college player, he’s eligible for the 2019 MLB Draft. The Boston Red Sox and New York Mets have expressed interest in him in the past, and other teams could join that list as June approaches.
He’s been working with Alomar on honing his swing and plans to head back to Texas with another notch of experience under his belt.
“This year is gonna be better than last year,” said Ross. “I’m going to make the adjustments now.”