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Draft risk pays off for Spartan catcher

By JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- Their baseball odyssey began three years ago, when 18-year-old Ridgewood pitcher Mike Rabelo and his family agonized over a $75,000 contract offer from the Boston Red Sox.

It was an offer the 13th-round selection in the amateur draft declined.

The odyssey ended Tuesday with a champagne toast as the 21-year-old Rabelo, now a star catcher at the University of Tampa, celebrated his fourth-round selection by the Detroit Tigers and future six-figure salary with family and friends.

"To Detroit and Mike," toasted grandfather Gregorio Rabelo.

The Rabelo family was nervous as it gathered around the computer Tuesday afternoon, listening to Tuesday's draft on the Internet. "Are you sure the phone's on the hook?" Rabelo said jokingly after the third round ended. His patience was rewarded five minutes later. At 2:19 p.m., player No. 0062 was selected by the Tigers.

As Rabelo can now attest, the decision he made three years ago to pass on Boston's offer and dedicate himself to becoming one of the nation's top collegiate catchers was the correct one.

The payoff will come soon, when Rabelo signs his first major-league contract after being selected with the 11th pick of the fourth round -- 117th overall. He was the first player selected from Hillsborough County and the only player from Pasco County selected in the first 20 rounds. Does he wonder what might have been?

"Now that I look back at it, no," Rabelo said. "It was rough. It was very rough to be 18 years old and have the chance to be a professional athlete.

"It's pretty tough to go sit in a classroom for three years knowing I could be playing for Boston's (farm system) right then. But those years really paid off."

Especially this past year, his junior year, when Rabelo decided his future in baseball rested on a gambit: batting left-handed after hitting right-handed for his entire career.

Rabelo had trouble with breaking balls and off-speed pitches. An eye exam revealed he was right-eye dominant. Switching sides of the plate allowed him to see those pitches better. Becoming a switch-hitter a year before becoming eligible for the draft again was a risky move.

But like all of Rabelo's gambles, it paid off.

Taking the majority of his 210 swings left-handed, Rabelo batted .371 with 10 home runs and a team-high 57 RBI for the NCAA Division II World Series-bound Spartans.

"A left-handed pitcher is the most sought-after position in baseball," said Rabelo's agent and cousin, Paul Fernandez. "A switch-hitting catcher's got to be the second-most."

Rams coach Larry Beets, who was with the Rabelo family for the draft, said his former star is an example to other budding pro players.

"The biggest asset he has is he works his tail off," the coach said. "And he's confident, not cocky. He's confident.

"He shows players what can be accomplished. You can still go to college and work on your skills."

Rabelo's contract could be between $200,000 and $400,000, Fernandez said, depending on several factors. Finishing Rabelo's degree will be a key financial component.

Fernandez said he hopes to have his cousin signed by June 19 so he can participate in the short-season leagues.

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