From Cuba to Miami, Grandal flourishes
Yasmani Grandal's first experience with a draft lottery wasn't in 2007, when he was selected by the Boston Red Sox out of Miami Springs High in the 27th round of MLB's first-year player draft.
The first time his name came up in a draft was back in 1998, when he was just nine years old. He and his family were selected as part of the "Special Cuban Migration Program," meaning he and his family could leave Cuba to join his aunt and uncle in Miami -- a dream come true for the young baseball star.
"We arrived in Miami on July 3, 1999," said Grandal, who became a U.S. citizen five years later. He remembers everything about that day -- significant because he was part of the last group to leave Cuba as part of the program.
Now, three years removed from his first experience with the MLB draft, the junior catcher faces his second foray in the new player draft. This time he's expected to go in the first round, according to Scouts Inc. senior baseball analyst Keith Law, who estimates Grandal will be among the top 15-20 picks, with a chance to go as high as No. 4 to Kansas City.
For Grandal and his family, the second trip to the draft is a chance to shorten his path to the major leagues. His mother, Maria Luisa Gomez, said she was disappointed in 2007 because Baseball America had ranked her son 19th overall among high school prospects and scouts had told her he might go in the first five rounds. She wanted her son to go to college rather than head to the pros right out of high school.
"When Boston drafted him out of high school, I spent the whole summer praying," said Gomez, a math teacher. "I wanted him to go to the University of Miami.
"Now, no matter what happens, he will graduate," said Gomez of Grandal, who would finish his academic course work through an MLB program. "They can take away your position on the field, but never your education."
Grandal leads the ACC in batting average (.432) and has 13 homers and 21 doubles for No. 13 Miami, which defeated Florida Gulf Coast on Tuesday for its 17th straight home victory. Grandal, a candidate for ACC Player of the Year, ranks second in the conference in doubles and walks (47).
"If you break it down, here is a kid who can outwork everybody, and he's taken it upon himself to be the best," said Miami hitting coach Joe Mercadante, whom Grandal credits with teaching him timing and plate discipline. "His number of walks have gone up. He understands the strike zone and he understands the difference between a pitch he can handle and a pitch he can hit. We spend a lot of time trying to refine his swing, so it's consistent. When he has that great swing, he can repeat it as much as possible."
In his scouting report, Law notes that Grandal is a better hitter from the left side, but Mercadante said Grandal will become more consistent from both sides of the plate over time.
"He's a better hitter from the left side only because when you come up through high school, you're going to face more right-handed pitchers and you're actually going to hit left-handed," Mercadante said. "We worked on his number of reps from the right and he is tremendously better with more power for more average."
Grandal said he never imagined while growing up in Guira de Melena, in the Havana province, that he would one day be this close to playing in the major leagues.
"When my mom put me in baseball in our town, I was so small they made me the bat boy," said Grandal, now 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. "The coach told me to just watch."
He went from third base with the Cuban junior national team to catcher at Palm Springs middle school in the span of a few years.
Grandal's stepfather, Elieser Gomez, whom his mom had married when Grandal was about 7, made the trip to Miami, along with eight others, including Grandal's maternal grandparents and his cousins. Grandal's birth father is still in Cuba.
"We arrived with nothing. We lived in two rooms," said Gomez. "Those first few months, Yasmani gained 20 pounds because he just wanted to sit in the apartment and watch TV. You couldn't blame him. Here, the electricity doesn't go out and the TV has lots of channels. In Cuba, we only had two."
Grandal's leisure was short-lived. By September 1999, a family friend donated cleats and equipment and placed Grandal with a local team, shuttling him back and forth to practices.
"Yasmani is who he is today because of all the people who helped us when we got here," said Gomez. "And he was always interested. He was the first one at practice. He loves the parties, he loves to dance, but he puts it all aside for baseball. Imagine, on New Year's Day, I had to break the news to him that the batting cages were closed."
Mercadante agrees with Gomez.
"He's a motivator behind the plate and on the field in general," he said. "When you have a bunch of young guys, it is great for the team. He tries to get everybody to focus and he really kind of turns it up at practice."
Grandal said all his energy is now focused on helping his team get to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb.
"Since the start of the season, I have been playing with the idea of going to the College World Series," he said. "That's the goal."
Gabrielle Paese is an editor for ESPN.com and the former sports editor at The San Juan Star in San Juan, Puerto Rico.