PHOENIX — Kelvin Herrera smiles sheepishly and pauses. Finally, he grabs the ball from the clubhouse attendant and scribbles his name.
None of this feels normal, Herrera says. Signing a commemorative ball in a major-league clubhouse? Shagging balls in the outfield at Chase Field during batting practice? Pitching on national television in the Major League Baseball Futures Game?
"My first time," he says.
Four months ago, Herrera was just a 21-year-old minor-league pitcher who couldn't stay healthy; a young kid from Tenares, Dominican Republic, who just wanted to call home to his parents with better news.
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On Sunday, the lost time felt like a distance memory for the Kansas City Royals prospect. After missing most of the 2009 and 2010 seasons with arm issues, he had earned his way here, posting a 1.49 ERA with 48 strikeouts and five walks this year while splitting time at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
And now he could finish his story.
He talked about his childhood in Tenares, how he used to walk to a neighborhood field and just play. No coaches. No training. Just baseball.
He talked about his father Sabastian, who worked in the construction business to provide for the family, and his mother Maria, who took care of the brothers and sisters at home.
"Everybody is gonna see me today," Herrera, "One TV in Tenares; everybody watching this game."
Even in Kansas City's heralded minor-league system full of potential, Herrera is something of a benchmark.
On Sunday, he became the first homegrown international player to play in the Futures Game since general manager Dayton Moore took over in 2006.
And for the moment, this makes Herrera one of the first faces to emerge from the Royals' refurbished Latin American program. During Moore's five years, the Royals have built new facilities and retooled their scouting structure and lavished millions on teenagers from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
Earlier this month, they made their latest splash, $3.05 million for a 6-foot-4, 200-pound Dominican outfielder named Elier Hernandez — a 16-year-old with what one Royals official described as "tools that just get better and better with age."
But this was always a long-term plan, Moore says.
The Royals' international operations department has been searching for nearly five years, and the fruits of the labor are still just blossoming. Some of these prospects are still just teenagers — instant millionaires, yes, but years away from the big-league club. And this means more waiting as the major-league club loses.
"It's seven to eight years," Moore says, "Anybody that's studied the history of the Latin player knows that."
The hope is that the players behind Herrera will be part of the Royals' next wave; that the franchise's international program will churn out first-round type talent for a discounted price.
"The international player has become the high-ceiling player in the game," Moore says, "Over the last 15, 20 years, because a lot of the athletes in the inner cities are no longer playing our game — baseball has lost a lot of their athletes..."
Moore likes to point out that the Royals were last in money spent in Latin America from 1996 to 2006. And while money doesn't ensure a flawless international program, all you have to do is look at the Royals record book to see a franchise that has been historically barren of Latin talent. Other than Carlos Beltran — who was a draft-eligible player from Puerto Rico— the Royals have not signed and developed a single Latin player who is in the franchise's top 10 in hits, batting average, homers, stolen bases or ERA.
"It's very difficult, if not impossible," Moore says, "to become a consistent winning organization unless you have a strong international program."