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As fast as he is, Torres came to the game slowly

NEW YORK -- This was no baseball-crazed boy on a baseball-crazed island. Andres Torres was not particularly fond of the sport growing up in Puerto Rico; his father watched games sometimes on television, but that was the extent of his exposure. As a high school athlete, Torres preferred track and field.

It was not until a pair of scouts, Jose Oquendo and Edwin Rodriguez, gave him their business cards that Torres realized he could be a big league player. So he enrolled in college, then began refining his game and becoming a baseball star from that baseball-crazed island.

Now, as Major League Baseball celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month, Torres is a model of what is possible.

"I said, 'Wow, I can be a professional baseball player,'" Torres recalled. "From that day, I started working. That's how everything started."

For a man who does nearly everything quickly, it all unfolded rather slowly. Years behind his peers in his development, Torres needed to learn the fundamentals of hitting and fielding, including how to succeed as a switch-hitter. He had to learn to do more with his body than simply run fast, after excelling as a 100-meter sprinter in high school.

"It took a lot of work because it's a hard sport," said Torres, one of nine Latin American (born or raised) players on the Mets' active roster. "I just worked hard and had to learn how to hit. I was almost 18. I had no fundamentals and no coordination; I was just a fast guy. But I always said, 'Never give up, try your best and see what happens.'"

Torres was so isolated from baseball growing up in Puerto Rico that he was not even aware of Guillermo Hernandez, the 1984 American League MVP Award and AL Cy Young Award winner for the Tigers who hailed from his hometown of Aguada. Consider that, on an island where baseball reigns.

"Can you imagine?" Torres said. "I didn't know until I went to the Majors that he was from my town. I didn't have a clue about baseball. My dad used to watch games, but it wasn't my sport. That's why I respect the game. I wish somebody would have told me earlier. It's never too late, but it's not the same."

It is hardly the typical story of a Puerto Rican big leaguer, raised on an island that has produced more than 200 Major League players -- including some of the best of all time. But Torres was a serious track athlete in his youth, capable of running 100 meters in 10.37 seconds.

Unlike many from his country, he was only a casual ballplayer, so he saw little reason to forgo track for baseball. Then Rodriguez and Oquendo, who both went on to coaching careers in the Majors, outwardly expressed their interest. Just like that, Torres was hooked.

"Before, I just played to play," he said. "I wasn't playing to be a professional or anything like that. And then when they gave me that card, I was like, 'Oh, I'm going to be a baseball player.' Everything changed."

Born in New Jersey but raised in Puerto Rico, Torres returned to the States to train at Miami-Dade Community College, which already boasted a respectable lineage of Major League alumni. He grew as a player, particularly as a hitter. And he eventually improved enough to become a fourth-round Draft pick of the Tigers.

As Torres bounced from the Tigers to the Rangers, Giants and Mets, speed remained his primary calling card -- just as it is today. So Torres often wonders how things might have unfolded differently had he trained to play baseball as a young child, as so many of his countrymen do.

But considering the career he managed to forge, Torres is pleased with his unorthodox island story.

"It's a hard sport, especially when you learn it late," he said. "If you teach a kid when he's young, the right mechanics, the right fundamentals, it's better. When you kind of get old, it's hard to break bad habits and things like that. But it's never too late."

New York Mets, Andres Torres