LANCASTER, Calif. -- Baseball is often a game about fathers and sons, and there's no exception in the story of Carlos Correa, the Astros' No. 1 Draft pick from two years ago, who arrives at a restaurant with his cell phone pressed to his ear.
"Talking to my dad," Correa said, before he goes back to telling him, in Spanish, about his latest game in the Minor Leagues.
Nope, no hits yesterday, Carlos Jr. said to his father.
Keep working, Carlos Sr. said to his son.
And in this way, nothing changes for the 19-year-old shortstop, who at Class A Advanced Lancaster is the top-ranked prospect in the system and remains the cornerstone of the Astros' ongoing rebuilding project. The baseball-loving boy is still listening to his construction worker father, only now he's doing it from 3,364 miles away, via an iPhone, rather than in the alleyway beside their home in Puerto Rico. That alley is where the two Correas first played catch, and where Carlos Jr. hatched his dream.
"I want to play in the big leagues," he told his father when he was 5.
And now? Carlos Jr. is walking into a Denny's in Lancaster, a blue-collar town in the middle of a desert, the next stop on the journey to his dream. He is telling his father about the day ahead: breakfast first, weights at 11:30, then another ballgame tonight.
"Keep putting in good at-bats, keep playing defense," his father tells him. Correa, as always, promises he will.
"He worked like two, three jobs, worked construction," Correa said. "He'd be tired and I'd be like, 'Let's go to the ballpark.' And he never said no. He was always there for me."
Correa comes here to the Denny's every morning and orders the same thing: an egg-white vegetable omelet, side of fruit, side of seven-grain French toast. His orange juice arrives at the table before he has to ask.
"Generous tipper, great guy," the manager, a man by the name of Saint Martinez, said after Correa leaves the restaurant. "And you know what? He leaves me tickets to every home game for me and my kids. Every home game, if I go to will call, I have tickets. I'm a single parent, I raise my kids, and they love baseball and they became fans of him."* * * * *
A few miles away -- just off the freeway and down the road from a state prison -- rests the modest 4,600-seat ballpark named The Hangar. And, according to Baseball America, it's home to the most talented team in the Minor Leagues.
"It's a once-in-a-generation team," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said of the Lancaster JetHawks. "In my 11, 12 years of baseball, I have not seen a Minor League team with that much talent. ... They're going to look back 10 years from now and it's going to be a staggeringly high number of these young men that are in the big leagues and having good careers."
"It's a different group, man," said JetHawks manager Rodney Linares. "The amount of talent and upside in terms of big league potential? I've never seen anything put together like it."
And in separate conversations, Linares and Luhnow meet again when it comes to Correa.
Linares: "Defensively, he's ready. He makes plays that I have a tough time explaining to my bosses. He brings a lot of energy to the field, he's a leader."
Luhnow: "Natural-born leader. People want to follow him. In Spring Training, he addressed the team as we were getting our rings for the Quad Cities championship last year."
Linares: "He stood up and asked, 'Can I say a couple words?' And when he started talking -- actually, I'm getting goose bumps [right now]. I was like, 'I'm going to get this kid this year?'"
The Speech. It happened before the start of this season, with Luhnow gathering various members of Astros' organization to honor the Quad Cities River Bandits, the team's Class A affiliate that, with the help of Correa's .320 batting average in his first full pro season, won the Midwest League last year. It was a low-key ring ceremony, until Correa, one of the youngest guys in a crowded room, stood up and made it into something bigger:
"I want to talk to the players. When I went back to Puerto Rico in the offseason, everywhere I went, everywhere I go, I talk about this team. I talk about this team because the chemistry, the atmosphere in the clubhouse was incredible. ... You guys were my family. ... And when we got to the playoffs ... I got to the ballpark and looked at you guys, and I was like, 'We're going to win this for sure.' And we did. We did because we wanted it. So what I want to bring with this is, that's how you create championship teams, from the bottom to the big league level. ... If you guys keep the same atmosphere and the same dedication to each other, picking up each other, that's how we're going to create our organization." * * * * *
Correa is in a hotel lobby, hopefully looking into his future. He's watching the day's big league highlights on TV, something he does every night before going to bed, and the Astros' game pops onto the screen, unfolding alongside the play-by-play call of television announcer Bill Brown.
"High drive! That's gonna tie it! George Springer hit a rocket! No. 3 of his Major League career and it left in about 1.2 seconds!"
"Oh my God," Correa said at the sight of the home run, the ball crashing into the stone facade behind the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park.
Springer was in Lancaster two seasons ago, playing in the ballpark across the street.
"And before, when people asked me who the best player I've ever coached is, I would say 'George Springer,'" Linares said a few hours earlier.
Now, he said, it's Correa, whose eyes remain on the TV.
"... Dominguez with a deep drive to right-center field, Rios way back ... That's gonna win it! Off the wall and Fowler will come home to give the Astros a 5-4 win on a game-winner!"
On screen, Springer and the Astros are shown dancing across the infield, mobbing Dominguez.
On a hotel couch, Correa grins.
"That is nice," he said.
"I feel like I want to be a part of that team. I want to be part of those wins. I just want to make the Astros better."
And when Correa is asked if the world on that screen feels far away, he said, "No, it doesn't, actually. A couple years ago, Altuve was in this league, and now he's in the big leagues. I just got to keep working and get better every single day to one day be out there."
Josh Gajewski is a contributor to MLB.com.