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New crop chases greatness on Hillsborough's Fields of Dreams

In these parts, the growing season never really ends.

It begins in January while much of the country's fields sit empty. By spring, the crop is rooted and growing fast on rich Florida soil until the annual harvest in June.

But even then, the season is still ripe. So a new crop is planted immediately, and the cycle begins again.

Blessed with some of the nation's most fertile Fields of Dreams, Hillsborough County has a tradition of high yield in the annual Major League Baseball amateur draft.

Experts say it's no accident the area continues to produce outstanding talent, including two first-round draft choices over the past three years.

The future, they say, is connected to the past.

"Some of the reasons are obvious, and some aren't," says Jack Hubbard, now the advance scout for the St. Louis Cardinals, but who was a New York Yankees' scout in Florida for nine years.

"Of course, there's the weather. The kids get to play year-round. That leads to great competition, which is another factor.

"But at this time of the year, you have major league players talking to these kids, and working out with them. The kids see these guys and the success they've had, and it gives them an opportunity to see what it takes to get there, and an opportunity to say, "I want that."'

History lesson

Sitting behind home plate, just the way he has for the past 20 years, Billy Reed's modesty is overwhelming.

There's no better place to start tracing the county's storied baseball history than at Hillsborough Field, where Reed has produced six first-round draft choices since joining the school in 1971.

Among the chosen few from Hillsborough are Rich Puig (1971, Mets), Vance Lovelace (1981, Cubs), Dwight Gooden (1982, Mets), Gary Sheffield (1986, Brewers), Keith "Kiki" Jones (1989, Dodgers) and Carl Everett (1990, Yankees).

Also, Hillsborough High has produced more draftees (20) than all but two other schools in the country _ Lakewood (Calif.) High (36) and Los Angeles-Fremont (20).

"It's just been the luck of the draw," said Reed of Hillsborough's success on draft day. "If some other coach would have been here, he'd be the lucky one.

"I don't think any one person can take credit for it. It starts with the area's youth programs. That keeps the kids focused. Then by the time they get to me, we're in business."

In addition to the first-rounders, the list of other area players to make an impact in the majors is just as impressive.

Fred McGriff (who graduated from Jefferson High), Wade Boggs (Plant), Jody Reed (Brandon), Dave Magadan (Jesuit), Floyd Youmans (Hillsborough), Mike Heath (Hillsborough), Tim Crews (King), and Lance McCullers (Tampa Catholic) have all come out of area schools.

"When I was young, I had guys like McCullers and McGriff work out with me and talk to me," said Tino Martinez, another first-round draft pick from Tampa who is expected to stick with the Mariners this year.

"They were always willing to give me tips on how they learned to do things better, or we'd just sit and talk about situations. That kind of interaction was very valuable to me."

This year's crop of talent will also benefit from that interaction, since many of the local major-leaguers practice in the area to prepare for spring training.

"I always come back to Hillsborough and talk to the players and help out as much as I can at this time of year," Sheffield said. "When I was in school, I looked up to guys like Gooden and Lovelace. I had one of the worst attitudes, and I remember Doc (Gooden) talked to me a lot about discipline and helped me out. Naturally, the kids look up to us, and I think they feed off of the success we've had."

Lovelace agreed, and added: "The guys in this area look around and see all the quality players from here, and realize they have a chance of making it. When I was at this level, I needed some help, and that's why I've come back (to Hillsborough) every year since I graduated."

The class of '92

The high school talent coming from Tampa has a distinct advantage because of the area's tradition, coaches and scouts say. With so many quality players coming from the area, attention has been focused on Tampa for quite some time.

"In the last several years, professional people have really started to take a long, hard look at the talent in this area," Hubbard said.

"I know that I was fortunate to be a scout here for the past nine years. I would have never got the opportunity (to be an advance scout, which scouts one series ahead for the Cardinals big-league team) if I hadn't been down here."

Although this year's class is certainly a talented bunch, the group seems to lack a sure-fire No. 1 draft choice. Most of the top players in the Class of '92 appear to be Division I caliber, and many have already signed college scholarships.

"I don't see anybody this year that is a No. 1," said Jefferson coach Pop Cuesta, who has been coaching in the area for 20 years.

"So from that standpoint, the talent may be down a little bit. We'll have some kids go in the lower rounds. And once these kids get into college programs, I think there could be a No. 1 come out of the bunch."

This year's top players include Chad Sheffer (Bloomingdale, who has signed with Florida State), Tommy Phelps (Robinson, USF), Ryan Mason (Chamberlain, USF), Todd Woodaz (King) and Dean Kent (Jesuit).

"Playing professional baseball has always been a dream of mine, and the more I play the more it seems like a realistic dream," Mason said. "Several of my friends have been drafted, so I look at it in very realistic terms, especially with expansion coming up."

King also has talented pitchers in Charlie Morris and Adam Danner, while Jefferson's Ray Ortiz, Jesuit's Troy Kent and Chamberlain's Ken Edmondson are also potential draft picks.

Although many of the top players have already signed, one phone call on draft day could change everything.

"Usually on draft day, I go golfing," Florida State coach Mike Morgan said. "Or if I'm in the College World Series, I try to stay as far away from a television as possible. It's something that I've learned to live with, but that doesn't mean that I have to like it.

"I remember one year, when it was legal, I called Milton Cuiler (who was drafted by Detroit) from the dugout in the World Series to try and keep him, but we lost him anyway.

"With Chad, we've got a young man that we're very excited about. But we're certainly concerned about him on draft day. If he has an outstanding season, he could improve his stock tremendously."

Even though there is no obvious No. 1 this year, Reed says that anything can happen come June.

"The talent may be down a little, but that goes in cycles," Reed said. "There's no definite No. 1, but a kid could emerge. Even with Dwight, we had no idea that he would go that high (in the first round). Same with Carl. It's difficult to project who will be a No. 1 in June."

Tampa Bay's 10 most wanted

Player School Position

Adam Danner King Pitcher

Ken Edmondson Chamberlain Catcher

Dean Kent Jesuit 1B/OF

Troy Kent Jesuit SS/P

Tommy Phelps Robinson P/1B

Jason Leek Bloomingdale Pitcher

Charlie Morris King Pitcher

Ray Ortiz Jefferson P/OF

Chad Sheffer Bloomingdale Shortstop

Todd Woodaz King P/1B/OF