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(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

Three years ago, Daniel Mota was a skinny 16-year-old, playing hardball on a rocky, sunbaked field. His family was poor, much like everyone else in the small Dominican Republic town of La Romana.

Mota had quit high school. In a year or two, if he was lucky, Mota would get a job building houses or hauling building materials. But he had another future in mind.

He wanted to be a big league ballplayer.

Victor Mata gets paid to roam the gritty ball diamonds of the Caribbean island where he was born. There, baseball is more than a pastime. It's a passion. For some, it's also a ticket out of poverty.

Mata, a scout for the New York Yankees, is the guy who can punch that ticket.

Every year, a few hundred Latin American kids like Daniel Mota are signed by American baseball teams. For some, it's the first step in a trip to fame and considerable fortune. For others, it's a few years in the minor leagues, then a plane ride back home.

Some don't go back. Despite strict rules about making sure foreign players are returned home, some refugees from the minor leagues manage to elude team officials after they are released. Many end up in the Hispanic ghettos of New York City, sweeping floors or running drugs. Most still dream of getting one more shot at the big leagues.

Young men like Daniel Mota don't know much about guys who don't make it. They see the guys who do.

"I know some big leaguers. I've seen them when they come back home," he says.

Seen their big cars and nice houses. Seen the way people treat them.

Some played their boyhood games on the same rough turf where Mota was playing when Victor Mata saw him.

When he scouted him three years ago, Mata thought Daniel was a kid with a good fastball, but that was about it. Still, Mata got that feeling he gets in his gut when he sees a prospect with potential.

So he talked to the boy's mother. He wanted her son to sign with the Yankees. Mata offered Daniel a small piece of his dream:

A bonus of a few thousand dollars and a contract with the Yankees.

Mota signed on the dotted line. Three years later, he is still living the dream.

He's played in the Dominican league and in the Yankee rookie league in Greensboro, S.C., and Oneonta, N.Y.

This spring, he's in Tampa, at the Yankees rookie league complex near Houlihan's Stadium. He sleeps in an American hotel. He eats steak at the team table at Sam Seltzer's Steak House. On his days off, he strolls through a nearby mall. On some weekend nights, he dances at a Latin disco in West Tampa.

But mostly, he plays baseball. He shows up in the morning throwing fastballs on a clay and grass field that is manicured every day. Wednesday, he was pitching the late innings of the first intra-squad game of the spring season.

Victor Mata stood in the shade of a blue awning, behind the chain-link screen, watching Mota throw.

His young prospect's fastball is even faster now. The hand-held radar gun is clocking it at 91 mph. But Mata said the young pitcher still needs work on his breaking ball.

Mota, who came in with two outs, quickly strikes out the big American kid at the plate.

Victor is impressed.

"He's looking good right now," he said.

Also watching is Joe Molloy, the president of the Yankees.

Molloy says big league teams now draw talent from around the world. He knows that players from the poorer countries often come to the United States ill-equipped for life here.

"Some of these kids are coming right off the street. It's a culture shock," he said.

Teams like the Yankees try to ease that transition.

"We teach them about banking. How to open a checking account. We provide English teachers. We house them. Feed them. Pay them a salary."

Molloy knows that most of the young men in pinstripes who crowd the four fields, fill the workout room and batting cages, won't make the big show. But he thinks what they receive is still valuable.

"We believe what we are offering, if they don't make it to the big leagues, is a good experience they can take home with them," Molloy said.

The trick, sometimes, is getting them back home after they are cut from the team.

"Guys will book on you," said Rigo Garcia, a player development executive for the Yankees. "Our rules are very strict. We drive them to the airport and make sure they get on the plane. We watch them close the door."

When American players are released, they often have other options. Most have finished high school. Many turn baseball scholarships into college degrees.

But the Dominican kids like Mota know only one thing _ baseball.

"They've put a lot of heart into it since they were this high," says Garcia, holding his open palm just a few feet off the ground.

D'Angelo Jimenez is one of those kids.

The 19-year-old shortstop says he plays for the love of the game. But he says many kids where he grew up see baseball as "a way out of poverty."

So far, Jimenez is headed in the right direction.

Like most Dominicans, who grow playing on hard, bumpy fields, he's good with his glove. And he can hit.

In his first at bat in the intra-squad he slapped a single to right field.

Afterward, he recalled what Victor Mata and others in the organization told him when he first came to the states.

"Go straight. Look professional. Work hard," he says.

That's what Daniel Mota is doing as he heads back out to the mound. He looked good last inning, but now, he's struggling. He's tagged for two hits and a couple of runs.

Victor Mata watches his prospect sweat and shakes his head.

Will the kid make it or go home with only his memories?

"With baseball, you never know," he says. "You just never know."