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Yan perfect fit (0.00) for Rays

He comes from San Pedro de Macoris, a poor town in the Dominican Republic with a wealth of baseball talent.

Esteban Yan was a kid outfielder/catcher who never pitched until he was 17. A few months later, still far too lean at 165 pounds, he signed a U.S. professional contract.

Maturity would come.

Plus some good eating.

Now, as a 23-year-old Devil Rays rookie, an intriguing 235-pound Yan has ample high-velocity talent. Radar clockings in the mid-90s. Esteban is still a bit raw. Just wild enough to make batters gulp.

"He has a chance to be an outstanding reliever," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "It's remarkable what good nutrition and working with weights can accomplish. Hard to believe this is the skinny Yan we saw as a teenager when I was with the Atlanta Braves organization."

After three years in the low minors, Yan became a Baltimore Orioles property. Last season, pitching for Triple-A Rochester, he had an 11-5 record (3.10 earned-run average) with 131 strikeouts in 119 innings.

Then came the expansion draft. Each major-league franchise was allowed to protect 15 players as Tampa Bay and Arizona stocked rosters. At first, Yan was on Baltimore's sheltered list.

Rafael Palmeiro, a $6-million first baseman, was to be unprotected. O's personnel experts figured neither the D-Rays or D-Backs would take such a plunge, especially with Palmeiro headed for 1999 free agency. But just before the draft, Baltimore owner Peter Angelos demanded Rafie's name be included. Yan became available. LaMar grabbed him.

Yan has a 2-0 record. In 12 innings of relief, he has been more impressive than $4-million closer Roberto Hernandez. Allowing just one hit with 10 strikeouts and a still-unflawed ERA (0.00).

With assistance from an interpreter, I had a Monday conversation with Esteban. We talked about his hometown, a cradle for baseball phenoms, especially shortstops.

Yan characterized his dad, Manuel Luis, as "a hustler who works at no one job." Four of 10 children still are at home in San Pedro de Macoris, where the housing norm is rickety hutches. Many have no indoor plumbing.

"It's always been a rough life," said the now-husky major leaguer. "My father still sends money to two (adult) daughters." Esteban sends part of every paycheck to his dad.

In many Dominican Republic families, it is traditional for children to quit school at 11 or 12 to begin generating income. Yan's dad wouldn't have that. "He wanted us to go to school and play baseball," Esteban said. Even so, his last classes were at age 14.

Baseball is as much religion as game in the country that shares an island with Haiti. Everywhere, there are dusty fields with young boys working diligently on baseball skills. Often they have no shoes.

Esteban began playing at 6 or 7, "using a homemade cloth ball." Tree branches and assorted planks were used as bats. "For gloves," he said, "we had little cardboard boxes."

Yan watched no U.S. baseball on TV. He paid no attention to the American big time "until I signed to play as a professional in the United States."

A team from Japan, the Hiroshima Carp, has a baseball academy in San Pedro de Macoris. Gifted boys are flown from Tokyo to polish skills. Yan played against the Japanese. One fateful day, a Dominican coach named Bunny Castillo suggested Esteban had the physique of a pitcher.

Immediately, the possibilities were eye-catching. "I had only a fastball," Yan recalled.

But there was talk of signing him to play in Japan. A bird-dog scout for the Braves, a fellow Esteban remembers only as "Papi," made a successful plea to Pedro Gonzalez, coordinator of Atlanta's operations in the Caribbean.

Yan came to the United States. Began eating better. Taking vitamins. His body broadened. Fastball dramatically quickened. Less than a year after throwing his first pitch, Esteban began climbing the U.S. baseball ladder. In another twist of fate, there was an unexpected late-1997 step to the Devil Rays.