Volume 76, Number 51 | May 16 -22, 2007

Sports

Loisaida ‘Little Unit’ is hurling heat for Yankees

By Judith Stiles

To have a heart-to-heart talk with young Dellin Betances or to just look him in the eye, a stepladder would come in handy, because this 19-year-old baseball pitcher from New York City stands a whopping 6-foot-9-inches tall, without his cleats on. He has been affectionately nicknamed the “Baby Unit,” a reference to “The Big Unit,” Randy Johnson, the Hall of Fame-bound southpaw, because on a good day, Betances, a righty, throws heat up to 97 miles per hour, averaging around 93 to 94 miles per hour.

Better than winning the lottery, at 18 years old, Betances agreed to a $1 million signing bonus with his favorite team, the New York Yankees. During the draft, he had been sitting around at the home of Mel Zitter, his Youth Service League coach, when his older brother, Anthony, called to him from the other room, “You’ve been drafted by the Yankees!” Anthony had been feverishly following Draft Tracker on MLB.com when the notice came up that Betances was drafted in the eighth round, the 254th pick over all.

Betances survived the pressure of being extensively scouted while he was in high school and when he played for Youth Service League in Brooklyn. Packs of scouts analyzed his every move. He often pitched toward 30 radar guns parked behind home plate, all aimed at him.

Betances, who hails from Avenue D, is quick to point out that, like Manny Ramirez, he was born in Washington Heights and played baseball in the well-known Youth Service League that seems to have a knack for developing talent. As a pitcher on the Grand Street Campus High School baseball team, in Brooklyn, in 412/3 innings, he allowed just 11 hits and a single earned run, walking just 23. He was so successful in leading Grand Street Campus to the Public School Athletic League semifinals that he became the first player ever to be selected from New York City to play in the AFLAC All-American High School Baseball Classic.

Because of signing a minor league contract with the Yankees, Betances leapfrogged over academia and what might have been four years at Vanderbilt University. It was rumored that in order to get his signing figure up, he threatened to go to college for four years instead of signing with any team. However, in 2006 scouts began to question a so-called inconsistent pitching velocity, which later explained his being drafted in the eighth round.

All of that is behind him now, and he is happily ensconced in Tampa, Florida, working through a rigorous extended spring-training program in the Yankees system. He works hard six days a week, about six hours a day, starting each morning at 7 a.m. He eats a big daily breakfast of oatmeal, a ham-and-cheese omelet and apple juice, and then goes to work on his delivery with a pitching coach, usually Gil Patterson. Then he stretches with the team, followed by a throwing program in which he works on pitching with 15 other pitchers in the same program.

“A typical lunch is a ham-and-cheese sandwich, sometimes peanut butter and jelly, or a Subway sandwich, nothing unusual,” said Betances, admitting he sometimes misses the food in New York.

In the afternoon, the team plays a game where he pitches for about four innings. His favorite pitch is the four-seam fastball and he also likes the change-up. He uses an Akadema glove, which has always been his favorite, dating back to high school.

Young Betances attributes his success to his loving, supportive family, especially his mother, Maria, his father, Jaime, and his brother, Anthony, who are fielding questions about the rising star from their home on Avenue D. He thanks Anthony for teaching him the value of working hard toward his goals, and also telling him to quit high school basketball when he got two teeth knocked out. The basketball team’s big loss was the Yankees’ gain.

David McWater, founder of the L.E.S. Gauchos baseball organization, said when he started the Gauchos in 2002, all the young players in the neighborhood were raving about Betances.

“He was a schoolboy legend down here,” said McWater.

Rafael Roman, commissioner of the Felix Milan Little League, said Betances was a quiet — and just normal-sized — kid when he played with them on the East River Park ball fields on the F.D.R. Drive. Roman said he thinks it’s good for Betances to get out of the city and into, hopefully, a healthier environment.

“If he sticks with it, he can make it,” Roman said. “If he stays out of the street, he can make it. He has a very good head on his shoulders, and he can make it if he puts 110 percent into it.”

Hopefully, young Betances will remember his older brother’s and Roman’s advice as he makes his way through the Yankees system. Anthony tells him all the time to work hard, try and have fun and try to “be the best that you can be.” Hopefully, the Loisaida Baby Unit will make it to the mound at Yankee Stadium someday soon.


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