big league dreams

Two Stoneman Douglas grads begin their pro baseball journey

By Michelle F. Solomon

They are the ultimate boys of summer—two 2016 graduates of Stoneman Douglas High School. Colton Welker and Jesus Luzardo were selected in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft in June—Welker by the Colorado Rockies and Luzardo by the Washington Nationals. Both 18 years old, they bypassed substantial scholarship offers from the University of Miami, a tough choice for both the boys and their parents.

Jesus Luzardo Sr. says he and his wife, Monica, agreed to support their son’s dream to play professional baseball. “He has made a commitment to us that he’s going to complete his college education,” says the elder Luzardo. “Not necessarily right now or in the short term, but he’s going to start taking some online classes.” Likewise, Welker’s mother, Jennifer, says it was difficult for her because her son had received a scholarship offer from UM when he was 16.

Welker and Luzardo grew up about a mile apart in Parkland and first started playing together when they were 8 with the Parkland Pokers. As they got older, Luzardo says, they would joke about being drafted. “We would have conversations about what we would do—go pro or go to UM,” he says. When it came time to chart a course, however, “we made our decisions separately, but we both ultimately decided to make the same choice.”

On draft day, both families watched the announcements on television at home.

Luzardo got a call from his agent that Washington was going to pick him in the third round, the 94th overall pick, and a few minutes later, the announcement was made.

“I didn’t have a clue that they were going to pick me until that morning,” says Luzardo, a left-handed pitcher who injured the elbow on his throwing arm and had surgery in March. He’s now in Viera, near Melbourne, where the Nationals hold spring training. “I haven’t done much yet with the team,” he says. “I’m mostly in rehab for my injury.” His father says he’s expected to start throwing again this month.

Welker, a shortstop, was taken in the fourth round, 110th overall, and had to report to Grand Junction, Colo. “He was drafted on a Friday morning and we had to fly to Colorado on Wednesday,” Jennifer says. “He’s living the dream and loving it.”

Welker’s father, Dale, died in 2007, and Jennifer says life for her and her son became about baseball. “Before my husband passed away, he told me that Colton was special. ‘He’s got something that’s raw talent.’ And I promised him I’d keep Colton in the game. Being a lover of sports myself, it became part of our daily routine, and it became my whole life.”

With her son gone, Jennifer says she has only her two English bulldogs at home. “Thankfully, I have work and the gym and friends in the area, but it has been tough,” she says.

Welker says he already has bonded with other players, including Stoneman Douglas graduate John Valek III, a pitcher from Louisiana State University who signed a free-agent contract with the Rockies this season.

For both players, growing up in Parkland was instrumental in their path toward pro baseball. “The coaches at Stoneman Douglas really got me prepared for this. They got me ready for the big leagues,” says Welker, who acknowledges he still must “climb up the ladder” to get to his ultimate goal of playing in the big leagues.

“There are a lot of competitive sports teams in South Florida, and living in Parkland put me in touch with that,” Luzardo says, adding that baseball is part of his DNA. His mother and father are from Venezuela, where the elder Luzardo says he played baseball until his early college days. “All of our family from both sides are baseball fans,” he says.

The younger Luzardo says he always admired Venezuelan major-leaguer Johan Santana, who pitched for the Minnesota Twins and the New York Mets from 2000 to 2012 and won the Cy Young Award twice (in 2004 and 2006, with the Twins).

Luzardo hopes to create his own major-league history. He was born in Peru, where his family lived for his father’s job before coming to the United States and settling in Parkland. Major League Baseball records show no Peruvian-born players in the big leagues.

“Loving the game of baseball is in my blood, but being a professional baseball player, I credit it to hard work and the support of my family,” Luzardo says. His advice for younger kids who have a dream of being a major-leaguer? “Always work hard in the shadows when no one is watching, because it will eventually pay off.” ?

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