AT ROBERTO CLEMENTE Community Academy on the border of Humboldt Park, conversations are peppered with baseball. Playing and talking about the sport has been a way of life in the Latino community here for decades. But in recent years, talent has fled to more academically strong high schools. Discipline problems have sidelined other players with promise.

But this year, the high-school sports world is abuzz again about Clemente. Three baseball players there have signed to Division I colleges, the highest number since 1979. Rafael Garcia, considered by professional scouts as the best shortstop in the state, and Devin Melecio, a center fielder, will play for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Meanwhile, Garcia's cousin Marvin Sanchez will head to Northern Illinois.

There are several reasons for the good news: Three years ago, Clemente's assistant head coach, Chris Hall, instituted a mandatory 2.5 GPA and ordered players to wear a tie on game days. "We've had too many problem kids," Hall says. "It's an issue we had to address."

But the three players also benefited from the attention of Nelson Perez, who didn't even make the baseball team when he attended Clemente in the 1980s. After playing softball in the army, he started working for Chicago Public Schools and, influenced by  the legendary Clemente coach Rich Tomoleoni, began coaching little league on the side. 

There he met three young standouts: Melecio was a speedy leadoff man; Garcia, a "string bean" with a great throwing arm; and Sanchez, a versatile base-stealing switch hitter. By junior high, the trio were working out with Perez four days a week. "Nelson pushed us hard," Sanchez recalls.

"You could see they loved the sport so much and they had the determination that kids have from this neighborhood," says Perez.

His concern for the neighborhood's vitality is shared by the players, particularly Garcia, who accepted a scholarship from UIC over offers from Missouri and Kentucky. "It's been my goal to play near my home and my family," he says.

With any luck, the Clemente tradition will continue after the trio move on. Recently, Perez asked the school if he could coach the sophomore team permanently-his "dream job." His first game was to be March 22nd against Glenbrook South.