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Timberjacks greet A's third-round pick

He's from a Caribbean island, but Jorge Soto didn't grow up in poverty.

Baseball was his desire, not his escape.

His parents weren't destitute. He didn't play stickball, using milk cartons for gloves.

Unlike Haiti or the Dominican Republic, his native Puerto Rico wasn't awash in deprivation.

It's a lot better (economically) there, says Soto, the Oakland Athletics' third-round selection in last week's free agent draft. We get support from the United States; that's what keeps us going.

Soto, a slugging first baseman out of Troy State University, grew up in Patillas, a town of 28,000, surrounded by mountains and not far from the beach.

It was a lot like here, he says, nodding toward Medford's east hills before Southern Oregon's Friday afternoon workout. But this is a bigger town.

His baseball idol was Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rican who died in a plane crash delivering relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua a half-dozen years before Soto was born.

My dad had a lot of videos and books about him that I read, Soto says. Other than Mom, Dad and God, I think he had the biggest impact _ just the way he was and his character.

Soto's father is a chemical engineer and his mother teaches math.

The elder Soto played baseball in his youth, but put the books ahead of bats, balls and gloves.

It was hard for him to quit, but he had the brains and went ahead with his studies, Soto says. With baseball, you never know.

When the Florida Marlins drafted Soto in the 65th round of the 1996 draft, there wasn't a lot of jumping up and down in the Soto household.

It was thanks, but no thanks.

My dad said, `You know you're a better ballplayer than that, so go prove it in college,' Soto says, and I did.

Florida junior colleges wanted him and a few big-time schools were willing to give him partial scholarships. But Troy State coach John Mayotte thought the young catcher was worth more and signed Soto for an 80 percent scholarship.

I didn't care where I had to go, Soto says. I just wanted to play at a Division I school.

It wasn't the likes of perennial powers Miami, LSU or Oklahoma State, but it was Division I and Soto figured he could make his mark in Troy, Ala., as well as anywhere.

If you hit 'em, the scouts will be there and say, `That kid can play,' Soto says.

For the past three years, Soto has been hitting them at Troy State, twice snapping school single-season home run and RBI records, while piling up 65 career home runs and 197 RBIs.

He hit 26 home runs this spring to go with a .722 slugging percentage. His home run total led the Trans America Athletic Conference and ranked 10th nationally.

The records came after he discovered Troy's weight room.

I was a little, short, stocky kid who had power, says the 6-footer. Weight lifting turned me around; it's my ritual now. I lost all my baby fat. I weighed 215 when I got there and now I'm 210, 215. But it's a lot different 215.

That bulk and the high-arcing home run blasts earn a great deal of respect from opposing pitchers. Soto walked 65 times in 59 games this spring. The next highest on the team was 36.

They won't be pitching him the same (in the NWL) as they were in college, Mayotte says. Everything was a breaking ball, a perfect pitch. (Pro pitchers) will challenge him more and go right at him.

Not only did Soto hit the ball, but he found his way into Alabaman hearts.

Everybody in town reveres the kid, Mayotte says. He's special, but not a big shot. He loves signing balls and hats for kids and doing anything can. He's a real quality person in every respect.

He comes from a professional, well-educated, articulate family that has its priorities in order. He's got a goal in mind and went to work on it.