Carlos Rivera knows it's no coincidence that seemingly every baseball coach he's ever played for describes him as a natural on the field.
The baseball diamond, after all, is the only consistent home he's known.
"It's where I feel the most comfortable," Rivera said. "I've been playing baseball since I was like 2 years old. With my granddad, everything was baseball. And so wherever I moved, baseball was always the first thing I was a part of."
His playing days started in Puerto Rico, where Rivera lived with his grandparents until just before his freshman year of high school. He then moved to the United States, joining his mother in Virginia and enrolling at South Lakes High School in Reston. Two years and two baseball seasons later, he moved again, this time to live with his father in Chicago.
"Because I played sports, the moving wasn't as hard," said Rivera, who did not speak English fluently before arriving in the States. "Baseball got me involved right away."
He returned just over a year later to again be with his mother, and enrolled at Stone Bridge in the second semester of 2003 -- just in time to try out for the Bulldogs.
"He came in a few days late, and we were practicing inside," Stone Bridge Coach Sam Plank said. "He took a few cuts that day, and I could tell right away this guy was a stud. You could definitely see he had baseball instincts. Guys like Carlos don't come around very often. You could just tell he was a player from the first five minutes of watching him."
Rivera earned All-Extra and second-team All-Met honors that season, batting .448 with 13 extra-base hits, 12 steals and 20 RBI. He also went 5-1 in his first season pitching with a 2.09 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 54 innings pitched.
His first season with the Bulldogs was also his last, however, since he had no more public school eligibility under Virginia High School League rules. But because Rivera had not yet acquired enough credits to graduate -- he spent his first two years in the States enrolled in English as a Second Language courses -- he transferred to nearby Notre Dame Academy. His intention was to hone his baseball skills for two more years while earning his high school diploma.
This spring, that plan changed.
Rivera was outstanding with the Dragons, batting .399 with a school-record 14 home runs and 62 RBI as the team won the Virginia Independent School Division 2 championship. The left-hander also earned a 10-1 record on the mound with a 1.65 ERA and drew increased interest from college scouts.
"He ranks up there, talent and ability-wise, with some of the best players I've coached at Notre Dame," said Coach Mike Lockhart, who has had 11 players sign collegiate scholarships in his first three years there. "But as a baseball player, he's probably the best I've had. His instincts are amazing. It's like he knows it's going to happen before it does.
"Carlos is a very loose player. Not a whole lot bothers Carlos, and in baseball the more relaxed you can be, the better off you're going to be. It's a gift."
In an effort to jump to the college ranks this fall instead of returning to Notre Dame, Rivera enrolled in a summer English class at Heritage. He will graduate with a diploma from Stone Bridge if he successfully completes the class.
"If it wasn't for my grades, I know I'd probably already be playing somewhere," Rivera said. "But I had trouble in classes like English and history where I had to write papers. And if I didn't know how to do it then, I'd get frustrated and lazy and not do it at all. That was my problem. Classes like math that I understood, I did fine.
"But this time, I know I don't have a choice. I'm doing all of the work, making sure that everything else is second to this class. I've worried so long about whether or not I'd be able to go to college, that I'm not going to mess it up now."
Rivera said he will not even let his games with the American Legion Middleburg Post 34 get in the way of his summer studies, though so far the team's late-night games have allowed him plenty of time for school, rest, homework and then baseball.
"I've been so concerned about him being able to continue playing baseball after this year, that I think what he's doing now is great," Middleburg Coach Glenn Deans said. "He really does need special attention for school. But whoever ends up getting him will also be getting a special baseball player. Carlos is what we call a gamer. He'll go until his tank is empty, every time out. He wants to pitch when the game is on the line, and he always wants to have the last at-bat."
Rivera, who will likely play solely in the outfield at the next level, is currently exploring his options with two of the nation's top junior colleges -- Potomac State College in West Virginia and Louisburg College in North Carolina. Potomac State has won the Division I Region XX championship four of the past five seasons; Louisburg has advanced to the NJCAA World Series nine times since 1971 and has had 40 players sign professional baseball contracts, including 12 who played in the major leagues.
Rivera's dream is to one day make it there himself.
"I know what I can do on the field," Rivera said. "Baseball is what I do. I love everything about it. I play all the time and never get tired of it. That's why I was so worried when my grades were bad, because I can't even imagine not playing. Baseball has always been my life. I don't even care where it is I end up. . . . I just want to be playing."