TEN MILES OUTSIDE BAXLEY, Ga. – The future of baseball lives on a dirt road so far out in the Georgia countryside that cell phones don't work.
The local high school is 10 miles away. The gnats are so thick you can grab them by the handful. And the heat enfolds you like a warm, wet wool sweater over your face. This is Baxley, Ga., a town that's about to earn a new identity: Home of Byron Buxton.
You don't yet know Buxton – "Buck" to everybody, including his parents – but chances are you will soon. Here's the shorthand version: A preternaturally talented ballplayer, he's less than a week removed from leading the Appling County High School Pirates to the Class AA state championship. Although his future as a pro is as an outfielder, he pitched an 18-strikeout complete game, the crowning achievement in a spectacular senior season that saw him rise from local schoolboy hero to burgeoning nationwide figure. He's the middle child of a loving family, hero to a hundred local kids, a charming and poised young man without a tinge of SportsCenter-enabled attitude. And he was just drafted second overall by the Minnesota Twins on Monday.
In short, Buck's the kind of real-world "Friday Night Lights" story that's not supposed to exist in 2012. And as much as you might root for him on the field, you hope even more that he and everyone around him can hold onto what got him this far.
All the best stories start with foreshadowing, a hint of future promise. Think a young Paul McCartney trading in his trumpet for a new guitar, or 2-year-old Tiger Woods hitting golf balls on the "Mike Douglas Show." For Felton Buxton, that moment came when his Sunday-afternoon softball team was a man short, so they posted Felton's 4-year-old son Byron out in right field.
"He was out there for awhile, mostly just leaning on the fence and throwing in the ball if it came to him," Felton Buxton says. "But one day someone poked one out there at him. He caught it. Threw it right back in." His tone is gentle yet proud, a hint of disbelief still in his voice.
From such beginnings, the Appling County youth sports world didn't stand a chance. Buxton began playing tee-ball at age 6, quickly moving up to where he was playing against kids two years older than him. By the time he was 9, he'd hit his first home run out of the park. By the time he was in 8th grade, he was starting a football run that would see him play everything from quarterback to cornerback to punter. And just before his senior year of high school, he put himself on the baseball world's radar.
[Jeff Passan: As a show, the MLB draft is amateur hour]
One of 36 players invited to the East Coast Professional Baseball Showcase, Buxton put on a virtuoso performance at Wrigley Field. He legged out infield hits, stole bases like the defense was asleep, and belted a home run that reached the upper row of the left-field bleachers at the famed ballpark.
"That made me see where I was at," Buxton says. "It made me play better, it made me focus more and work harder to succeed."
In what sounds like the start of a Dr. Seuss rhyme, Buxton returned to Baxley, and the scouts, they followed soon after. Notepads and radar guns and intermittent-signal cell phones in hand, they liked what they saw, and they kept coming back.
"At the first of the year, every organization sent somebody," says Appling baseball coach Jeremy Smith. "It wasn't long before all but four teams dropped out. 'We have no shot,' they told me. From there, the top teams were at every game."
"We could usually pick them out pretty easily," laughs Stephanie Eason, owner of the Southern Grill, a barbecue restaurant near the high school. "The guy from the Astros was down here so much he got to know my kids. He told them he'd be back for them too."
It's Saturday afternoon, the exact midpoint between the greatest moment of Buxton's high school career and the most important day of his life. And he's still spending it exactly the way any other just-graduated high schooler would – eating McDonald's, throwing a football with two friends in his front yard, either blissfully unaware of or willfully ignoring the fact that these moments are about to come to an end. In 48 hours, he'd be drafted by the Twins, they'll offer him a phenomenal contract, and from there he'll launch away from Baxley, away from this yard and these friends. He'll be back, but it won't ever be the same as it is right now.
This year, he hit .513 and went 10-0 from the mound, reeling off classic pitching performances like the one that won Appling the state crown. But such stats can be deceiving; it's not difficult, relatively speaking, to put up Hall-of-Fame numbers against prom kings. Buxton also excels by objective standards like speed and strength. His fastball has been clocked as high as 99 mph, and scouts have gushed that he's the fastest out of the batter's box since Bo Jackson.
"I would love to be Byron Buxton for just one day," says J.T. Pollock, Appling's athletic director and head football coach. "I'd go to the baseball field and hit balls 400 feet. Then I'd throw lasers in from the outfield, and get on the pitcher's mound and throw 94, 95 mph. Then I'd go to the football field and run a 4.38 40, I'd kick 60-yard punts and throw the ball 75, 80 yards. Then I'd go to the basketball court and see how many different ways I could dunk. Everything he does, he does well."
But it's not just physical supremacy that's put Buxton on the national map. There's the little matter of his work ethic, too. He works out at least six days a week, rising at 5 a.m. to run two miles before school. He maintained a B average and earned an acceptance from his "dream school," the University of Georgia. He still wants to go to college and get his degree, but allowed that he may wait a bit; a few zeroes may be enticing him away from Athens. (He'd join an illustrious list of ballplayers that picked the pros over the Dawgs, including Scott Rolen, Jayson Werth, Brandon Phillips and John Rocker.)
If he's even slightly nervous over what's about to happen, he does a fine job of hiding it. He speaks with a deliberate cadence, thinking through his thoughts before speaking of matters like his recent championship. "It was a bittersweet moment," he says. "We won the championship. But it's the last time we'll all play on the same team."
Buck is physically ready to take the next step up the baseball ladder. And his low-key, team-first demeanor suggests he's got the right mindset too. But what about the intangible elements of superstardom? Felton Buxton is a trucker – his Iceman Trucking rig sits out in the yard – and Buck's mother Carrie runs a day care center out of their home. Are Buck and his family ready for how their world is about to change, phenomenally and forever? Here's where it gets a little scary.
"We don't know what's going to happen next," Felton Buxton says. "We're just thankful he didn't get hurt. When he got the last out of that championship, it was like a burden off us."
But did they insure his seven-figure talent against that possibility? "No," Felton says, "we prayed. We put our trust in God." That trust paid off; you hope that whoever the Buxton family now trusts with their son's financial and career future delivers like the Almighty.
Still, no matter where Buck ends up, he'll always have deep ties to Baxley. On draft night, several hundred friends and neighbors gathered at a local school to join in Buck's biggest moment. They all sported freshly made T-shirts with his high school team photo on the front and "2012 MLB Draft" on the back. When MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced Buxton's selection, the crowd's cheers pinned the needle; only Buxton himself, in the center of it all, remained calm and contained.
"It's an exciting feeling," he told MLB Network's Harold Reynolds after the selection. "I'm a Twin now. I'm ready to go play ball."
"Byron is what everyone hopes and prays their son will be," says Eason, whose restaurant boasts a "Pirate Baseball: We Got This" banner outside the front door. "He's the perfect gentleman, the perfect example for younger kids. If a kid from a small town like this can get noticed … he's every boy in this county's hero."
If all this sounds a little too good to believe, maybe it is. Or maybe we're just conditioned to look for the flaws, the red flags, the secret drama. Maybe, even in 2012, a kid still can rise to greatness from the middle of nowhere.
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