ST. LOUIS – One day, he wants to go into space. Brian Barton turned 26 earlier this week, and though the astronaut dream tends to die about the time hormones bloom and adolescence rages, Barton never could abandon it.
"The sky's the limit," he likes to say, and in this instance, he does so standing in front of his locker in the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse. He takes the cliché literally and figuratively, the former in his desire to float in the atmosphere and the latter in the career he has carved out in the meantime.
The sky? It's for the African-American kid from South Los Angeles who grew up surrounded by basketball, football and everything but baseball. The one who didn't get drafted out of the University of Miami after a productive college career because teams were worried that he was going to finish his degree in aerospace engineering and hook on with Boeing, where he interned, or perhaps NASA. The one who later signed with the Cleveland Indians for $100,000, put up gaudy numbers at every level and still couldn't crack the 40-man roster because they worried about knee surgery he had last fall.
Left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, Barton fell to the Cardinals, manna in the form of a 6-foot-3, 190-pound outfielder with pop, speed and, best of all, brains. He has settled in as their fifth outfielder, though he has played plenty in manager Tony La Russa's mix-and-match scheme. He's batting .324, scored four runs and driven in four in 37 at-bats.
And though teams coveted Barton for his tools, he sees something else paramount to his early success.
"My strongest asset is mental," Barton said. "I work on being patient and always being ready, and you have to be in this role.
"I like to invest in knowledge. Anything that can help me learn about different people, different things. That's what drives a lot of what I do and why people may think things I do are out of the ordinary. You can't take away things you know."
That ethos guides Barton in and away from baseball. He started college at Loyola Marymount in L.A. on an academic scholarship but transferred to Miami for its blend of academics and athletics. Once there, the travel bug bit, and between his junior and senior years, Barton took a solo sojourn to the place that seemed most foreign to him. There's no point in traveling, he figured, unless it delivers a good jolt to your senses.
Ethiopia it was. A professor of Barton's had a friend who helped him find a hotel. Barton tried to learn some Amharic. He spent two weeks walking around, trying his best to blend in, though the mini-Afro he sported at the time gave him away.
"I wanted to go out there and see if I could do it, and I did," Barton said. "I had gotten over the hump. So, where next?"
Europe. Check. The Caribbean. Check. Barton had to temper his wanderlust last offseason because he took a few courses at Miami. His goal is to visit every country in the world. He's got 190 or so to go.
"I'm about 10 deep," Barton said. "This offseason I'll do a few. Hopefully, I live a long enough life to do it."
Keeping a spot in the big leagues can certainly fund such journeys. Most Rule 5 picks end up returned to the teams from which they were selected, and those who stick generally do so in small roles. Johan Santana bided his time in mop-up duty for Minnesota before later spending half a season in the minor leagues to hone his game.
Barton is an exception. The Cardinals look brilliant for picking him and have plans for him. Had left fielder Skip Schumaker not gotten off to such a great start, Barton would be getting more at-bats.
"He's earned his roster spot, which is the best compliment I can give him," La Russa said. "Sometimes you take a Rule 5 guy and you're investing in the future as long as he can hold his own, but he's made this club. He did it in spring training, and he continues to do it by his play."
Last week, Barton pinch hit in the ninth inning of a tie game against Houston and drew a leadoff walk that contributed to the winning run. Two days earlier, he stroked two hits, drove in two runs and pushed the Cardinals ahead in a victory against Pittsburgh.
For now, this baseball racket is working just fine. Barton has one semester of classes remaining, and the only time Miami offers them is during the season. So the degree can wait.
"It doesn't mean sometime later in his career he can't pursue the other," said La Russa, who is familiar with potential second careers, having earned his juris doctorate in the offseason when he was a player. He went into managing instead of law, aware that such opportunities are scarce, and knows Barton faces the same decision.
"This is the only time he can pursue this one."
Ah, but what if? What if NASA called tomorrow and told him the next time the shuttle took off, he'd be on it? What if he needed to answer his ultimate hypothetical?
"If I had an opportunity to go, man, I'd want to go," Barton said. "If it came down to baseball or that, it'd be a hard decision. Good thing I'm not in that position."
No. Barton's in one, for now, that's plenty good, one that rivals where he'd be had he taken the other road. Flying high in the sky.