NEW YORK – Byron Buxton still mows his lawn. He is 19 years old, and viewed through that prism, this makes sense. On the other hand, Buxton is well on his way to becoming the next Mike Trout and Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig, and it is fairly safe to say none of them will spend a Saturday this offseason on a riding mower.
It is pointed out to Buxton, a centerfielder whom the Minnesota Twins paid $6 million to sign last year, that he is, uh, rich and probably could pay someone to cut the acres of grass at his new house, his old house and his aunt's house – almost eight hours of total mowing. To which he replies, without missing a beat, "I'd rather do it myself."
Buxton's ascent this season reached its largest audience at Sunday's All-Star Futures Game, where he struck out twice and tracked down a rocket shot to deep center from future teammate Miguel Sano. By this time next year, both could well be in the major leagues, and as impressive as Sano's story and game are, Buxton is the likelier player to inherit the mantel of best prospect in the game and the rigors that come with it.
His first taste over the last 48 hours confounded him. This place is so … big. He went to the Empire State Building, though more for admiration than exploration. "Oh, no, I'm scared of heights," Buxton said. "I don't do heights."
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Buxton grew up in Baxley, Ga., off a dirt road with no cell service. Seriously. Such places still exist in America, and they can breed the most amazing talents: 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, long and lithe like Eric Davis when he first arrived in the big leagues, so full of fast-twitch muscle fibers that he has no sense of what he can be – hell, of what he already is, hitting .333/.418/.533 with nine home runs and 35 stolen bases between two Class A levels this season.
"He doesn't know how good he is," said Jack Powell, the Twins scout who signed him. "All this stuff comes so naturally to him, he doesn't realize. He just thinks he's an average guy. He knows he can run fast and throw hard, but he doesn't understand how fast he does run and how hard he does throw. To him, hey, that's just the way my dad taught me to play."
Over his 30-plus years as a scout, Powell has signed big leaguer after big leaguer. Two of his finds will play in Tuesday's All-Star Game: Jose Bautista (in the 20th round) and Matt Moore (in the eighth). Bautista is a two-time home run champion. Moore could win a Cy Young in the near future. Keep that in mind when Powell says the following: "Byron very easily could be the best player I've ever signed."
Powell knows hype can be a dangerous implement. It cuts both ways. With Harper, there was wonderment that a 16-year-old could find himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated, then incredulity when he actually backed it up with his play, then disgust at things as trivial as his eye black, then satisfying denouement at the realization that he really is just a baseball rat whose talent thrust him into a fairly untenable place he handled incredibly well under the circumstances.
Puig is getting the Harper treatment. He spent his first 21 years in inconceivable oppression in Cuba. The instant he arrived in the United States, he was worth more than $40 million. He destroyed pitchers in spring training, then did the same his first month in the big leagues, but he was getting a reputation – as a hothead, someone who liked to party, a punk in the eyes of opponents. If Puig arrived and hit .250 with two home runs, none of this would have mattered. His success was his gift and curse, and it will shape the narrative around him as we learn which of these dichotomies is true.
If there is a good comparison for Buxton, it is Trout, and not just because of their mutually blinding speed and potent bats. Trout has avoided the Harper-Puig nonsense despite being a better player than both, and he does it through another inherent talent: introversion.
Trout somehow manages not to call excessive attention to himself, even with his play. He's just a kid from Jersey, which at least gave him a sense of what New York was like. For Buxton, this was a new universe. It wasn't just the grand scale that weirded him out; it was the walking. He didn't expect it. He didn't know what to expect. This crazy baseball life is about to slug Buxton in the face, and days like this are good for him.
"You really can't prepare yourself," Buxton said. "You've just got to come in and get a grasp of it and take it and run with it. Just have fun and see things you never saw before."
Buxton had no intentions of ever leaving Baxley until his talent stole him from there. "I like the country," he said, and it's why he'll go back this offseason and live in the new house that he bought his parents, drive the F-150 he bought himself. On Sunday nights, he'll leave for Atlanta, where he'll spend the week working out, and on Fridays, he'll return to Baxley. And every other Saturday, he'll fill up the mower with gas and spend his day cutting grass in the blistering Georgia heat.
"I don't have too much else to do," Buxton said, and it doesn't occur to him that he could be inside, relaxing, doing anything, doing nothing. He mows because he always mowed, and he's OK knowing no different.
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