FORT MYERS, FLA.
The ink latticing Byron Buxton’s left arm symbolizes traits sought by the ragtag characters in a famous movie. ¶ The roses on his forearm represent, he says, “heart.” ¶ The lion on his biceps represents “strength, and courage.” ¶ Born in 1993, Buxton didn’t solicit the tattoos to pay homage to a movie made in 1939. ¶ He did it because he wants to become the Wizard of Ahs, which he heard again last week after a year of mostly silence.
Three years after the Twins chose him with the second pick in the draft, two years after becoming the consensus top prospect in baseball, and a year after entering spring training with his major league debut in sight, Buxton is back in Twins camp trying to forget, or learn from, a season destroyed by injuries.
In 2013, he produced one of the most remarkable minor league seasons in recent history, eliciting comparisons to Mike Trout’s rise to stardom. In 2014, he spent months without being able to play catch.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “I mean, very frustrating, to not be able to play the game you love.”
Buxton wears the frustration well. His small-town sensibilities — his willingness to embrace the mundane chores of off-the-field conditioning and rehabilitation, his patience — helped him survive his first year of relative inactivity since he learned to walk.
“I’m country, all the way,” Buxton says. “I even listen to country music. Everywhere I go.”
He favors Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum. He drives a large red pickup truck. As a kid in the small and remote town of Baxley, Ga., Buxton usually chose ATVs and outdoor sports over television. “I started playing tee ball when I was 5,” he said. “From then on, baseball was my game. I was always asking my dad to take me outside and play catch, or pitch to me.”
When he earned a $6 million signing bonus as a first-round draft pick in 2012, Buxton bought his parents a house, and he still mows their lawn, “usually, with country music in my headphones.”
Last summer, stuck in Fort Myers while rehabilitating a wrist injury, he and fellow Twins prospect Miguel Sano would drive their trucks to a nearby irrigation ditch lining a major road.
A duo worth about $10 million in signing bonuses and with the earning power of a middling European economy would stand in the afternoon heat, jabbing hooks through foul-smelling bait, competing at ditch fishing because they couldn’t compete in baseball.
“People would drive by, honking their horns,” Buxton said. “I can outfish the majority of people, but Miguel kills me. And he won’t tell me his secret.”
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Last summer, Buxton and Sano had to stand next to each other to play catch. Sano couldn’t throw because of Tommy John elbow surgery. Buxton couldn’t catch, during a season in which his bones and joints lost a yearlong argument with his playing style.
In the spring of 2014, he dived for a ball in a minor league game. “I felt my wrist bend back,” he said. “I knew something wasn’t right.”
He tried to come back, and aggravated the injury. After playing only 30 games at Class A Fort Myers, the Twins promoted Buxton to Class AA New Britain in August. In his first game there, he dived for a line drive in right-center. So did right fielder Mike Kvasnicka. The collision left Buxton immobile on the field for a half-hour. He suffered a concussion and didn’t play again until the Arizona Fall League.
“I really don’t remember it,” Buxton said.
In Arizona, Buxton broke his left middle finger on another outfield dive, ending his season.
Wednesday night, he played in his first game since that injury, going 2-for-3 with two doubles in an exhibition against the Gophers.
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Torii Hunter, like Buxton a first-round draft pick out of high school who played center field in a small town in the South, said he routinely ran into fences regardless of the situation when he became a pro. “You learn,” Hunter said. “You want to sell out on every play to help your team, but there are situations where you have to think about the big picture.”
That is one of the lessons Hunter has imparted this spring. He sits two lockers away from Buxton. Last week, after a particularly long workout, Hunter brought Buxton and fellow center fielder Aaron Hicks to the batting cage for extra tutoring, long after other players had finished.
The Twins drafted Hunter in 1993. He didn’t become a standout in the big leagues until 2001. “I expect big things from him,” Hunter said of Buxton. “I know he got hurt last year, and will have to go to the minors and get some work in, but I expect to see him in the bigs this year.
“Just watching him in that first game, my first time seeing him in action, you see the way he runs the bases, his plate presence, his bat head awareness. He’s more polished than I was.”
The Twins have been raving about Buxton, uncharacteristically, since the summer of 2013, even though they could easily exercise caution.
Buxton is 21. He has played one full, uninterrupted season of minor league baseball. He played for a high school in a small town. He has taken three at-bats above Class A.
To those who work in the game, Buxton is a classic-yet-rare five-tool prospect, meaning he excels at running, throwing, fielding, hitting and hitting for power. To those who create false equivalencies between past failed prospects and Buxton, he is another kid who could disappoint, who could continue to get hurt.
“Sure, we’ve praised other prospects,” Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said. “But when was the last time we raved about somebody as a five-tool player? Byron has remarkable speed. He is an outstanding fielder. He has a tremendous arm. He can hit. Of the five tools, maybe the least developed is power. But he’s someone who could hit 20 home runs even if he doesn’t become a pure power hitter.
“He’s also a guy who wants to be great, and who is preparing himself to be a superstar. He and Sano are a lot alike in that way. They don’t just want to get to the big leagues — they want to be star players on championship teams.”
Said Twins General Manager Terry Ryan: “There are a lot of players who don’t know what it takes to be a complete major leaguer, from work ethic to understanding the responsibilities to the community and the media that come with being a star. Byron will handle it the right way.”
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From Kirby Puckett to Kent Hrbek, from Joe Mauer to Justin Morneau, from Tony Oliva to Sano and Buxton, the Twins are accustomed to seeing their star players’ careers shortened or damaged by injuries.
Buxton was rarely hurt in high school, and proved durable during his first two seasons as a pro. The Twins can only hope their run of bad luck doesn’t continue with their best prospect since Mauer.
“The setbacks have taught him a lot, have matured him,” said Buxton’s agent, Al Goetz. “He had never dealt with injuries or failures in his life before last season. It was tough for him. I think it was also good for him. If he goes through some adversity in the big leagues, he’ll be better prepared to handle it.”
Goetz pitched in the Tigers organization and scouted for Atlanta before becoming an agent. The winter after the Twins made Buxton the second pick in the 2012 draft, Buxton bought a condo in Atlanta and began working out with Goetz and his team, and taking batting practice with big-leaguers.
“I think he needs a couple of hundred at-bats in the minors and he’ll be ready for the big leagues,” Goetz said. “I wouldn’t have any fear of him hitting against big-league pitching. Defensively, I don’t think he would have any problems. The challenge for him, once he gets there, will be to learn how to handle big-league pitching and the adjustments pitchers make.
“He doesn’t like swinging at the first pitch. I told him, ‘Dude,’ that might be the only fastball you see.’ ”
Buxton’s is a sweet story, deferred. At 21, after two years of national attention, he remains a quiet kid whose nature reveals his roots. “He is the best of what his generation has to offer,” said Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twins first baseman who managed Buxton at Class A Fort Myers last year. “If you have a daughter, you’d want her to marry him. He wants to get to the big leagues as quickly as possible. He wants to be great. He wants to be a star. You’d think all players thought that way, but they don’t.”
Buxton walks slowly, like someone who has never faced rush-hour traffic. The product of two hard-working parents, he arrives early and stays late. He addresses everyone he meets as “sir” or “m’am.” He spends his free nights at home with his fiancée and son, 14-month-old Brix, hoping he can get a full night’s sleep. “You don’t know how important sleep is,” he said, “until you don’t get it.”
Two lockers down, Hunter nods at Buxton. “I see a five-tool player with a great attitude,” Hunter said. “He just has to put the work in and learn a little more and that’s the future, sitting right there.’’