From humble beginnings in rural Georgia, Byron Buxton has turned into the Twins’ best hope for a bright future.
Byron Buxton emerges from his Atlanta apartment at precisely 6 a.m. He does not rub his eyes. He dons Beats headphones, clicks his iPod and strides out across concrete, into the dark, alone. He is a young man in a great hurry.
There is no need for Buxton to wake at 5:30 a.m. for his daily run. He stays in the chic, nightclub-infused Buckhead area of Atlanta. He has enough time and money to burn the candle at both ends and in the middle. A father at 20, he rose while his girlfriend and baby boy slept.
By 10:30 a.m., he’ll be in the gym, working with a personal trainer, then taking batting practice. Lean as a deep-sea fishing pole, he hardly needs to lose weight.
So why does he run? Why has he always run? Buxton can’t explain. To him, running at dawn is like throwing a 99-mile-an-hour fastball in a high school game, or tossing a football 82 yards on a dare. He does it because he can, and because it feels good, and because, as he says, “It’s a country thing.”
As a grade schooler, Buxton would rise early and light out on the trails surrounding his family’s small house in tiny Graham, Ga., imitating another country runner — Forrest Gump, the namesake of his favorite movie.
Maybe running so often developed his remarkable speed, or maybe his remarkable speed made running irresistible. If you woke every morning in the cockpit of a Ferrari, wouldn’t you fire up the engine?
“As a kid, I’d run around our neighborhood, 5 miles maybe,” he said. “In high school I’d get up at 5 every morning and run 2 miles. I had my own trail where I stayed so I’d get up and run and come back home and Mom would be waking up my sister and cooking breakfast.”
He kept running after he became a high school football and baseball star at Appling County High School in nearby Baxley, and after the Minnesota Twins, desperate for mature pitching, nevertheless spent the second pick of the 2012 draft on a raw high school center fielder from a small town in southeast Georgia.
He kept running after tearing up Class A last season and becoming the top prospect in baseball. He kept running after his signing bonus bought his parents a new house in Baxley and new trucks, and Buxton a jacked-up, Georgia-red F-150 and a condo in Fort Myers, Fla.
With every stride, he closes fast on a world he could have only imagined when he first flew out of the back door as a child, not so much running down a dream as thrilling at the world rushing by.
The Twins own two World Series titles, but they never have employed anyone quite like Buxton. Despite a rich history of center fielders that includes Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter, and a slew of Hall of Famers, the Twins never before have employed a player so proficient in all five baseball “tools” — hitting for average, hitting for power, running, throwing and fielding. As an organization that often urges caution about even its best minor league players, the Twins have never so openly celebrated such a prodigy.
“There’s always risk when you take any player, and there is risk when you take a player out of a small town, and he may not have faced the competition that others have faced,” said Rob Antony, Twins vice president and assistant general manager. “You just can’t be sure. Now you see what he can do, and it means everything to an organization. You get a guy you can build around, and with Byron and Miguel Sano, we have two who have a chance to have a great impact on a major league lineup in the near future.
“It’s a credit to our scouts that they recommended Byron, and it’s a credit to Byron that he has handled himself so well.”
MLB.com and Baseball America have ranked Buxton as the top prospect in baseball. Baseball America, the bible of minor league and amateur baseball, quoted one scout as saying that Buxton was the best prospect he had ever seen.
In the past year, Twins officials have compared Buxton to Hall of Fame outfielder Rickey Henderson, reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen and Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout. In terms of speed, they have compared him to former big-league outfielders Willie Wilson and Devon White. In terms of composure, they have compared him to Twins star Joe Mauer.
Graham, Ga., is a town of a few hundred people about four hours southeast of Atlanta. Baxley boasts almost 5,000 and was once known as a turpentine capital, because of the sap in all the towering pine trees in the area.
In this rural area of Georgia, towns like Graham are little more than houses dotting the landscape, and towns like Baxley are filled with wide-open spaces.
There is a picturesque town square in Baxley, a high school, a few strip malls. Drive a few minutes in any direction and you are alone with road signs.
“It’s a 45-minute drive to get to a movie theater,” Buxton said.
“There is nothing to do,” said his girlfriend, Lindsey Tillery.
Growing up, Buxton didn’t have to worry about breaking windows. His father, Felton, taught him to play baseball in the back yard of their old house, a modest one-story that encouraged Buxton to use the great outdoors as his playroom.
When the Twins signed Buxton, he moved his family into a comfortable brick home fronted by a large yard decorated with pine needles. On a recent weeknight, Carrie invited a couple of visitors over, then put on a spread of Southern cuisine for the ever-present crowd of people at their house.
Byron’s signing bonus changed his parents’ address, not their ethic. Carrie works at a local school and runs a day care out of her home. Felton drives a truck, sometimes rising at 2 a.m. and returning in time for dinner.
“I took a couple of trips with him,” Byron said. “Tennessee, Mississippi. I slept half the time. I don’t think he slept at all.”
The house is filled with children and relatives, and pictures of Buxton playing ball. A Twins clock hangs on the wall.
“If he hadn’t been in a sport, he would have had time to get into trouble,” Felton said.
The only hint of modernity in their lives was video games.
“We just did stuff outside, played sports, and when we weren’t doing that, we’d maybe go to Wal-Mart,” said Kevin Cooper, Buxton’s cousin, friend and former football teammate, who now works at Wal-Mart. “We did country stuff.”
So when draft day approached, Felton and Carrie did what they usually did for special occasions — invited everyone they knew over to their house and started cooking. All of Buxton’s teammates came, and when baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced the Twins’ selection, a hundred people cheered.
“He’s a very humble kid,” said Jerry Smith, the baseball coach at Appling County High School who retired Buxton’s No. 3. “He was always the first one to get to the batting cage and the last one to leave. I set it up so the kids could hit whenever they wanted, and I’d come by at midnight, and he’d be hitting. When he comes home these days, he’s always up here hitting.
“You can tell he was raised well. It’s ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No, sir.’ And when he became a star, he would always say, ‘It’s not about me.’ ”
When big-league scouts asked to watch Buxton take batting practice, he insisted that his high school teammates be included. And when Buxton returns to Baxley, he cuts the grass in front of the house he bought.
“He better,” Felton said. “That’s his job.”
Former Twins manager Tom Kelly, often reluctant to praise unproven players, said, “Oh, boy, is he going to be entertaining,” and called him “a fine young man.”
“When TK starts complimenting people, that’s a big statement,” said Twins coach and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, who worked extensively with Buxton the past two years. “You don’t want to put too much pressure on a kid by showering him with so much praise, not only about his ability but his makeup. On the other hand, I think he’s the kind of guy who can handle those expectations. He’s a very enjoyable guy to be around.
“There are only a few players that come along who are as young as he is and have a chance to impact a big-league team in the near future. That’s just not beyond the realm of possibility with this kid.”
Buxton hinted at his future early in life. His father used to play softball. When Buxton was 5, Felton’s team needed a player. “I stuck him out there by the fence,” Felton said. “Thought I could hide him there. Told him, if a ball is hit to you, just throw it back in. Next thing you knew, he decided to catch one. That’s when they decided to quit bothering him.”
Buxton became a three-sport star before quitting basketball in high school to concentrate on football and baseball. He played quarterback, receiver, defensive back and punted for the varsity football team, and while he could have played college football, discretion led him to baseball.
“In football, you have concussions, you can have guys going for your knees, tearing up your ACLs,” he said. “Plus, I just have a passion for baseball. I like diving for the ball, getting dirty. I like hitting home runs.”
Had Buxton dropped past the fifth pick in the draft, he probably would have taken a baseball scholarship to the University of Georgia and walked on to the football team. Instead, the Twins took him with the second pick and signed him with a $6 million signing bonus.
Being the second pick in a baseball draft does not guarantee success. In 1991, the Twins chose Stanford slugger David McCarty with the third pick, and at his best he became a role player for the Royals and Red Sox. The last two times the Twins held the second pick in the draft, they chose pitcher Adam Johnson and first baseman Travis Lee. Johnson was a bust; Lee, after using a loophole to escape the Twins, enjoyed sporadic success over nine big-league seasons.
In the past 14 years, only one player chosen with the second pick has become a superstar — Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander. According to independent talent evaluators, Buxton compares more to Trout than McCarty or Johnson.
Like Trout, Buxton plays center field, was drafted out of high school, boasts five tools and tore up the Class A Midwest League at the age of 19. The similarities are remarkable. In a full season at Class A, Trout hit .341 with a .428 on-base percentage, 106 runs, 56 steals, 73 walks and 47 extra-base hits. Last year, Buxton hit .334 with a .424 on-base percentage, 109 runs, 55 steals, 76 walks and 49 extra-base hits.
Trout made his major league debut in 2011 after 91 games at Class A. In 2012, he finished second in the American League MVP voting. At age 22, he is considered the best all-around player in baseball.
With a strong showing in the minors this season, Buxton could make it to the majors by the end of 2014, or compete for a big-league job next spring.
The Twins are stunned by his rapid development. Buxton’s former coaches wonder what’s taking so long.
“He’s the best athlete I ever coached,” said Appling County High athletic director and football coach J.T. Pollock. “He made one all-state team as a receiver, made another as a defensive back, punted for us, was our backup kicker. There wasn’t anything on the field he couldn’t do. In baseball, I once saw him score from second on a sacrifice fly.
“His junior year, he was playing quarterback for us and we walked out on the field for practice. He was standing on the goal line and somebody said, ‘Hey, Bux, see how far you can throw it.’ He said, ‘OK,’ took a step and cut loose. It went 82 yards. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself.
“Just one day, I want to wake up and be Byron Buxton. I’d hit a baseball 450 feet, throw a fastball 97 miles per hour, go to the gym and dunk any way I wanted to dunk, then go over to the football field and make some great catches, punt the ball 50 or 60 yards, throw it 80 yards and just see how all of that felt.”
Smith, his high school baseball coach, knows how Buxton made the town feel. As a senior, Buxton — “Buck” to his friends and teammates — led Appling County High to its first state title, as crowds for his games kept growing until, as Buxton’s friend Kevin Cooper says, “people were hanging off of trucks just to be able to see.”
“His senior year, in the state championships, he pitched for us and we lost a game by a couple of runs,” Smith said. “He had struck out once all year, and he struck out twice in that game, including with a chance to tie it in our last at-bat. He struck out leading off the next game, so here he has struck out twice in the last two at-bats.
“A big storm came in, so we didn’t get to play Game 3, the deciding game, until Thursday. He came to me on Wednesday and said, ‘You’re going to let me pitch?’ I said, ‘We’ll see.’ He said, ‘Ain’t no seeing to it. I want the ball.’ I told him I’d let him know.
“We gave him the ball and he struck out 18 in seven innings in the championship game. I think his last pitch was clocked at 96, and one of his pitches, according to a scout from Baltimore, was 99.”
As a freshman, Buxton led Appling County to its first regional championship ever by hitting a homer and making a spectacular diving catch in the gap in the title game. Smith remembers thinking then, “We have something special here.”
It’s noon on a sunny day in Fort Myers, Fla. Buxton is attending his first major league camp, and has just finished working out with the team. His truck roars away from the ballpark, to a nearby gated community. Buxton pulls up in front of his condo and leaves the truck in the driveway. “It won’t fit in the garage,” he says with a smile.
He steps into the sun-filled, tidy living room to find Lindsey holding their son, Brixton Scott Buxton, who is 10 weeks old and wearing an Under Armour onesie. “I ordered that up right away,” said Buxton, who endorses the company.
“Madagascar” is playing on the television. Buxton sinks into the couch, takes his son into his arms and starts quietly teasing him — “My boy is fat! You need to clip your fingernails!”
Lindsey was three years ahead of Buxton at Appling County High. “I had heard about him but I never met him,” she said. “I played softball, and my father knew all about Byron. We walked the same halls every day but never spoke.”
After Buxton graduated, a mutual friend introduced them at a party at the Buxton house.
“He was very quiet,” Tillery said.
Buxton rolls his eyes in mock disgust, saying, “I knew that was coming.”
“I didn’t meet him as a baseball player,” Tillery said. “He was very quiet, but fun at the same time, always doing something active. He was funny, too, in his way. Then I realized, the more I got to know him, about his love for the game and how important it was to him, and because I played ball I respected that. We had a lot in common.”
They didn’t live near each other.
“We were completely opposite,” Tillery said.
“Definitely opposite,” Buxton said.
Tillery pitched for Appling County. Could she strike him out?
Tillery: “I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
Buxton: “She can’t hurt my feelings.”
Tillery: “It’s very possible.”
Buxton: “It ain’t even close to being possible.”
After games, Buxton won’t mention a home run or diving catch, instead seizing on what he could have done better. “And she likes to tell me what I did wrong,” Buxton said with a smile.
Tillery conducts fake interviews with Buxton to prepare him for the demands of stardom. “He’s come a long way,” she said. “He talks a lot more when other people aren’t around.”
Buxton raised his eyebrows. “I do not!” he said, in that same mock-offended tone. “If I do talk more it’s because you’re always asking me questions!”
They haven’t made plans to marry, but Tillery and Brix will travel wherever Buxton’s career takes him. At 20, with a brimming bank account, Buxton could be living the club life if he weren’t a father. Instead, he spends his days with Tillery and Brixton napping, working the grill so he can eat a healthier diet, and watching anything from “Madagascar” to “Law & Order SVU.”
“I ain’t up for that party life,” he said. “I pretty much stay in the house all day. Yesterday, me and Brix slept most of the afternoon.”
Said Tillery: “We’re living a different life. But it’s a good different.”
Remarkably lean, Buxton wants to add 15 pounds of muscle to his wiry 185-pound frame. He has stopped eating fried foods and burgers, although he keeps a pound of Skittles next to his bed. “I eat eight to 10 packs of them a day,” he said.
Whether fueled by sugar or protein, he may already be one of the fastest players in pro ball, and he boasts one of the strongest arms. Scouts expect him to develop more power as he ages and works out under professional supervision.
If Buxton can conquer Class AA this season, he will be on the doorstep to the major leagues. His agent, Al Goetz, is doing all he can to prepare him.
That’s why Buxton spent the winter in Atlanta instead of Baxley. Goetz set up the apartment; bought Buxton’s condo in Fort Myers; and arranged the workout routine at the Norcross Sports Training Academy, the warehouselike studio where Goetz throws batting practice to his clients.
Goetz scouted for the Atlanta Braves before he became an agent and joined Jet Sports Management. A few years ago, a couple of scouts told him about a raw, talented sophomore in Baxley.
“He hadn’t played a lot of baseball, had been a three-sport guy, so I figured it would take him some time to develop,” Goetz said. “I knew he’d catch up, I just didn’t think he’d do it at this pace. It’s incredible. I’ve never seen a player do so much so quickly. That includes guys I’ve scouted, like [former Braves] Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann.
“For some guys, it might take two or three months to adapt to a new level or to catch up to the pitching. It takes him about two or three days. Sometimes I think, and I don’t like to think this way, that he can almost get bored by the level of competition, which is different than anybody I’ve ever seen.
“I’ve had 11 first-rounders since I started working as an agent, and I don’t want to disavow the other guys I have, but Byron is special in every way. The determination, the makeup, the talent is just stupid. I’m so fortunate that the family selected me. There were 200 other companies chasing him, including all of the big ones.”
When high-profile agents such as Scott Boras began pursuing Buxton, they were too late. “Al just felt like a member of the family,” Felton said. “And he was around early.”
To prepare Buxton, Goetz chose Eric Alexander, an old friend and minor league player who is the academy’s director of strength and conditioning. Alexander emphasizes baseball-specific workouts.
“We want to make him flexible, mobile and stable,” Alexander said. “With any athlete that comes in here, I don’t care if they play football, lacrosse, or any other thing, we want them to be flexible, which means more muscle, mobility means more joints, and then stability all through their body, so they can possess the ground and in turn produce more power.
“People usually just train muscle. I train three M’s — muscle, movement and mechanics.”
Buxton takes a knee and fires a weighted ball into a wall. The first time he tries it, he’s off balance during the throw and after the catch. During his second set, he begins thumping the ball rhythmically and catching it effortlessly.
Alexander guides Buxton toward what looks like a cage, where they torque their bodies while pulling on levers or bars.
“He’ll look lost the first time he tries something,” Alexander said. “The next set, he’ll master it. You couldn’t ask for a better kid to work with. He’s talented and adaptable, and what really amazes me is how polite he is. The first time he came here and we worked with weights, I told him to leave them there, I’d get them later. He said, ‘No, sir,’ and, ‘My daddy wouldn’t want to hear that I didn’t pick up after myself.’ ”
The Twins, following three horrific seasons, need Buxton to become a star. On Dec. 6, he became a father. This summer, he should play in his first game at Target Field, when the Twins host the Futures Game on All-Star weekend.
Two weeks into his first big-league spring training camp, Buxton is drawing raves not heard in the Twins clubhouse since Mauer began taking batting practice with the major leaguers.
Buxton’s expectations might exceed his employers’. “I’m sure it’s the goal of everyone in the big leagues to make it to the Hall of Fame,” Buxton said. “I want to do everything I can to get there. I want to play hard every day, try to help my team win games, and not waste my talent.”
After the Twins drafted him, they flew him to Target Field for a round of batting practice with the big-leaguers, and a news conference. Buxton looked unsure for a few swings, then launched a long home run. He offered one-word answers at the news conference.
Now he looks comfortable in front of any pitcher or microphone. “Like I said, he’s come a long way,” Tillery said.
“My life has changed quite a bit,” he said. “Coming out of a small town, I was a little nervous at the beginning. But the more and more I played every day, I’ve relaxed and started having fun. I call my parents every day, and they gave me encouragement.”
Did his parents instill his manners? “Yes, sir,” Buxton said. “Whatever I take out, I try to put it back in in the place that I got it from, because I don’t like people picking up after me.”
Byron said this in Atlanta. The next night in Baxley, his mother offered her favorite memory.
“He was 9,” Carrie said. “He was playing in a game, and he bet my niece — the one sitting over there — that if he hit one over the fence, she’d give him $5. He swung, and it went over the fence, and by the time he came around home plate, he was like, ‘Give me my money!’
There is one discrepancy between Buxton’s version of the story and his mother’s. Carrie remembers Byron standing at home plate, admiring the trajectory of the ball. Byron said: “I think I just stood at the plate because I didn’t know what had happened. I had never hit a ball like that before.”
Soon, Buxton should watch his first big-league home run sail over a much larger fence in a ballpark far from little Baxley, Ga. He promises not to stand still.
“No, sir,” he said. “I’m sprinting everywhere I go.”
About this series
Byron Buxton is regarded as baseball’s top prospect. Staff writer Jim Souhan and photographer Jerry Holt will follow his progress throughout the 2014 season.