A lot of readers tell me that they enjoy all my columns except the ones where I write about sports. "I just skip over those," I have been told time after time, "because I don't care nothing about ball."
Please don't skip this column because it is not about sports -- or "ball." Really, it isn't. It is about a local young man who is in the process of making it in a very, very competitive world. Baseball happens to be the vehicle by which to tell the story, but make no mistake about it--the story is Tyler Austin -- not the game he plays.
I first met Tyler Austin when he was in the ninth grade. He was standing with his girlfriend in the commons area of Heritage High School, about to eat lunch. I happened to have drawn lunch duty that day -- which means I had the unenviable job of helping watch about 400 adolescents as they descended upon the cafeteria, intent on navigating long serving lines, consuming as many calories as possible and socializing with their friends until the very last instant before having to head back to the classroom.
I had to prevent such sins as breaking in line and violating the omnipresent oppressive dress code. For this I earned a Masters degree in education, understand.
Tyler had violated a cardinal rule. He was wearing a cap inside the building. I walked over to him and asked him to take it off, which he did. But as I was walking away he rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath.
Bad move. As I turned to address him again I learned that he had compounded his misdemeanor by returning the baseball cap to his head.
At that point Mr. Austin and I really got to know one another a lot better. Most of the introductions were handled by me. I left the lunchroom and went straight down the hall to Casey Teal's room. Casey was the head baseball coach at Heritage at the time -- and a stomp down good one. I knew that Tyler was a baseball player with a lot of potential and hoped his coach could give me some insight into his behavior.
He did. Quite a bit. From that point on I made it my point to speak to Tyler Austin -- in a positive way -- every time I saw him. He responded with politeness and grace and we developed a very strong relationship over the next four years.
Playing baseball has never been a problem for Tyler Austin. I think he is the person Robert Redford was trying to portray in the movie "The Natural." A lot of folks had to work very hard to help Tyler in a lot of other areas -- particularly his baseball coaches. They had to show him tough love at times and they had to love him at other times but before he graduated -- which was a big deal, too -- he had become one of the premier sluggers in Georgia High School history and the Heritage Patriots had played for the state championship twice.
During this time Tyler also won a national award for his courage in battling testicular cancer. His is a great story, but the best is yet to come. I told you all of that to tell you this.
Tyler Austin, now 20, was drafted by the New York Yankees. Yes, those Yankees. The team of Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, Mantle, Berra and Jeter. The Bronx Bombers. The most storied franchise in the history of sports.
OK. I mentioned sports. Please don't stop reading.
This year Tyler has been assigned to the Charleston Riverdogs, a Class A minor league team. They play against the Savannah Sand Gnats and Rome Braves and other teams in the South Atlantic (Sally) League. As that league's all-star break approaches he has become the premier player in that league. Lest you think I exaggerate, as I am prone to do from time to time, take a few moments to digest these numbers.
As this column went to press Tyler Austin of the New York Yankee affiliate the Charleston Riverdogs was batting .332 -- 4th in the league. If you are just reading because I asked you to and are not familiar enough with baseball statistics to know what that means, Martin Prado, the top Atlanta Braves hitter, is batting .328.
Tyler is first in his league with 19 doubles. He is first in his league with five triples. He also leads his league in homeruns (14), RBIs (49), total bases, and slugging percentage.
I won't try to explain all those categories to the "non-ball" fans, but Tyler's slugging percentage is .659. Babe Ruth (you've heard of him?) had a career slugging percentage in the same general neighborhood and his was the best in history. Tyler is also in the top three in his leagues in walks and stolen bases. He is what they call a five tool player -- he can hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. Just as importantly, his head is screwed firmly onto his shoulders, just as it should be.
The boy has a bright future, understand. Most boys grow up dreaming of playing for the New York Yankees. Tyler Austin may be on the verge of living that dream. Good for him!
When he does, I hope I can go to Yankee Stadium and tell everyone, "I yelled at him when."
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at email@example.com. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.