FORT MYERS, Fla. – Byron Buxton has changed. He is bigger and stronger. Already one of baseball’s fastest players, he says he gained speed this winter.
But that’s not the change that matters the most. The soft-spoken small-town kid is this spring displaying confidence bordering on the kind of competitive defiance that defines so many great athletes.
Buxton always balanced immense promise with the humility of a utility infielder. Now he sounds like the star he still seems destined to be.
“I’m 100 times more confident,” he said. “Nobody fazes me anymore. I’m ready. This is me.
“My father told me, ‘Time to start being you.’ He knows me better than anybody else. I’ve looked up to him my entire life. If he tells me that, then obviously it was time to change.”
The second overall pick in the 2012 draft, Buxton has displayed a rare combination of power, speed and fielding excellence. Injuries and hitting slumps have kept him from putting together a full, outstanding season in the majors.
To jump-start his career, he went back to his roots. He used to spend winters in Atlanta, working out with other players. This winter, he stayed in his hometown of Baxley, Ga.
He would wake early, eat two 8-ounce steaks and a dozen eggs, work out, then repeat the meal. He consumed 10,000 calories a day so he can hit balls over walls and survive encounters with them.
“Easy to say,” Buxton said. “Hard to do. I’m not scaling back, not going to avoid running into walls. I put on 10 pounds for a reason. The walls got me the last few seasons.”
He laughed. “I’m not saying running through a wall is a goal,” he said. “But if I could do it, I wouldn’t mind.”
In Baxley, he worked with Appling County High School track coach Sheldon Pearce. “I was worried that adding weight would slow me down,” Buxton said. “It hasn’t. I feel faster. This winter, I stayed home, and everything I did, I did myself. You have to start owning what you do, and that’s what I did.”
Former Twins star Torii Hunter has advised Buxton for years. The parallels are clear: Hunter was a first-round draft pick out of high school from the South who took years to develop into an All-Star center fielder. He, like Buxton, listened to too many voices early in their career.
“Torii went through the same thing I went through,” Buxton said. “I’m not necessarily independent. I just know what I need to do to get myself ready to play this game. I’m not uncoachable. I want to be coached, but it’s got to fit me. No more, ‘Maybe you should try this, or do this.’ I’m not doing any of that. I’m being myself.”
Buxton started the spring with hits in his first five at-bats. After going 1-for-3 in the Twins’ 10-1 loss to Toronto on Sunday, he is hitting .350 this spring.
In the past, he has tried to balance his natural tendency to pull the ball with advice on the importance of driving pitches to right-center.
Will he set up to hit the ball to the opposite field? “No,” he said, emphatically. “I used to have all that in my head. I’m not doing that anymore. I know hitting to right field gets me back on track, gets me right, but if I try to tell myself, ‘You have to drive this pitch to the right-center gap,’ then how am I going to turn on this pitch that’s 97 on the inside corner?
“I’m going up there to compete. You’ve got a ball. I’ve got a bat. Who’s better?”
The nice kid from the small town has an answer that he wouldn’t have offered a year ago:
“Right now I feel like I’m the best player,” he said. “As long as that’s my mind-set and that’s in me, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.”
Baxley’s bulked-up Byron Buxton is bidding to be a big shot. Confidence looks as good on him as his extra-wide shoulders.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jim Souhan is a columnist for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.
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