Buxton remains quiet, humble despite all the attention
FORT MEYERS, Fla. — It’s just before 11 a.m. and a young Twins outfielder makes his way from the visiting clubhouse to the field at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.
There’s no name on the back of his red No. 70 jersey, but the fans know exactly who he is. "Buxton!" they yell, their words meriting a brief reaction from the Minnesota Twins’ prized center field prospect as he continues on his way to the field for warmups.
Byron Buxton is a kid who has yet to have one at-bat above A-ball, but fans at spring training complexes all across the state of Florida are clamoring to get a look at him.
"Some of his teammates told me from last year that they could not believe that this guy would get off the bus with people waiting for his autograph, just like he’d been doing it for 15 years," said Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony. "It’s all part of the game. I think he hasn’t lost sight of the fact that he needs to work hard. It’s not just going to happen. So he’s taken care of things on the field and off the field. He’s been pretty mature on how he handles all the other stuff."
There’s a lot of that "other stuff" that has surrounded Buxton since the Twins took him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Fans scramble to get him to sign a baseball card or a hat. Others constantly snap away photos on their cameras or phones with the hope that they’re witnessing someone special before he becomes a superstar.
If that wasn’t enough to deal with off the field, Buxton has also taken on a new role: being a father. He and his girlfriend, Lindsey Tillery, welcomed their son Brix into the world on Dec. 6. It’s just one more thing Buxton has to worry about on a daily basis, but he’s fully embraced fatherhood.
"I wouldn’t have it no other way," Buxton said. "It’s been fun. He sleeps all night, so that’s a good thing."
Buxton has accumulated nearly every minor-league award imaginable. Baseball America named him the top prospect in the game prior to this season. Many other publications have tabbed him with that same honor. And he’s already a millionaire after inking a big signing bonus in 2012, but the money hasn’t changed him.
Yes, Byron Buxton has every right to let all the praise and recognition get to his head. But perhaps what’s pleased the Twins as much as Buxton’s physical attributes is the way he handles everything that comes along with it off the field.
"I try to imagine being in his shoes and read about expectations through the roof," said Twins coach Paul Molitor, a Hall of Famer who has spent time with Buxton over the last few years as a roving minor league instructor. "I think he wants to be great, and not in a boastful type of way. I just think he’s got that little extra intangible that is going to set him apart because he’s not just going to use what he has. He’s going to find ways to excel."
Those who rave about Buxton gush over the fact that he possess all five tools (speed, arm strength, fielding, hitting for average and hitting for power); there seemingly isn’t much that the Baxley, Ga., native and former high school football star can’t do on a baseball diamond.
Yet for someone who possesses such God-given talent, Buxton doesn’t play the role of a flashy superstar, at least not once he steps off the field. He bought himself a pickup truck with his signing bonus, but otherwise didn’t splurge on much.
In the clubhouse this spring, Buxton is seen but rarely heard. He knows his role as the new guy, the 20-year-old phenom in his first big-league camp. Most of the time he can be found sitting quietly at his locker near the corner of the locker room as music plays in his headphones.
This is the same kid who barely said a word on the day he was drafted. Reporters interviewing Buxton on a conference call after the draft had to work extra hard just to pull something — anything — from the Twins’ newest member. He’s come a long way in that regard, but still prefers to let his game speak for itself.
"He’s really humble. He’s quiet," said fellow center fielder Alex Presley, whose locker is next to Buxton’s this spring. "He’s trying not to come in and (have) people look at him at arrogant. He’s got every right to be that way, because he’s got all the accolades and everything. But he’s not like that whatsoever."
Buxton’s arrival in the major leagues remains one of the questions many Twins fans love to ask and think about. Given the way he’s torn through the minors so far, though, he could be calling Target Field home in the not-so-distant future.
After beginning the 2013 season at Low-A Cedar Rapids, Buxton was eventually moved up to High-A Fort Myers. Neither league seemed to give him trouble. He batted a combined .334/.424/.520 with 12 home runs and 55 stolen bases in 125 games.
But Buxton knows he can get better.
"I’ve still got a lot more to learn," he said. "I’m just going to prepare myself every day to be ready and try to better myself."
This has been Buxton’s first extended opportunity to play with the major-league team in spring training. He and fellow prospect Miguel Sano were both invited to big league camp to allow Minnesota to get a good look at both of them. Sano’s spring never got going as he was shut down with an elbow injury that will require Tommy John surgery. Buxton, meanwhile, has struggled a bit at the plate but has held his own in center field.
The Twins did get a brief preview of Buxton in camp last year when he started a Grapefruit League game in Bradenton against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Minnesota first baseman Joe Mauer, who was once in Buxton’s shoes as a top prospect, made the trip north for that game and still has vivid memories of the immediate impact Buxton had.
"He led off the game against A.J. Burnett and had a probably five, six-pitch at-bat and lined a line drive up the middle," Mauer recalled. "He got on first base and took off on the first pitch. Russell Martin’s catching, so he’s a pretty good catch-throw guy. Russell hurried his throw and Buxton beat the ball easy, slid in. Popped up, the ball went to center field, stood in going to third and I think the very next pitch was a little dribbler to third and he scored standing up.
"It was a pretty quick 1-0 there, which is a good thing. He’s impressive."
Mauer and other veterans are finding out quickly that Buxton is just as impressive off the field. There’s no question that all eyes will be on him wherever he goes this spring, and he’ll continue to be the subject of autograph requests and media swarms. Such was the case last week in Jupiter when a group of about 10 reporters surrounded him in the visiting clubhouse after the Twins’ game against the Marlins. Buxton made his first start of the spring but went 0-for-5, yet still drew more media attention than any other player in that locker room.
Buxton’s time in big-league camp could be running out soon. It’s likely that he’ll eventually get sent down to the minor league side in the next week or so. The Twins haven’t yet said just how long they’ll keep him with the big league club, but it’s clear that they’ve enjoyed getting the chance to see him so far this spring.
"I have plenty of plans. Sometimes my plans go awry," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We don’t have to do anything until the 10th. . . . I’d like to see the kid play here, and then we’ll see how he does. (General manager Terry Ryan’s) not here. I might just sneak him into my lineup."
The numbers for Buxton aren’t akin to what he produced in the minors, but that’s not surprising for a 20-year-old in his first big-league camp. Through Thursday, Buxton had just two hits in 12 at-bats. It’s a reminder that even the game’s most highly touted prospect is far from a finished product.
The Twins know that. Buxton knows that. That’s why Antony described him as a sponge, continuing to soak up as much information as he can as he works to become even better.
"He knows he’s got things to learn. He’s a guy who takes information and tries to apply it very quickly. His at-bats down here so far haven’t been the best yet, but the one thing I noticed last year when he went to Fort Myers, he adapted quick," Molitor said. "I don’t know how fast he can accelerate through the system, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s pretty rapid."
The speedy Buxton does a lot of things fast. Paving a path to the major leagues could be one of them.
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