Watch Xavier Avery
as he accelerates out of the batter's box or sprints to steal a base, and his football background is clearly in evidence. Sometimes, Avery flashes the skills that had the University of Georgia recruiting him to play running back.
But the football days that dominated his youth in Decatur, Ga., are long gone.
"I'm competitive. I always like to pick the harder thing, and I think baseball is one of the hardest sports," said Avery, center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Frederick Keys, the Baltimore Orioles' Class A Advanced affiliate.
The Orioles made Avery their second-round pick (No. 50 overall) in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, snagging the reputed fastest player available. The 20-year-old started taking his baseball seriously four years ago, and Baltimore's interest convinced him to walk away from a potentially promising gridiron career.
"I don't hear him talking about football anymore," said Keys skipper Orlando Gomez, who also managed Avery last season with the Delmarva Shorebirds of the Class A South Atlantic League.
For now, Avery is a uniformed contradiction, a soft-spoken player in fluorescent orange spikes who is ripe with potential but still learning and working on the game's finer points. Avery is hitting .279 (57-for-204) with two homers, 23 RBIs and 14 stolen bases after 50 games.
"He's learning to read the pitchers, learning what counts he can go on -- because I let him run," Gomez said. "He's learning, and once in a while, he makes a mistake. But mistakes teach you how to do things right.
Defensively, Avery remains a work in progress. Last year at Delmarva, he would make a spectacular play before booting an easy pop fly. Gomez has been working with Avery to shorten his sometimes indirect routes to fly balls, and to be more efficient when charging ground balls.
As a leadoff hitter, Avery is working on balancing aggressiveness with the need to see pitches. Pitchers are challenging him late in counts with off-speed stuff, so Avery finds himself trying to master hitting a pitch that has been the downfall of many a Minor League prospect.
"He's going deeper into counts," Gomez said. "Once in a while, maybe he swings at a first pitch. But he's taking pitches. ... You don't want to take the bat out of his hand. There are certain situations where I want him to swing at the first pitch if he gets a good pitch to hit."
Avery, however, whiffed earlier this season when the subject was baseball history. On a road trip bus ride, 61* was playing. While teammates were mesmerized by the home run chase between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Avery wasn't even sure who the New York Yankees teammates were, or the nature of their competition in 1961.
"I love to learn about the history. There's a lot of players I don't know, like Roger [Maris] and Mickey Mantle. Growing up, I didn't watch [games on TV] a lot. I wasn't the kind of guy to pick up baseball cards. I was outside, running around and playing football."
What Avery saw was enlightening.
"I was asking a whole lot of questions, because I was amazed by all the things that Roger Maris went through to get to 61 homers," he said. "I feel like I can relate to it when I see those type of things -- what it takes to get there, how to put all the stress behind you and just play the game. We have a lot of stress, a lot of pain, but every day we get up and go out and play baseball like there's nothing to it."
Mound gems: Myrtle Beach Pelicans right-hander Julio Teheran struck out a career-high 14 batters on May 31, lowering his ERA to 0.43 with eight shutout innings against the Northern Division-leading Frederick Keys. ... Kinston southpaw T.J. McFarland came within one out of the Indians' first complete game since 2004, working 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball in a victory over the Wilmington Blue Rocks on May 31.
Ouch, that hurts! Wilmington had committed at least one error in 12 straight games through Memorial Day. The Blue Rocks, who owned the top fielding percentage in the league earlier this season, broke the streak with an error-free game June 1.
Sole survivor: Winston-Salem Dash outfielder Justin Greene is the only player in the league to have played in every game for his team this season. Greene's streak is at 52 and counting.
Long time coming: Kinston's Nick Hagadone had just notched his first victory of the season May 26 before being promoted to Double-A Akron on May 29. It was the left-hander's first win since April 10, 2008. Hagadone has been on a rigid pitch count while recovering from Tommy John surgery and rarely pitched the five innings necessary for a starter to qualify for a victory.