When he was growing up in Houston, Michael Bourn taught himself to ride a bike. He taught himself to swim. He taught himself to skate.
"Everything is hard when you first start doing it," said Bourn, the Philadelphia Phillies' fourth-round pick in 2003 out of the University of Houston. "But swimming was probably the hardest. You can't make too many mistakes when you're playing with your life."
Now Bourn, one of the Phillies' top outfield prospects, has a new goal. He's trying to teach himself to be the consistent hitter his organization would like him to be.
Last year, at 22, Bourn made the leap from Lakewood of the Class A South Atlantic League, where he hit .317 and led the league in on-base percentage and stolen bases in 2004, to Reading of the Double-A Eastern League.
Overall, his numbers at Reading were more than respectable. He hit .268 with six homers, 44 RBIs and 38 steals. But with peaks and valleys that ranged from hitting .325 in June to .218 in July, the Phillies felt there was still improvement to be made. So, this year, he starts the season back in Reading.
"From what I heard there were some great arms in this league so the quality of pitching talent might have had something to do with that," said P.J. Forbes, Bourn's current manager at Reading who also worked with him in that capacity in 2004. "I think the consistency will come with being in this league a second time and knowing what to expect."
Bourn will have some veteran coaches to learn from, such as Forbes himself and hitting coach John Morris, as well as veteran teammates like fellow outfielder Peter Bergeron, who spent parts or all of five seasons in the Majors with Montreal.
But Bourn doesn't intend to count solely on others.
"I'm mostly trying to teach myself rather than rely on someone else," he explained. "If I can teach myself how to do it, then I know if I'm in a slump, I won't have to count on someone else to get me out of it."
Bourn, now 23, is a prototypical leadoff hitter with great plate discipline, world-class speed, tremendous defensive ability in center field and just enough extra-base pop to take a pitcher by surprise, without enough to fall in love with his own power.
"He can run, he can throw, he can hit, and he can hit for power, which people haven't really seen yet," said Forbes. "I believe he'll surprise people with some sneaky power as he continues to progress as a hitter."
On the bases, Bourn is the fastest player in the system. He's led the organization in stolen bases the past two seasons, with 57 at Lakewood in '04, and outran his closest challenger, 2004 first-rounder Greg Golson, by a step in a Spring Training 60-yard dash showdown.
But the Phillies would like to see that speed translate into even more adept baserunning. "They'd like Mike to develop his running game a little more in terms of reading pitchers and studying them and getting a book on guys," Forbes said, "so he's not just running to run but picking the right pitch to run on."
Bourn was certainly off to a good start in that department after the first four games of the season. Despite Reading winning just one of its first four games against the Bowie Baysox (Orioles), as Bowie pitchers limited the R-Phils' lineup to one earned run in 38 innings, Bourn had already stolen six bases without being caught.
While Bourn admits to having been a little surprised and more than a little disappointed at first to be reassigned to Reading rather than moved up a notch to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he got over it in a hurry.
"The first couple of days I was a little bitter, but Double-A ball is good competition and I have nothing to be hanging my head about," he said. Instead, he has set out his array of goals for himself and begun his work.
"I'm working on all aspects of my game from hitting to defense to stealing bases to throwing to getting jumps on balls to learning how to read pitchers," he said. "Everything. There is so much to learn."
While Bourn is expected to take over in center field in Philadelphia eventually, the off-season acquisition of veteran Aaron Rowand from the Chicago White Sox in the Jim Thome deal gives Bourn a little more time to work on that home schooling.
That's not to say he wouldn't like to get that call sooner rather than later. He got a nibble of the Majors during Spring Training and that's made him even hungrier. "My little taste of big league camp this spring spoiled me and gave me more of the urge to get back up there," said Bourn, as he contemplated the Major League lifestyle versus the eight-plus hour bus rides that he feels are the biggest downside of the minor league lifestyle. "That's something you adjust to, and I have adjusted to it.
"But," he said with a laugh, "I don't want to adjust to it for much longer."