SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. --- Start with the strut ? this is what Brett Butler remembers about the first time he saw Spanky, in all his Spankiness, in camp last spring. "So here's this 5'9'' kid," says Butler, "walking around with the major leaguers with this cockiness that said, 'Here I am, man. Nobody here is faster than me. Nobody here is going to outplay me.' I kind of smirked, and was like, 'Who is this punk?'"
So, who, exactly, is Spanky?
He is the new face of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is the mid-round sleeper pick in your fantasy baseball league. He is the trendy pick to win this year's National League Rookie of the Year award, a player who is about to become one of the breakout stars of 2013. He is lefthanded and he is short --- "5-9, and a half, with spikes," he says --- and while he might remind you of a certain undersized Dodgers All-Star centerfielder from '90s, he is not the second coming of Brett Butler, at least according to Brett Butler.
"He's got more pop than me, he's got a better arm --- he's going to be better than me," says Butler. The better comparison? "I've gone as far as to say this: he's Mike Trout, without the pop."
A spring training afternoon in Diamondbacks camp, and here is Butler, sitting on a bench near the practice fields, with a story to tell about Spanky, the new starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter for Arizona, Adam Eaton.
"We were playing Sacramento -- the Yankees of our Pacific Coast League --- and we hated them, and they hated us," says Butler, who managed Eaton at Triple-A Reno last summer. "Before the game I told Adam, you haven't bunted in a while, this is going to be part of your game going forward, so you should bunt. So in his first at bat, he drags one to first, and gets on base. Second time up, he bunts it to first again, and then he does it again --- three times in a row. And now the other team is just mad. So, of course, when he comes up again, they hit him. He gets on base, steals second, steals third and then spits on them." Butler laughs. "That's him, in a nutshell."
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The Diamondbacks, as you know, did something bold and a little crazy over the winter when they traded away their onetime Face of the Franchise, Justin Upton, for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and three fringe prospects. It was one of those moves that seemed inevitable and yet was still stunning when it happened, given Upton's talent (the former No. 1 overall draft pick finished fourth in MVP voting just two years ago) and age (25). Also gone are Chris Young, Ryan Roberts and Trevor Bauer, as part of the Diamondbacks' great experiment in the intangibles.
The tale of Adam Eaton could not fit more perfectly into the narrative of the grittier, tougher, pluckier Diamondbacks heading into the new season. Here to help lead Kirk Gibson's pack of grinders is the undersized Everyman who overcame the odds and became a top prospect --- a gamer and a grinder, a fiery table-setter to inject some real fire to the clubhouse and the top of the order.
Get used to the labels, because they will be used often as the D-backs fight to reclaim the NL West. Eaton not only doesn't mind those labels, he embraces them. "I like scrappy and all those words," he says, "it means I'm giving it my all and leaving everything on the field," he says.
Those words, though, don't really define the kind of player he is: a marvelously talented player with big-time tools. In 2012, before arriving for a 22-game cup of coffee in the Show, he led the minors in batting (.375), hits (198) and doubles (47), posted a .995 OPS at Reno, where he also stole a PCL-high 38 bases and played excellent defense. In other words, don't call him David Eckstein.
"Self-determination has obviously played a big part in his success, but he's also been blessed with some skills to play the game, there's no doubt about it," says Tom Randall, Eaton's coach at Kenton Ridge High School in Springfield, Ohio. "There's also no doubt that his size has always been the great motivation all his life."
Eaton has always been aware of his size "as far back as I can remember," he says. "Even when I was really young, my dad would always say, you're not going to be ever the biggest player on the field, so you're going to have to out-work and out-hustle everyone else."
Eaton now loves telling the stories of how colleges would get Randall on the phone to talk about his star centerfielder and hang up once Randall told them that the player was 5-foot-7, 140 pounds. "Coach Randall would tell me all the times these coaches would call and hang up because he knew that that night I'd spend another extra hour in the cage," says Eaton, who went on to become a star outfielder at Miami (Ohio), where coaches initially wanted Eaton to pitch.
One rejection still stings. "I never could get over how I never even got a call from Ball State," says Eaton. "Coach [Greg] Beals went to the same high school as I did, had a really good relationship with Coach Randall, and he saw me play. A few years later, someone told me that the reason was that if there are two players of the same caliber, and one's taller than the other, you always take the taller player. Always. That really stuck with me. When the guy from your own hometown is giving up on you just because of your size . . .well, for me, that was just a huge motivation."
Eaton, of course, will never forget the day he was drafted --- but he still isn't sure if the moment was a high point or a low point in his career. Leading up to the draft, scouts and coaches insisted he would be taken in the middle rounds, and on the second day of the draft Eaton was at home with his family, ready to celebrate.
"My grandparents were there, we had a little spread out, sitting in front of the TV watching MLB Network, and we watched that second day, and nothing. Then, the third day, and nothing. After that, I said, I'm going to go home and pack for summer ball."
He was driving down I-75 South when D-backs scout Frankie Thon, Jr., called. "He kind of sheepishly said, 'Well, we drafted you,' and I said, 'Where?' He said the 19th round, and he apologized, 'I'm so sorry, things happened' . . . I told him I needed a few days to think things over." Eaton decided to sign with the Diamondbacks, for $35,000.
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Three years later everything has changed for Eaton: suddenly there are expectations. He finds this a little strange. "It's nice to have people have confidence in me," he says. "But I also like the doubts, too, because that's always fired me up. I'm still really motivated, but it's just . . . kind of different now."
Eaton still has much to learn --- "he's as raw as raw can be," says Butler. "He needs to learn his routes. He needs to learn to lay down a bunt. But his upside? Substantial. I've never had a player who's played with a chip on his shoulder and been more determined to prove a point."
And there are still many baseball fans who don't know this Adam Eaton from the Adam Eaton who pitched 10 years in the majors. Just the other day, Eaton says, "a fan on Twitter told me to give back my World Series ring that I won with the Phillies, because I'm a bum and I'm pathetic."
Then there was the woman who showed up at Diamondbacks camp a few days ago with a sheet of cards for him to sign.
"I saw you in Seattle two or three years ago," she said.
Eaton looked down at the cards. "Sorry, you have the wrong guy," he said. "I'm the short one.'"