There's a story about Byron Buxton that J.T. Pollack loves to tell, so here it is. "This was last year, Buck's junior year, when he was playing quarterback for our football team," said the Appling County High athletic director and football coach. "It was a Thursday practice, a light walk through. I walked onto the field, and Byron was throwing the ball around before we start our practice. And the kids go, 'Hey, how far can you throw it?' Buck's standing at the goal line, and he just took half a step, flicked his wrist, and threw the ball. I measured it out. It went 82 yards. And I turned to the person next to me and said, 'You know, if I had not just seen that and someone had told me what just happened, I wouldn't have believed it.'"
And that was the day Buck threw a football 82 yards.
Baseball's Rule 4 draft will take place on June 4. The Astros have the top pick and, if you believe the pre-draft buzz, their choice is down to two players. There's Stanford ace Mark Appel, the 6-foot-5 Pac-12 strikeout king, a polished college arm that could be in the Houston rotation in one or two years. Appel is the safe choice.
And then there's Byron Buxton, the best high school baseball player in the country. At Appling County High in Baxley, Ga., Buxton is a starting pitcher and centerfielder on the baseball team and was a quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive back for the football team. The 6-3, 180-pound baby-faced man-child who's being compared to Eric Davis and Justin Upton, will be drafted as an outfielder, and most mock drafts have him going first or second. But as a raw high school talent that plays in rural Georgia, he remains unproven. Buxton is The Risk.
But he's also the most intriguing talent in the draft -- perhaps the most intriguing high school athlete in the country. He's hitting .545/.649/.852 and has stolen 35 bases in 36 attempts. He's a big-time hitter that also happens to be a dazzling pitcher ("He's the best pitcher ever at this school, but he's got no real interest in it -- he just does it for us," said Appling County High baseball coach Jeremy Smith), as well as a preposterously talented football player. "We feel that he would have been a big-time Division-I prospect in football at any school he'd want to go to," said Pollack. "His junior year he made all-region as a quarterback, his senior year he made all-state in the writers' poll as a defensive back, in the coaches' poll he made all-state as a receiver. He scored 16 touchdowns for us, led our team in 11 interceptions, had a 38-yard average as a punter -- even had a 70 yarder."
The other day a scout timed Buck's speed going from home to first base. The scout later told the Appling coaches that the time (3.89 seconds) matched Bo Jackson's mark for the fastest out of the batter's box for a right-handed hitter.
Which brings us to another story about Buck.
It was earlier this month, the second round of Georgia's Class AA state playoffs. In the first inning of the Pirates' game against Coosa High, Buck walked and stole second. "He was on second base when our hitter hit a ball to fairly deep rightfield," said Pollack. "It wasn't like there was a bobble, the rightfielder fielded it pretty cleanly. But Buck tags up, and runs to third, then turns the corner, and runs home. And he scores. I didn't even know it was possible.'"
And that was the day Buck scored from second on a sacrifice fly.
To get to Baxley, Ga., (pop. 4,500), you fly into Jacksonville and make the lonely two-hour drive up US 23, then Georgia Route 15. "It's more modern than Mayberry -- but not much," Braxton Jeffers, Buck's summer league coach, said of Baxley. The general managers of the teams with the first four picks in the draft -- Jeff Luhnow (Houston), Terry Ryan (Minnesota), Jack Zduriencik (Seattle) and Dan Duquette (Baltimore) -- have all made the trip. Baltimore has a scout that's been to at least 20 of Appling's 33 games this season. "The other day he said, 'You know what, I don't know what I'm doing here, because we don't have a shot of getting him,'" said Smith.
But strange things happen on draft day. And this year, the draft is even more of a mystery as teams don't quite know how recent changes to baseball's collective bargaining agreement will affect how teams draft.
"You also look around at how the game is getting younger and all these young players are getting signed to long-term deals, and it's more important than ever to draft well and to develop your own," said an AL executive. "So it's more important than ever not to miss on your top pick."
It would surprise no one if the Astros opted for the safe pick and went with a more proven talent like Appel, or LSU pitcher Kevin Gausman, or Florida catcher Mike Zunino. Most everyone agrees, though, that Buxton has the highest upside of anyone in the field. "He's better than Andrew McCutchen," said a scout. "No doubt one of the best I've ever scouted -- maybe the best I've seen in 10 years. The athleticism is off the charts. Everything just comes so easy to him."
"I tell scouts, 'Buck is going to look like he's pretty fast until you look at your watch, and you realize he's blazing fast,' " said Pollack. "When you watch him pitch, his fastball is going to look really good until you look at your radar gun, and it's going to look exceptional."
On Monday, Buck started for the Pirates in Game 1 of the Georgia's Class AA Final Four. He struck out 11 and held Brantley County to one run over five innings. In Game 2, he went 3-for-4 and led the Pirates to a 12-6 victory and earn Appling County a spot in the state finals.
Buck has a way with stepping up in big moments for the Pirates. Another story: it was late in the Georgia state football playoffs last winter, and the Pirates trailing and faced a pivotal fourth-and-4. "We get into the Wildcat, and the quarterback is supposed to run off tackle," said Pollack. "He bounces outside, and all of the sudden I see Buck running into the end-zone with the football. And I'm like, What happened? Our quarterback comes to the sidelines and says, 'You gotta have Byron draw plays, he's good at that crap.' In the huddle, Buck just told the quarterback to pitch it to him, and he did. Everyone's still saying, 'That's a great call you made in the playoffs, coach.' And I say, 'Yup, just like we drew it up.'"
So far this baseball season, Buck has hit only two home runs. This is surprising to some, perhaps even a red flag for teams that question his ceiling and also wonder about the level of competition in rural Georgia. But all you have to do is spend one day in Baxley and you'll see Buck's ridiculous power during BP. Stick around for a game and you'll see that Buck, who hit 14 home runs as a sophomore, doesn't get many pitches to hit. "And he's not going up there, trying to hit home runs," said Smith. "There's no doubt there's power there."
One more Buxton story: last summer Buxton was playing for Jeffers' Round Trip II summer league team and scouts were just beginning to take notice of the kid from Baxley. "He caught fire, guys were following us like a gypsy caravan," said Jeffers. "One game there was at least a dozen scouts in the stands. Late in the game, the guy in front of Buck walks, and Buck's at the plate. In that situation, close game, I'm not going to tell the kid to bunt, not with all these scouts who'd come this way to see him play. But he laid down a bunt. Later on, I was like, 'Now why would you do that?' He said it's because that's what anyone on the team would do."
And that was the day, in one of the biggest showcase moments of his life, Buck bunted.
That's one last thing about Buck: you probably won't find a more selfless, more humble kid in the draft. He's a simple 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,' kid who drives a four-wheel pick up truck and loves to talk about fishing. "As great of a baseball player as he is, he's an even better person," said Smith. "No one's going to out work him. Whoever gets him is getting an outstanding young man."
The Astros are scheduled to visit Appling County High one last time next week. They'll sit down with Buck, his family, and the Appling coaches, and they'll talk about Buck's future. And then, between Monday and June 4, they'll decide whether to take Mark Appel, Byron Buxton or another talented young player with the No. 1 overall pick.
Yes, there are safer choices, and yes, there are players who are more major league ready. But there isn't a player more talented, and more intriguing, than the kid from Baxley.