On Friday May 13, 2016, North Davidson High was set to host Pinecrest High in a second-round matchup in the NCHSAA 4A state playoffs. As providence would have it, Lexington was hit with rain that morning, and the humid mid-spring climate left North Davidson's home field muddy.
North Davidson was among the best teams in the nation, thanks largely to the star power provided by senior E.P. Reese and junior Austin Beck.
Warming up with some fly balls in the outfield that evening, Beck's left foot caught a little too much mud as he charged forward into a crow-hop, causing his left knee to hyperextend. Beck had torn his ACL and his meniscus. The North Carolina recruit's season was finished, with his team in the thick of the postseason. His summer, which might have included a chance to make USA Baseball's 18U national team or play in an All-American game, would now instead be a time for rest and rehabilitation.
"It was rough," Beck said. "Knowing that I couldn't go out there and play, all I could do was be the best cheerleader on the team and cheer for my team and that's about it."
North Davidson went on to win the 4A state championship. Then in the fall, with Beck still not cleared to play, his travel team won the WWBA Championships in Jupiter.
"I kind of just stayed off social media," Beck said. "It was tough, seeing my friends go play out there and win, and I'm sitting at home doing rehab. It makes you appreciate the game a whole lot more."
With a refined appreciation for the game, months of grueling rehab behind him, and a set of tools that would embarrass Tim Taylor, Austin Beck is poised to shoot up draft boards this spring.
The Healing Process
Beck hasn't seen his name on a top prospect list leading up to his senior spring, but he isn't completely off the radar either. When scouts traveled to Lexington to follow Reese—now a freshman at North Carolina State—they got a glimpse of Beck's promise.
Even before that, Beck had played at some key events for underclassmen. He showed off his athleticism and whippy swing at the Perfect Game Junior National Showcase in 2015, and batted in the three-hole for the Dirtbags that fall, playing on a roster filled with players older than him.
Beck knows he's good. Everyone around him knows he's good. Scouts are starting to believe that he's good. He's just beginning to prove it, hitting for teams throughout this winter, and hitting for Baseball America in early January. That workout was reminiscent of Rocky IV. Trudging through the ice and muck of North Davidson's athletic complex en route to the batting cage, Beck wasn't so different from Rocky, who used the frigid Siberian winter to prepare for a revenge fight against Ivan Drago. Beck is fighting a different battle, an uphill climb to prove himself to scouts before the draft after a summer in which teams couldn't evaluate him.
On that January day, there was no music playing in the cage that held Beck, his coach and a few family members. But the ringing explosion of the ball off Beck's bat sounded vaguely similar to John Cafferty's Hearts on Fire, the ballad of Rocky's preparation for Drago.
Supported and surrounded by his family, Beck punished balls up the middle. There was no Adrian in the room, but there was an Adrian on his mind—Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
When Beck was injured, he set lofty goals. He wasn't going to let his injury derail him. He was determined to get back on the field, and to be better than he ever had been before. He looked up to Peterson, who famously returned to the field nine months after an ACL tear in December of 2011. Peterson rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 2012.
Beck is on a similar timeline. Because he had torn his meniscus, he couldn't walk for a month following surgery. Two months after surgery, Beck was running and swinging the bat. Now, he's doing everything. His vertical leap and straight-line speed have improved, and he's an animal in the weight room.
Andy Partin, who coached Beck with the Dirtbags and has worked with him in the weight room this offseason, is as excited about Beck as he's been about a player in a long time.
"This guy's got a chance to be something pretty doggone special," Partin said. "Everything he does is very, very fast-twitch. It's exciting to see what he's going to be able to do in the spring. He's just scratching the surface on how good he's going to be."
Partin also wonders if Beck's injury might have been a blessing in disguise.
"Maybe because of the injury (and the rehabilitation), everything has gotten a chance to get bigger and get stronger with him not playing every day. I'm anxious to see what happens with him."
Beck wasn't on BA's high school prospect rankings last fall, but he's certainly going to rise when the next rankings come out. With his additional strength, Beck has added more power and speed to his game. He can put on a show in batting practice, with loose wrists, plus bat speed and a wide-shouldered frame that keeps adding muscle without sacrificing fluidity.
"I remember Wil Myers when he played with us, it was like the dude had bricks in his hands," Partin recalls. "This guy would hit a ball, and you'd be like 'that's not going anywhere' and it would just keep going. Beck's got that kind of power. The ball gets off his bat like Wil."
The loftiest of comparisons have been thrown out in discussions about Beck, even loftier than Partin's comparison to Myers. But with all the hype, it's important to note that most scouting directors and national crosscheckers still have yet to see Beck play in games.
Beck's physical progress, however, has been astounding, and it's a testament to underlying traits that could allow him to succeed going forward.
Partin recalls a story from the fall of 2015. In Jupiter, the Dirtbags were facing Andrew Schultz, a righthander who is now a freshman at Tennessee, who was throwing in the mid-90s.
"Our guys in the dugout were like, 'Holy smokes this guy's throwing hard.' And I remember Beck saying something to the effect of 'I don't care how hard he's throwing. I'm gonna light this dude up.' And so he gets up there and just smokes a ball right back at him up the middle."
Beck has believed in himself all along, even as he's heard doubts about what he can do. He seems to be fueled by those who doubt him.
"I'm just looking forward to getting back and playing to the best of my abilities and hopefully winning a state championship," Beck said of his goals for the spring.
Multiple evaluators who saw Beck before his injury noted that he has all the tools necessary to be a top draft pick. He was a bit aggressive at times as an underclassmen, and scouts are curious to gauge his pure hitting ability this spring.
"He is a guy who's going to outwork people," Partin said. "And it's hard to get a guy with that kind of ability that's not like a prima donna."
Ultimately, it's that attitude that's enabled Beck to get to where he's at now. He's just scratching the surface of his potential, but his firm confidence and unrelenting desire to improve—his desire to win—will allow him to use his tools at the next level.