Coming into last season, Brian Barton was an unknown commodity.
Every club passed on Barton in 2004, figuring the brilliant student with an aerospace engineering degree wasn’t committed to the game and would eventually go to work for Boeing–a company he once interned for.
But Indians area scout Jorge Diaz convinced scouting director John Mirabelli to take a chance on Barton, who started his career at Loyola-Marymount before moving to Miami, after seeing him in the Cape Cod League that summer.
The Tribe signed him for a $100,000 bonus along with an additional $100,000 in college funds. And let’s just say that investment has proven to be a bargain-basement price tag so far.
Barton exploded on the scene at low Class A Lake County a year later, hitting .414/.506/.624 in just 133 at-bats. Though he was just OK after being promoted to high Class A, the 25-year-old blew up last season, dominating the Carolina League and then holding his own at Double-A Akron with .308/.410/.515 numbers in 295 at-bats after the all-star break.
What few knew outside either the Kinston or Akron clubhouse, however, was that Barton was banged up the whole time. He injured his right knee coming out of the batter’s box on Opening Day, and the injury continues to linger today.
We sat down with Barton to discuss the knee, being blown off in the 2004 draft, earning respect and as an African-American player, Major League Baseball’s efforts to reach out to the African-American community.
Baseball America: First I guess let’s start with the knee problem. Is it a serious problem or is it something that’s kind of a day-to-day thing?
Brian Barton: For me, it is what it is. I try not to bring it up as much as possible just because I don’t want to use it—and I don’t want anyone else to use it as an excuse . . . especially after playing with it all year last year and having a pretty good year. I don’t want anyone to say, you know, X-Y-Z happened because of my knee.
I feel like if I can play on it, I can give it 100 percent and should be able to perform. So it’s just a matter of being able to go out there on the field and give all I can give. Even if I can only give 85 percent I feel like my 85 percent is pretty good. My main priority is just to keep going out there and try to make it as less of a factor than what it really is.
BA: Being such an intelligent player–everyone raves about your instincts on the field–do you ever tend to overthink things?
BB: I definitely do think people overthink in the game of baseball. Everybody does. I have my times where sometimes I may think myself out of situations or out of an at-bat or sometimes even out of games, but I try to minimize that and I try to really take my mental approach into the game more so than anything physical. I’ve come to realize that a lot of things in baseball, in all aspects of the game for the most part is never really technical or physical. It’s the mental side that will make everything feel like it’s off. And then we start going in there and trying to tweak things or change things up when it was never really a problem to begin with.
I realized that a lot of things that hurt my game wound up being mental and that allowed myself to become a much better player–mainly because now I know how to feel more comfortable on a more consistent basis. I’m not a guru or anything, but me getting that under control helped me a lot. It helped me not take things that’d happen personally and just to realize that ups and downs are going to happen. Nobody’s critiquing themselves when they’re batting .400. You bat .250 and everything’s wrong again. Once I realized not to really concentrate on the results, but on the process of everything, it took a lot of pressure off.
BA: Have you ever felt like you don’t get enough respect?
BB: Really, honestly I never, ever felt that way. I don’t get satisfaction out of what other people think. It’s like you read stuff and it’s good to know what people think about you, but it doesn’t make me toot my horn or upset me one way or the other.
I’ve been playing this game for too long and I’ve been working too hard to let someone–who for the most part are people who haven’t even seen me play–determine what my career’s going to be. Last year, I didn’t pay attention to what a lot of people said, but at the same time I felt like people thought I was just a fluke and I knew I produced everywhere I went. I had a short stint at Loyola and my numbers weren’t as impressive just because I didn’t get a lot of playing time. But I still felt like I was a pretty good player and good enough to step into Miami and even here (in pro ball). I’ve shown that I can go out there and battle.
To get respect in that sense is not really that important to me because I respect myself as a baseball player and I respect my own game. That’s what’s most important. The only person I really have anything to prove to is myself. Anything outside of that doesn’t really matter to me.
BA: Did you feel dissed after getting passed over in 2004?
BB: When I was younger I had dreams. I wanted to be an astronaut growing up. As I got older and older, I really just wanted to be a baseball player. Everything else at that point became secondary. This is my dream and what I’ve spent pretty much all my life doing. And then from the outside world it was almost taken from me because a lot of people–the majority I didn’t even know–felt like they knew what I wanted out of life. That was one of the main things that hurt, especially when draft day came up. A lot of people who never saw me play, a lot of people I’ve never even talked to in my life now had what I saw as a pretty glaring role in determining my future.
That kind of bothers me a little bit because I think any time you make a decision on me you should at least come talk to me–know what’s going on in my mind before you just assume things.
Mirabelli asked me before I signed if I really wanted to play. I told him if I didn’t want to play, I wouldn’t have put myself through all that trouble. I wouldn’t have gone through the major I went through and still juggle baseball. But again, it really goes back to learning not to take things personal.
BA: With all the focus on Jackie Robinson this season, and being a kid who grew up in Los Angeles, how do you, as a young player view his career in helping the game reach across racial lines?
BB: He had an indirect effect just within having the opportunity to play this game. The influence he had on the game definitely speaks volumes and will continue to speak volumes for generations to come. And that’s not only for African-Americans, but minorities period. It’s incredible just to think that people of all races went through in some point in time to try to be equal–from African-Americans to Latinos to Asians to women’s rights period. It’s amazing how they fought so hard for us to have something that we seem to take for granted. Maybe we weren’t into that era so we can’t really appreciate it for what it once was.
I’m just honored to be able to come out here and play every day and to have fun. It stretches far beyond just playing baseball. There are a lot more things going on in this world. Life is so precious and yet I’m out here enjoying a beautiful day in a beautiful game and yet there are bigger issues out in the world–people are dying everywhere just for freedom or equality or just to survive period. So just for me to be able out here I’m definitely blessed to have people like Jackie Robinson and all those people who fought for humankind period come before me. A lot of people just don’t understand how fortunate they are.
BA: The Indians played in the Civil Rights Game this year. How do you feel about MLB’s efforts to bring the game back to the African-American community?
BB: I feel like it’s good, but to be honest I don’t want to feel like, ‘OK, we need to be patronized.’ At the same time, in any sense just to show that there is a way out. And not just for African-Americans, but for the Latinos, the Asians, even the poor class Caucasians . . . it’s out there just to show that people do care and everyone has an opportunity. It may be not be cut in stone, but just to know that there are options out there and there are some people out there willing to help is huge. We never know of any person’s motives or any organization’s motives, but if it’s out there, take advantage of it and try to better yourself to get a chance to succeed not only in baseball, but in life.