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College only adds to Godwin's mystery

By John Manuel

CHAPEL HILL, N.C.–Tyrell Godwin walks in for an interview having just rolled out of bed. It’s a day off for Godwin, a junior outfielder for North Carolina. Those have been rare over the past three years.

When you work and play the way Godwin does, you don’t have many days off. Godwin needs just four classes to earn his degree in history. He already has completed the degree’s most stringent requirement: History 90, a seminar course focused on one topic and graded essentially on a voluminous, 30-page term paper. (Godwin’s topic was the rise of the black middle class in the industrial Midwest in the post-World War II era.)

The typical college student takes at least four years to graduate, and doesn’t play two sports while finishing up his degree–without the benefit of summer school. The typical college baseball player is hoping to get drafted before he graduates anyway.

It’s atypical that Godwin is even in college at all. Since baseball instituted the draft in 1965, just 35 first-round picks have gone unsigned (see chart). If Godwin gets drafted in the first round this year, he will be the first player since current big leaguers Charles Johnson and Calvin Murray to be drafted in the first round out of both high school and college.

Few college players run 60 yards in 6.4 seconds, have bat speed compared to Barry Bonds or flash above-average ability in all five tools. And the typical college player didn’t turn down nearly $2 million out of high school after being a first-round pick–by the defending World Series champion Yankees.

As he knows and is constantly reminded, Godwin is not the typical college student. He’s certainly not the typical college player, which makes his place in the 2000 draft even more perplexing.

He’s the most intriguing player, in terms of personality and talent, in the draft. "Intriguing," North Carolina coach Mike Fox says. "That’s the first time I’ve heard that word about him. That’s a good one. I’m going to have to write that one down."

Scouts’ intrigue stems from Godwin’s tools, which they love, and his desire, which they question. They often do with a player whose top priority is academics, not athletics. Godwin attends North Carolina on a Morehead Scholarship, the university’s highest academic grant. The scholarship requires him to maintain at least a 3.0 grade-point average, which hasn’t been a problem for Godwin–he made the dean’s list in five of his first six semesters on campus.

"Tyrell is one of the most interesting and dynamic people I have ever met," says Stanford third baseman John Gall, Godwin’s teammate and roommate with Team USA’s traveling college squad last summer. "He is remarkably intelligent. He just also happens to be an incredible athlete."

Godwin’s talent prompted the Yankees to draft him 24th overall in 1997 out of East Bladen High in Elizabethtown, N.C. He turned down their $1.9 million bonus offer. Had he not attended North Carolina on an academic scholarship, Godwin would have been on a football scholarship. He played two years for the Tar Heels’ football team and excelled as a kickoff returner, setting a school record with a 100-yard touchdown return in a loss at Stanford.

But football is part of Godwin’s past now, a move he finally made for good last summer. He chose to play for Team USA with many of the nation’s top players, traveling to Japan and around this country on an exhibition tour. Instead of heading for football practice when the summer ended, Godwin got ready for fall practice with the Tar Heels’ baseball team. It was his first fall-ball experience, and the first time he had ever played just one sport for an entire year.

He had hoped the move to baseball full-time, coupled with a lighter academic workload this spring (he took just four classes), would replace the scouts’ intrigue with outright interest. But he knows that until he signs a pro contract and leaves school for baseball, the doubts will remain.

"I think pro ball will be better for me than college ball, just for the fact that I will have the ability–for once in my life–to focus on only one thing," Godwin says. "For example, I have struggled my first two years before exams with my hitting, because of the outside pressure of my academic responsibilities.

"I have my priorities straight. In college, that focus has been on my academics. When I’m not in college anymore, that focus will be baseball. I’m looking forward to being able to devote all my time to that."

Now it will take one team that believes him to take the chance and draft him.

Scouts and coaches think Godwin could be scary good if he devotes himself fully to baseball. He thinks it’s a matter of when, not if, and gets miffed by the assumption that he doesn’t want to play.

"I’m sure there are guys who wonder, ‘Is that guy dedicated 100 percent to baseball?’ At this point, I’m not supposed to be," he says. "As far as I see it, I’ve been doing my job, and that’s being a student-athlete, with the student part first.

"With my dedication I’ve shown to academics, I think it should say to people that when I’m focused on baseball and it’s my job, it will get the same focus and dedication academics get now. And I’m dedicated enough to stick with it until I succeed."

Thanks to his academic workload and football, Godwin came to North Carolina as a raw baseball player, something he acknowledges. He knows he has come a long way, but that he has far to go to reach his considerable potential. He credits Tar Heels assistant coach Chad Holbrook, who ended his playing career in 1993 as the school’s hits leader, for helping him learn many of the game’s nuances.

"Coach Holbrook really took me under his wing during my freshman year, and that was big for me," Godwin says. "He’s taught me so many things about the game, and I just feel I know so much more about it than when I first came to school."

Holbrook agrees with his star pupil’s assessment. An expert bunter and basestealer in his career, Holbrook has tried to pass that knowledge on. But he says Godwin still lacks confidence in his ability to bunt, read pitchers and take extra bases on his own, despite his considerable talent. That’s when all the progress goes out the window.

"He used to not be able to hit to left field at all, and now he can do that some," Holbrook says. "He hangs in a lot better against lefthanded pitchers. He used to be scared to even take a lead off first, but now he’s a lot better at that. But sometimes he reverts back to his athletic ability and will do some asinine things."

The asinine list includes getting picked off bases or overrunning them, throwing to the wrong base in the field or getting himself out at the plate by swinging at bad pitches. Fox and Holbrook have helped Godwin improve his fundamentals, but the total package hasn’t come together. Part of the reason is that Godwin doesn’t consider himself a great practice player.

In fact, one of the reasons he chose baseball as his primary sport over football was his preference for games over practice. "It’s hard to know if you’re improving in practice, because you’re not really testing yourself," Godwin says. "You don’t have that daily grind of practice in baseball, especially in pro ball. You get a chance to step up and showcase every day."

Godwin has plenty to showcase, yet he always leaves coaches, teammates and scouts wanting more. And as the draft approached, scouts had more questions about Godwin than answers. A preseason first-team All-American, the junior outfielder had hit .363-10-62 with 24 stolen bases. He was second on the team in average, homers and steals while leading it in RBIs.

But Godwin exasperated scouts by not playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, sitting out with a pulled quadriceps even though the team’s medical staff had cleared him to play. Pro teams that already questioned whether he wants to play pro ball now question how much he wants to play, period.

"I’m one of his biggest supporters, and now I have questions because he’s kind of a paradox," one scout says. "He frustrates everybody–scouts, his coaches, teammates– that’s the best word to describe it. I don’t know the severity of the injury, but I was told he probably could’ve played.

"When you hear that, and most (scouts) don’t like him already, you can see why he’s probably falling out of the first round. And if that happens, then there are some serious signability questions."

Try as he might, Godwin has not been able to convince scouts he wants to play pro ball. With regard to this year’s draft, he insists he is ready to sign, even if he is not drafted in the first round. As long as he doesn’t consider the bonus offer insulting–if it’s less than the $1.9 million he turned down three years ago, more than likely–Godwin says his pro career will begin.

When it does begin, his detractors believe it could end just as quickly. Godwin considers himself a high achiever, a perfectionist driven by competition, and is quick to get down on himself when he makes a mistake. Criticism only seems to make the situation worse. The more you preach, Holbrook says, the less he listens.

"Everybody responds to criticism differently," says Texas A&M coach Mark Johnson, who coached Godwin last year with Team USA. "He responds much better to a pat on the back. I think he’s looking for acceptance and approval."

Players don’t often find that in Rookie ball from coaches who are trying to work their way up the ladder just like prospects are. One scout said, "The first coach he has who is a hardass, (Godwin) might just say, ‘I don’t need this. I’m just going to go back to school and be a lawyer.’ And that makes him an extremely risky pick."

His close friends, though, say Godwin thrives on proving people wrong. North Carolina junior lefthander Ryan Snare, who is projected to go in the first three rounds of the draft, has been Godwin’s closest friend on the team.

Snare is the team’s prankster and resident flaky lefty, a pitcher known to tell opposing batters what pitch is about to come their way, then strike them out anyway. Godwin, on the other hand, may be the most straight-laced player on the team. While on the surface they seem like opposites, Godwin and Snare share two important traits. Both have dealt with pressure from the draft (Snare was a ninth-round pick out of high school), and both respect an honest, up-front approach. Call Snare Godwin’s conscience in the Tar Heels clubhouse.

"When I met Snare, he was like, ‘If you’re a first-rounder, you better play like it,’ and that’s what started it," Godwin says. "We’re always encouraging each other, but he also helps me keep it real, makes sure I’m giving it all I have. I feel like if I can prove myself to Ryan Snare, I can prove myself to anybody."

Snare wasn’t on Team USA last summer, and neither was anyone else Godwin knew. He admits the situation was a difficult one, with the team filled with players from the West Coast. Of the 20 players on the roster, 11 played for schools in California or Arizona. Johnson and teammates such as Gall and UCLA outfielder Bill Scott say that while Godwin didn’t fit in at first–and for some players, not at all–they enjoyed having him on the team and emerged from the summer with as much respect for him as for any player.

If the isolation bothered Godwin, it didn’t show on the field. He impressed scouts with his performance, playing center field for the first time and hitting .357-4-22 with nine stolen bases. Scouts say Godwin is more involved defensively and offensively when he plays center field and project that as his future position, though he seldom played it for North Carolina.

"When we first met, he was a real, ‘yes sir, no sir,’ kind of guy," Johnson says. "The respect was nice, but he wasn’t really willing to share his real thoughts. I could tell he was a real quality young man–when you’re together 24 hours a day like our team was, you can’t hide who you are. And his talent is undeniable.

"I think he can be a great center fielder and great player, though I don’t think he’s cut out for being a leading hitter. But I can’t say I know him as well as I know some other players, because he didn’t allow that. I think there’s a lot to Tyrell Godwin, and I’d like to know more."

One of those Godwin allowed in is Gall, who compares Godwin to some of Stanford’s two-sport stars in their ability to handle a challenging academic load as well as two sports. To some scouts, though, the football part of the equation gives them another reason to dislike Godwin.

They say he came to college as a football player and pre-med student and will leave as a pre-law student who plays baseball. As few students come out of college doing what they envisioned when they went in, Godwin could be excused for changing his mind.

"But I knew it was going to be baseball!" he says. "If you’re a first-round pick out of high school, then you know your first sport is going to be baseball. That’s how it goes. I knew that.

"But I love to play. I took three physical education classes in volleyball, soccer and tennis, and I love playing all of those now. I love to play. So I can’t wait for pro ball."

Above all, it may be yet another chance for Godwin to prove people wrong. Gall knows that even when people don’t understand Godwin, he has the ability to rise to the occasion. Last summer was Godwin’s first taste of baseball in a professional setting, playing for a traveling team that played against top competition consistently, and he thrived. The few who can say they really know him expect him to do it again.

"It took me an entire summer to get to know Tyrell, and he has a lot to offer the game of baseball," Gall says. "He will tell you he didn’t fit into the team last summer. In fact there were nights we’d talk about how separate and misunderstood he felt from both the coaches and players.

"I think it’s that Tyrell doesn’t like to be labeled as a speedster, a power guy or an intellect, because he can do them all equally well. Often times, coaches or scouts will try to pigeonhole players into certain roles. Tyrell doesn’t need a role because he is a five-tool guy learning how to use them all."

Once Godwin’s pro career starts, he’ll have the chance to find his own role. Only he knows what that role will be.

If you have comments or suggestions, you can reach John Manuel at johnmanuel@baseballamerica.com.

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