Byron Buxton was 19 during the 2013 baseball season and played at both levels of Class A, first Cedar Rapids and then Fort Myers. The combined totals as a teenager in those 125 games were extraordinary: .338 average, 165 hits, 109 runs scored, 18 triples, 12 home runs, 77 RBI and 55 stolen bases.
A couple of Reusses were so intrigued that we went to Arizona to watch him in the Fall League for a few days in late October. The swing looked a touch long, but the speed was blinding, the range in center field was astounding and he had a frame that screamed, “Athlete.”
As a great football coach, Osseo’s John Hansen, once told me: “An athlete is someone who can do what his mind tells him to do.’’
Make that catch. Take three bases on that ball to left-center. Make that throw.
The mind rarely asked too much of Buxton as an athlete. The body has been another matter.
The first injury of note came in that 2013 fall in Arizona — a shoulder injury that limited him to 12 games — and they have been his major opponent for seven seasons.
We all grew up hearing, “You’d rather be lucky than good,’’ and Buxton has not been lucky enough to be nearly as good as that mind-boggling, teenage season of 2013 convinced all of baseball he was going to be.
Injuries are too often seen by the sporting public and, yes, we in the media, as a flaw in competitive spirit, more than getting a bad result from a bold move, or just plain bad luck.
LaVelle Neal, a crackerjack ball writer for the Star Tribune, reported in a blog at midafternoon Tuesday that Buxton would be back in the lineup after missing the three-game opening series with a sprained foot.
This was red meat for the commenters at startribune.com. One long offering suggested that Buxton was already ruled out after injuring himself catching a salt shaker tossed by Miguel Sano. Really.
Buxton was not in the lineup Wednesday, based on manager Rocco Baldelli always siding with caution. His pregame Zoom quote included:
“The last thing we’re going to do is throw him out there for two, three, five games in a row before we give him a break. I would call it still a ramp-up in some ways …’’
Another invitation for Buxton ridicule, because you know, he never had the strength of will to stay healthy and fulfill the greatness we had anticipated to see from him long before his current age of 26.
A common refrain is that Buxton could address this issue if he would stop running into fences. There was a hint on Tuesday night that Byron might be listening to this, since he didn’t get to the fence with his traditional aplomb and allowed Tommy Edman’s fly ball to pop out of his glove for a home run.
Truth is, attempting dramatic catches that lead to high-speed collisions with an outfield wall has been low on the list of Buxton’s injury issues. The injured shoulder last August in Miami was a catch that has to be made, and didn’t look like much at all when executed by Buxton.
Buxton has been on the injured list 12 times since starting 2014 at Class A Fort Myers — and that doesn’t include his infamous collision with Minnesota’s Mike Kvasnicka diving in right-center in Byron’s first Class AA game on Aug. 15, 2014.
You can’t blame that one on crashing into a fence. You can’t blame a concussion suffered diving for a ball last July, or the big-toe fracture during batting practice in Fort Myers in April 2018, or the sprains from sliding into bases, on recklessness near fences.
There was the time when Buxton had a season finished by running at top speed into the center-field fence at Yankee Stadium. That was the bottom of the second with a 3-3 tie in a 2017 wild-card game, and Buxton robbed Todd Frazier of extra bases leading off the inning.
He stayed in but was too woozy to bat, and we wanted that catch, didn’t we?
Buxton had played 140 games, received the Platinum Glove as the best fielder in the American League, and was on his way — and then came the endless woes of 2018.
He was close to the Twins’ best player halfway through last season, then that stub of the fence jumped out and hit his left shoulder, and now we’re back, and it’s open season on Buxton.
He would get hurt catching a salt shaker, which is a strange item to be catching, but serves the purpose of questioning what he possibly can offer to the Twins.
As a reminder, that would be game-changing center fielder, and game-changing speed on the bases, and, of course, he needs to be in the lineup regularly to provide those assets.
To do so, Buxton needs not a greater spirit to compete but rather a long-overdue run of good luck.