It was a rainy day in West Virginia two years ago when Xavier Avery said "one of the greatest things" that Brian Graham has ever heard in three decades on a professional baseball field.
"He looked at me all serious and said, 'BG, you want to know why I love baseball?' I said, 'Why X?' And he said, 'It's so damn hard to be good at it,'" said Graham, the Orioles' coordinator of minor league instruction. "He has things in perspective. He knows it's a tough game and he wants to be good. I guess I found out later that he stole that line from a movie, but that didn't matter to me because I know he believes it."
Avery is a 21-year-old outfielder who Baseball America ranked recently as the Orioles' third-best prospect, behind only shortstop Manny Machado and starting pitcher Zach Britton. He may be the best athlete in the Orioles' system, turning down a football scholarship from the University of Georgia to sign with the club after the 2008 draft. His work ethic is regularly praised and he counts budding Atlanta Braves superstar Jason Heyward as a close friend and an offseason training partner.
But if there is one trait about Avery that makes team officials believe that he can morph from a raw and untested minor leaguer into a future regular in the Orioles' lineup, it's his unwavering desire to succeed in a sport that he didn't start taking seriously until about five years ago.
"The thing that's good about him, he processes the information and he wants to learn. He's hungry. He wants to be good at this game and he's willing to do the work," said Orioles director of amateur scouting Joe Jordan, who picked Avery in the second round in 2008 out of Cedar Grove High School in Georgia. "He's been invested since Day One and he's never looked back. The credit goes to him. He wants to be a good player."
Last season, Avery batted .280 with four homers, 48 RBIs and 28 steals in 109 games for Single-A Frederick. He was promoted to Double-A Bowie in late July and batted .234 with three homers, 18 RBIs and 10 steals the rest of the way. He followed that by struggling in the Arizona Fall League as he hit just .188 in 21 games, but that served to motivate him further.
He'll likely begin the 2011 season as the center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Baysox.
"I love a challenge," Avery said before a minor league game last week at Twin Lakes Park. "If you are around the clubhouse sometime, you'll probably hear me say, 'I'm a dog.' I say that because if you back me a corner, I'm going to fight my way out of it. In Delmarva, I remember the first month [in 2009], I was hitting like .110. I felt like I was in a corner, but I said to myself, 'I can do this, I'm not going to give up and I know I'm better than this.' I think the next month, I was hitting .310. I climbed myself out of a hole. I never let failure put me down. That's what I thrive the most off of."
Avery (6 feet, 190 pounds) began playing baseball when he was 7 years old, but he treated the sport almost like a way to pass time before football season started again. However, that changed as he moved up the ranks in the highly successful East Cobb (Ga.) baseball program, which has produced many major leaguers, including Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis.
One of his summer teammates with East Cobb was Heyward, who was drafted by the Braves in the first round of the 2007 draft. As scouts came en masse to watch Heyward play, Avery was inspired to improve his game.
"A lot of people don't know this, but I didn't start taking baseball seriously until I was like 16," said Avery, who was recruited by Georgia football coach Mark Richt as an athlete, but likely would have played cornerback had he not signed into professional baseball. "It was just seeing a lot of the different environments, how professional scouts came to games. That was my first time seeing stuff like that. [Choosing baseball] wasn't a hard decision for me. Why? I can always go back and play football if baseball wasn't to work out. I don't think that's happening because baseball is working out just fine."
Jordan admitted that scouting Avery wasn't easy. His supporting cast wasn't very good and he didn't face a high level of competition in high school. But the Orioles scouting department worked off what they saw from Avery during the summer of 2007. At a showcase tournament at the Detroit Tigers' spring training complex in Lakeland, Avery drilled a ball off the scoreboard at Joker Marchant Stadium.
When they drafted him, team officials understood that he was extremely raw, having devoted so much time and effort growing up into football.
"X was an athlete that could really run and had a feel for hitting. After that, we knew we pretty much had to build everything," Jordan said. "That's why for me, when people make light or comment on the things that he does poorly, I just laugh. He's come 1,000 miles in 2 ½ years. He's still got a lot of improving to do, but just enjoy the good days. That's what I like to do."
During the bad days, Avery said that he'll often get phone calls from Heyward, who tries to encourage the prospect out of his slumps. The two work out together in the offseason at the Baseball Performance center in Marietta, Ga., and their friendship extends into the baseball season.
In assessing Avery's game, Heyward called him a "speed guy, more typical No. 2 hitter. If you're going to say somebody similar, I'd say Carl Crawford, maybe. I don't know about power-wise. Just style, fast-guy outfielder, can throw well, hit well, put the ball in play."
While Avery has made significant strides, there are still times where he gets by on his athletic tools rather than his baseball skills. A left-handed hitter, he struggles against off-speed stuff, and he also hit just .193 against left-handed pitching in 2010. Defensively, Avery has been practicing getting better reads and taking better routes to the ball.
"He's growing up," said Orioles first base prospect Joe Mahoney, a teammate of Avery's at Frederick and Bowie last year. "I played with him in low A and he's a completely different player now. I still think he's got a lot to learn and he's still young. Once he gets a grasp on the game, he's going to be pretty special."
Mahoney said that Avery loves to ask questions about the game and the intricacies of certain plays. At a base-running clinic last week for the Orioles minor leaguers, Avery stepped up and posed a question to current Orioles second baseman and leadoff hitter Brian Roberts about whether he should look in at the catcher during a steal attempt in certain situations. Roberts, manager Buck Showalter and former Oriole Brady Anderson were running the clinic.
"He asks a lot of questions and they are very educated questions," Graham said. "He's a guy that came to us with very limited knowledge of how to play baseball. He had fantastic tools, but an extremely limited knowledge of the game itself. It wasn't his fault. He came from a football background. His baseball skills allowed him to be pretty good, but he didn't really know how to play the game."
Still, Avery has never been shy about expressing himself on the field or in the clubhouse. Mahoney said that the outfielder keeps teammates on their toes with his "youthful" exuberance. At his first minor league spring training two years ago, Avery got on base against former Orioles starter Rich Hill, who was down at Twin Lakes Park to get some innings in. Hill didn't take to Avery's trash talk too well, and a brawl nearly ensued in an intrasquad game.
This spring, he's let his play do most of the talking. In the minor league opener last Wednesday started by Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, Avery sprinted into the right center-field gap and made a diving catch on a sinking liner. He also had quite the day in Monday's Double-A game, lining a ball off the fence in right field. Both games were watched by Showalter.
"That's the guy we want to be with in the big leagues," Avery said of Showalter. "We all want to play for him so we always want to hear what he has to say. We want to do it his way because his way is what's going to help us get there."