— PEORIA, Ariz. — Dustin Ackley is what they call a bonus baby, a future star destined for greatness, a supreme talent on the fast track to the major leagues. But even Ackley has found that professional baseball holds challenges.
There isn’t much Ackley can’t do on a baseball diamond. He won two state championships in high school. In college at North Carolina, he was a two-time finalist for the Golden Spikes Award given to the nation’s top amateur player. He finished his collegiate career with 27 hits in the College World Series, more than anyone in the history of the event.
The Seattle Mariners made him the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft — one spot behind heralded pitcher Stephen Strasburg — and gave him a 5-year major league contract and a $6 milllion signing bonus. His arrival in the show seemed imminent.
But things didn’t start out so smoothly. The Mariners were so confident in Ackley that they started him out at Double-A West Tennessee, a much higher level of competition than usual for a rookie. They also asked Ackley — a natural outfielder who switched to first base at UNC after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2008 — to become a second baseman.
With much of his focus on defense, he didn’t adjust well initially to the competition, hitting .200 his first month of pro ball.
“The biggest challenge for me is learning a new position,” Ackley said. “Not many people have to go and learn a whole new position going into your first year of pro ball. I had to do that and that was probably the toughest thing for me.”
Another challenge was switching to wood bats, as he struggled to find a bat that felt comfortable.
“There are different models, there are different companies, everything is different,” Ackley said. “You can’t find one bat that’s the same. That’s the biggest thing with that is just finding one that feels good to you. … I was in between three, four bats during the year.”
The minor leagues can also be hard on a young player off the field. The trips are longer and farther than they are in college, with less rest between games. Ackley struggled with those adjustments as well, with figuring out how to treat his body properly, to be ready to play each night even if he had a five-hour bus ride that morning.
And he learned not to focus on his early struggles, and instead to trust in his talent.
“A lot of people probably worry too much about struggling,” Ackley said. “They think about it when they go home and then they’re still thinking about it at night. I think that’s the biggest thing is just flushing the bad days and just trying to move on.”
Once Ackley began to feel comfortable, he began to hit, just like he had on every other team in his life. He lifted his average to .263 to go with a sparkling .389 on-base average. That earned him a call-up to Triple-A Tacoma, where he hit .274 with five home runs in 52 games. Suddenly, in his first season in pro baseball, Ackley was one step away from the major leagues, and he couldn’t help but get excited about the idea of playing in Seattle.
“I’m sure everyone thinks about that. It’s hard not to, especially ending up in Triple-A last year and that’s one step from making it there,” Ackley said. “That’s always exciting to know that if you play good you’re that much closer to being there.”
Ackley continued to show improvement in the offseason, taking the Arizona Fall League by storm. Competing with some of the top prospects in baseball, Ackley led the AFL in batting average (.424), on-base percentage (.581) and slugging percentage (.758). He also stole five bases in five attempts and was named MVP of the league.
He’s ready to take the next step, to show the Mariners he is ready for more challenges. His defense at second base is improving, and he says he hasn’t experienced any jealousy over his rapid rise through the system.
“Everybody helps me out, especially with learning a new position,” Ackley said. “I’ve had veterans in spring training last year and this year helping me out with certain things. It’s not too bad. Everyone is willing to help out at any time.”
But he knows he will have to earn that call-up, and nothing will be handed to him along the way, big contract or not.
“Once you step on that field it’s an even playing field,” he said. “That’s true for everybody. Nobody’s job is secure no matter how much money you get or where you’re picked in the draft. You see guys in the 14th round who are now All-Stars in the big leagues, so it doesn’t matter as far as that goes. You just have to go out there and forget about all the numbers and stats and where everyone is picked and just do your best.”