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Friday, May 22, 2009
UNC's Ackley calls for gushing

By Ryan McGee
ESPN The Magazine

Baseball scouts aren't gushers.

Neither are cross-checkers, draft analysts or opposing college coaches.

You're more likely to hear "He's not as good as so-and-so" or "Let's see him do that with a wood bat" than any genuine kneel-at-the-altar praise, no matter how Paul Bunyan-esque a college player's career numbers are.

Dustin Ackley isn't a talker. The UNC first baseman is exceedingly polite and courteous, as any member of the college baseball media corps will tell you. But they will also tell you that as the junior leads the Tar Heels into the ACC tournament this weekend in Durham, N.C., he would rather let his bat speak for him.

Dustin Ackley
Dustin Ackley has 185 RBIs and a .409 batting average over three years at North Carolina.

And when that black and orange Nike stick starts talking, it transforms those who make a habit of not gushing into instant spigots of adoration.

Said a pro scout during the Tar Heels' 4-1 win last week at UNC-Charlotte, where Ackley went 2-for-3 with 2 RBIs and a stolen base: "He owns the strike zone. The only at-bat tonight that's lasted less than five pitches was when they intentionally walked him with two on."

Then the scout sitting next to him chimed in: "I would walk over hot coals naked to watch this kid hit."

Three days later, the Heels were greeted before a crucial season-ending series at Boston College by UNC alum Peter Gammons, who stood by the batting cage mesmerized by the lean 6-foot-1, 185-pound left-handed hitter just two days away from being named the ACC Player of the Year. That night Ackley's bat spoke very loudly with four hits and its 17th homer of the season. He also scored four runs and drove in four.

In Gammons' May 16 blog on ESPN.com, he -- yes -- gushed for nearly 500 words under the headline "Carolina's Dustin Ackley has 'it'" and evoked the names of Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, Chase Utley and Johnny Damon.

That love is expected to continue all the way through June 9, when Ackley is a near-unanimous choice to follow San Diego State hurler Stephen Strasburg at No. 2 in the MLB draft, to the Seattle Mariners. The draft board experts love to point to Ackley's machinelike career numbers of .409 BA/36 HR/185 RBIs, or his otherworldly 2009 OPS of 1.273.

But what Gammons and his fellow baseball people love about Ackley has little to do with statistics.

"It's not in the bat or the glove, it's in the eyes; it's how he carries himself," said Florida State coach Mike Martin, who has coached nearly 200 MLB draftees, including J.D. Drew; Deion Sanders; and last year's ACC "it" pick, Buster Posey. "You look a kid like that in the eye and think, 'Well, if he doesn't make it in the big leagues, then clearly I don't know what I'm talking about.'"

It's not in the bat or the glove, it's in the eyes; it's how he carries himself.

--Florida State coach Mike Martin, on Dustin Ackley

"Dusty's the most incredible player I've ever watched over three years," said Tar Heels coach Mike Fox, who freely admits his bias but politely reminds that his feelings are being echoed by plenty of people who certainly have no love for all things Carolina blue. "As many at-bats as I have watched on video during my life, you catch yourself watching Dusty's over and over because it is truly amazing how long his bat head stays through the hitting zone, even when he's fooled. That's why he can make so much contact, especially with two strikes."

So, it's just all that great coaching he's gotten over the past three years, right?

"No," Fox said with a laugh. "You're born with that."

Ackley's father, John, was drafted out of Mahopac (N.Y.) High School by the Red Sox in the third round of 1979 MLB draft, rising as high as Triple-A Pawtucket as a catcher. Though not blessed with his son's speed and eye at the plate, the key piece of DNA can be found on the bottom line of the father's scouting report -- PATIENCE: 91.

In 1982, during a two-year stint with Class A Winston-Salem of the Carolina League, the catcher met a local girl named Joy Wall in the stands of Ernie Shore Field. Less than a year later, the manager gave Ackley a few days off to marry Wall, and five years later, Dustin was born.

Dustin Ackley
Ackley, right, will likely be taken as the No. 2 pick in June's Major League Baseball draft.

"I'd like to take credit for [Dustin's talent]," John said from his home in Walnut Cove, N.C., just north of Winston-Salem. "But I can't. I like to think that he's an athlete because I was, but what has always separated the two of us is his drive."

UNC's senior class of 2008 will forever receive the credit for transforming the long-dormant Tar Heels baseball program into an annual visitor to the College World Series. But it's the group that came after them -- including pitchers Adam Warren, Alex White and Brian Moran and sluggers Garrett Gore and Kyle Seager -- who will be remembered as the classes who ensured the program would remain a long-term threat for years to come.

Ackley is the leader of that group, though you'd never get him to admit it.

"I don't know if I've ever heard him talk," Fox joked, "but he leads by just being him. Showing up early, working hard and never being satisfied with where he is. If you're a freshman coming in and you watch him in the cage or watch him looking at video, you're going to learn how to do it or just throw your hands up. Our guys have chosen to follow Dusty."

"He's always been that way," John Ackley said. "Weights every night, eating right all the time. No sodas and nothing fried. Don't get me wrong, he's always been fun. But while other kids were goofing around, he was working at getting better."

Now Ackley will work at getting North Carolina back to Rosenblatt Stadium for the fourth consecutive year. The previous three trips have ended with two runner-up finishes and last year's third-place run. He doesn't like talking about the draft or the pros, but everyone knows he'll be turning in his No. 13 uniform for good when the season ends, whenever that may be.

"I don't want to jinx him," Fox said cautiously, "but if he doesn't make it to the major leagues, it won't be because of him. It'll take something unfortunate, something that takes him out of being able to play the game like we all know he can play it. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone within college baseball or anyone here watching him play in person who wouldn't agree with me on that."

They don't just agree, Coach, they gush.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "THE ROAD TO OMAHA: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available.