Baseball ain't rocket science. But if it were, that wouldn't stop rookie St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Brian Barton.
He's pretty good at both.
The 26-year-old Los Angeles native attended the University of Miami on an academic scholarship paid for by Boeing and majored in aerospace engineering. Barton, who has one semester of coursework remaining before he completes his degree, walked on to the university's elite baseball program and eventually led the Hurricanes squad to an eighth-place finish in the College World Series his junior year and batted a team-high .371 as a senior.
Now in his first season in the big leagues, Barton has seen his popularity with St. Louis fans skyrocket thanks to his broad grin, flowing dreadlocks and seemingly effortless speed on the base paths. After seeing scant playing time early in the season, he has begun to find his way into the starting lineup with increasing regularity.
Seated in front of his locker at Busch Stadium before a recent home game, however, Barton explains that he wants to be remembered for something other than his brainy background and athletic achievements. "I just want people to know me for more than just a baseball player or an engineer," he says. "I'm a broader person than that."
Barton says his favorite thing to do is travel. He visited Ethiopia while in college; he has a tattoo outlining the continent of Africa on his arm. ("I just have pride in my culture and where my ancestors came from," he says.) He's also done Europe (favorite stop: Munich) and plans to visit Australia and Japan in the upcoming off-season.
He likes old soul and R&B. That explains his choice of Sam Cooke ("A Change Is Gonna Come") as his at-bat music. "It's meaningful to me," he says. "It teaches patience through all the ups and downs. Whether it's on the field or in society, you have to have hope and faith that things will turn around. I like all types of music, but more so as I've grown older I appreciate that type of music more. It's more pure to me."
Barton was born and raised in economically deprived South Central Los Angeles, the part of town where Boyz n the Hood was filmed. He has three sisters and two brothers; the latter pair eventually went on to play college football. He attended Westchester High School, which is known more for its lengthy roster of alumni athletes (including former NFL linebacker Ken Norton Jr. and LA Laker Trevor Ariza) than its aerospace magnet program, which enrolls about 350 students each year. On the baseball field, he was a two-time all-conference selection, leading the Comets to a league championship his senior year. He played safety and wide receiver on the football team and ran the 400-meter for the track squad ("mostly just to stay in shape," he says). In the classroom, his 3.7 GPA helped net an internship in the satellite-systems department of Boeing's offices in El Segundo.
As a youth Barton took part in Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. John Young, a former major leaguer who founded the program in 1989, remembers Barton well. In fact, Young says, Barton used to live just a few blocks from his house in South Central.
"I'm pushing 60 now," says Young, who recalls Barton as a "free spirit" and "a very bright young man." "So I tell these stories a lot of kids have never heard — I talk about Mickey Mantle and Ozzie Smith and tell a lot of inside jokes about them. Most of them, they'd go over the other kids' heads. Brian would get them. He'd do his laugh, but he'd try not to acknowledge it.
"The thing about RBI is that it's about more than baseball," Young adds. "Our mission isn't to develop major-league baseball players, it's to develop good citizens. We use baseball as a carrot to get kids learning academic and social community skills. Basically, Brian is what we're looking to do."
After high school Barton was chosen by the Dodgers in the 38th round of the MLB draft. Rather than sign to play in the minor leagues, he opted to take his Boeing scholarship to nearby Loyola Marymount University. He soon grew restless, however, making the switch to Miami after his freshman year, attracted by the university's proximity to NASA's space program and its unique blend of athletics and academics.
"I just got tired of being in LA," he explains. "Moneywise, I had a scholarship going to Loyola, and Miami is quite a bit more expensive. But it was my first choice. I wasn't happy where I was. I felt in order to be happy I had to follow my heart."
As a transfer, he was required by NCAA rules to sit out a season of baseball. When he got his chance to play, he suffered a hand injury that kept him out of the lineup for part of his junior season. And he struggled to balance the rigorous engineering curriculum with baseball, widely recognized as one of the most challenging sports for student-athletes owing to its exhausting travel and practice schedule.
"When you're on the road, you don't want to study," Barton says. "The last thing you want to do is open a book after the game. No matter how many books I brought, I didn't open one."
Singiresu Rao, the chair of Miami's mechanical and aerospace engineering department, says the major is arduous even for students who aren't spending their evenings in the batting cage. "With term papers, projects and exams, the average student has to work about 60 to 70 hours a week," says Rao, noting that the program admits only 30 people each year. "If they're playing sports, they have to manage time very well."
Rao taught Barton's aerospace structural design course, in which students learn skills like how to design airplane wings with the proper size and thickness to keep a craft airborne. "I found him to be very punctual," Rao says. "He used to maintain time, whereas other students came late. He was always diligent. His performance may not have been at the top of the class, but he always put forth a tremendous effort."
Barton says college was the first time in his life when his dual career paths became a novelty.
"People would emphasize that instead of my performance," he says. "I remember one time I had a four-for-four game and we won, but afterward all the reporters were like, 'Hey Barton, tell me about your major.' It's good to have that story, to have kids who look up to athletes be able to say they can go to school and get an education and still be successful in sports. I'm not ashamed of my major, I'm not ashamed of what I want to do. I just may possibly do something else. Let me come to that conclusion."
RBI founder John Young believes Barton's commitment to his education hindered his development as a ballplayer. "When he was in college, he'd do internships at Boeing instead of the high-profile summer leagues that other prospects go to," Young says. "If Brian would not have been so academic, he probably would have been a first-round draft choice."
"People just felt like his commitment was to his education and not likely to the game of baseball," says Cardinals general manger John Mozeliak, explaining why Barton went undrafted out of college. "What ends up happening is players that have options — alternative career choices if you will — teams will shy away. In baseball there's a lot of failure; you have to understand the adversity that's in this game and the dedication it takes to overcome that."
Barton went on to sign with the Cleveland Indians and worked his way through their minor-league system to the AAA level at Buffalo. In December 2007 the Cardinals paid the requisite $50,000 to acquire him in the Rule 5 draft, a process that prevents teams from stockpiling minor-league talent by allowing unprotected prospects to be picked up by opposing teams.
"They are players that are maybe not good enough to be worried about losing but may have some value," Mozeliak says of Rule 5 picks. "I suspect Cleveland felt that since [Barton] had sustained a knee injury the year before, he might slide a little in productivity. We liked his offensive ability, his ability to get on base and his ability to run. We factored in that he could play multiple outfield positions and he just seemed like a very attractive pick."
Rule 5 draftees come with a significant contingency: In order to hang on to Barton, the Cardinals must keep him on their active roster for the entire 2008 season. Barton made the big-league club on the final day of spring training — by a whisker. Now, nearly halfway through his rookie year, he has appeared in 56 games and has 27 hits in 110 at-bats (including one in his first major-league plate appearance). He says he's still getting to know St. Louis and hasn't had much time to get out and experience the city. He lives about five minutes from Busch Stadium.
And for entertainment? "I don't know if you'd call it fun, but I read, I write. Sometimes if I've got something on my mind, I just write."
When his teammates aren't subjecting him to rookie mistreatment, they say Barton keeps to himself. "He's a good teammate and a good guy to be around," says second baseman Adam Kennedy, whose locker is next to Barton's. "But obviously me and him have no common factors when it comes to talking about [rocket science]."
Manager Tony La Russa praises Barton's "high-average stroke" and says the rookie has done an excellent job of being prepared to play every day in a crowded Cardinals outfield. Of Barton's reputation as the smartest guy on the team, La Russa says, "You can tell when you talk to him he's an intelligent guy. But the way he uses that intelligence on the baseball diamond — that's for real. He's very aware."
Reserved and soft-spoken, Barton plays down most praise that comes his way. When asked if he believes he's the fastest player on the team, a question that seems like a no-brainer for anyone who has seen him devour the base paths with the lengthy strides afforded by his six-foot-three frame, he says, "I just try to work with what I have and let the people who watch be the judge of that."
(Allows La Russa: "He and [shortstop] Brendan Ryan — that would be a pretty good race.")
As for his plans after baseball, Barton says he's thinks he'll go back and finish the last few classes that stand between him and a degree. After that, though, the future is wide open: "I just take it one step at a time. If I get back into [aerospace engineering] after baseball — if it happens, it happens.
"Right now I'm a baseball player. I'm just hoping to have a good season and help the team win. It doesn't get any simpler than that."