Barton's road leads to Busch Stadium
Outfielder's journey ends with being part of Opening Day roster
JUPITER, Fla. -- Brian Barton never doubted, but it's still hard for him to believe. Four years after going undrafted out of the University of Miami, Barton is in the Major Leagues.
On Wednesday morning, Barton was notified that he would be on the Cardinals' Opening Day roster. By the afternoon, even being hit in the nose by a curveball couldn't erase the smile from his face. Barton's circuitous path finally brought him to the place he was trying to get to all along.
"I think that's what I pride myself in, is not giving up and not thinking that there's only one way to get to where you need to be," he said. "Because there are so many roads that lead to one destination. The traditional road didn't happen for me, so I took another way around. And it worked out."
Barton enjoyed an outstanding career at Miami, capping his time there by being named to the College World Series all-tournament team in 2004. But no team drafted him, reportedly because of the fear he would be too difficult to sign. Barton had business opportunities outside baseball, and evidently the fear was that it would take too much money to coax him to play pro ball.
But playing pro ball was what he most wanted to do. So he played in the Cape Cod League over the summer and eventually signed with Cleveland.
"I'm not going to say I didn't still have the same dream, but it made the process a little more enduring," he said. "I felt like I had done pretty well at Miami to get an opportunity, and it didn't happen. But with that being said, I never gave up and I never settled. I took another route to get to where I needed to be."
He hit well at virtually every level of the Indians system, from low Class A all the way through Double-A. He struggled a bit in 25 games at Triple-A Buffalo last year, and then underwent knee surgery. It was another obstacle in the road, and another one Barton overcame. In fact, it may have been the operation that cleared the way for him to come to St. Louis. Had he been healthy, the Indians might have protected him on their 40-man roster, rather than risk losing him in the Rule 5 Draft.
Even with the health concerns, though, the Cardinals were willing to take the risk. But in the early weeks of workouts this spring, they got a look at why the Indians were willing to risk losing Barton. Barton appeared to be feeling his way through some work in the early going. By the time games started, though, it was clear the sort of player St. Louis had on its hands.
"I think it was probably just getting the rust off," Barton said. "After having knee surgery, I hadn't been on a field except for a couple weeks before the season started. I had to get acclimated and get back into baseball shape. So I think what a lot of people saw was me trying to work my way back in shape. But confidence-wise, it was there. I had no doubts that I would perform. I was just hoping that I got the break. I got the break, and I felt like it was my time to run away with it."
Barton hit like crazy from the start of camp. He finished Wednesday with a .351/.424/.596 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) line. He scored 13 runs in his first 22 games and legged out three triples. It was ultimately an injury to Juan Gonzalez that guaranteed Barton's spot on the Opening Day roster, but he was no default choice.
"There's other guys we could have put on the club," manager Tony La Russa said. "He's earned his spot. We'd have had a [heck] of a decision if we wanted to put Juan on the club and we wanted to keep him."
Now the question becomes just how much opportunity exists in-season for Barton. The Cardinals appear to have a primary player, if not an everyday starter, at each of the three outfield spots. However, all three of those players -- Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan and Skip Schumaker -- are left-handed. Barton's right-handed bat and top-of-the-order skill set may help him wedge his way into the lineup with some frequency.
Unlike some Rule 5 picks, the Cardinals will certainly not try to hide Barton. He may not play all the time, but he'll get his chances.
"He's played well enough to where he deserves an opportunity," La Russa said, "and he's going to get it."
For now, though, it doesn't much matter to Barton what his role will be. He's going to be in St. Louis on Opening Day. He spent a good bit of the morning on the phone with family members and sending out text messages with the good news. It didn't get in the way of workouts, of course, but if it had, he might have gotten a pass anyway.
"Right now, I'm in a little shock," he said. "I think when Opening Day comes, that's when I'll really see. Right now we're still in camp. The news is great to hear, but actually being out on the field in front of all those people, with everybody excited for the first game of the season, I think that's where it really might kick in. That's when you'll probably see the biggest smile on my face."
And that's saying a lot, because it's hard to flash a grin much wider than the one Barton was wearing on Wednesday.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.