Mark Payton wanted one more shot at a national championship.
Hagerstown Suns vs. Charleston RiverDogs
When: Thursday (7:05 p.m.); Friday (7:05 p.m.); Saturday (6:05 p.m.); Sunday (5:05 p.m.)
Where: Riley Park
Affiliation: Hagerstown - Washington Nationals; Charleston - New York Yankees.
After his junior season at the University of Texas, the Cleveland Indians drafted the outfielder in the 16th round of the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft and offered him a generous signing bonus.
Mark Payton file
Each day Payton and Texas teammate Nathan Thornhill, a pitcher selected in the 24th round by the Houston Astros, struggled with their options - stay in school for their senior season or turn pro.
"I kept going back and forth," said Payton, an outfielder for the Charleston RiverDogs this season. "One day I was ready to sign and the next I wanted to go back to Texas."
Payton felt like he was ready to start his professional baseball career, but Texas always seemed to tug at his heart.
After un-Texas-like seasons in 2012 (30-22) and 2013 (27-24), Payton wanted a shot at redemption for the program and a chance to go to the College World Series for a second time in his career. As a freshman, he'd started 65 games, hitting .263, and helped lead the Longhorns to the College World Series.
The Chicago native wanted desperately to go back to Omaha.
The negotiations with the Indians lasted until the final day and in the end, Payton decided that pro baseball could wait another year.
"I think Nathan and I wanted to help turn the program back around," Payton said. "You can't put a money figure on getting to Omaha. If you've never experienced that feeling, it's hard to describe. The Indians were great, they understood and I felt like I owed it to Texas and all they'd done for me during my first three years with the team."
Payton led the Longhorns to a 46-21 record this past spring. He was second on the team in hitting (.315), but led the Longhorns in hits (76), RBIs (39), walks (57), slugging (.444) and on-base percentage (.456). He also had an NCAA record 102-game on-base streak during his junior and senior seasons.
More importantly, Texas returned to the College World Series for the 35th time.
"It made all the sacrifices and all the hard work during the fall totally worth it," Payton said. "It was the perfect way to end my college career."
Well, almost perfect.
The Longhorns lost to Vanderbilt, 4-3, in 10 innings in the semifinals.
"It was heartbreaking to come that close and not to get a shot at a national title," Payton said. "But it was an experience and four years that I wouldn't trade for anything."
The New York Yankees took Payton in the seventh round of last spring's draft while Texas was playing in the Austin Super Regional. He signed for a modest $45,000.
A few days after his final collegiate game, the lifelong Chicago Cubs fan reported to the Yankees training facility in Tampa.
"Everything happened so fast," Payton said. "I was back in Austin for a couple of days packing up my apartment and then I was on a plane to Tampa."
Payton was in Tampa less than a week before getting called up to the RiverDogs.
Payton's transition to the pro level has been seamless. Scouts compare Payton to Yankees starting center fielder and former College of Charleston star Brett Gardner, but without Gardner's world class speed. Payton might be a better all-around hitter. In 75 at-bats, Payton has reached base 40 times (.455) on 27 hits and 13 walks.
"Mark seems to get a quality at-bat every time he's at the plate," said RiverDogs hitting coach Edwar Gonzalez. "He works deep into the count and just knows how to get on base. He can do a lot of different things, which makes him very valuable."
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