Charleston RiverDogs' Tyler Austin making a name for himself

Tyler Austin, RiverDogs right fielder and SAL home run leader

In the heart of Atlanta Braves country, Tyler Austin grew up a New York Yankees fan.

Born and raised in Conyers, Ga., a bedroom community just 25 miles southeast of Atlanta, Austin was surrounded by Braves fans.

This was the 1990s, when the Braves were the dominant team in the National League. When the Braves won 14 divisional titles and went to five World Series.

Austin’s father, Christopher, lived and died with each Greg Maddux pitch and Chipper Jones’ hit and had been a diehard Braves fan his whole life.

But not everyone in the Austin household did the tomahawk chop. Austin’s grandmother, Laverne Newsome, was a closet Yankees fan.

“She and I were really close, and I know my father didn’t like it that she was a Yankees fan,” Austin said.

There was the 1999 World Series matchup between the Yankees and Braves — the second time the two franchises had clashed for a title in the 90s. Tyler was just 8 at the time, but had already anointed Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as his favorite player.

“Ever since I was five or six years old, Jeter was the man,” Austin said. “I just loved to watch him play.”

While Christopher Austin is still a devoted Braves fans, he is starting to come around to the Yankee pinstripes, mainly because Tyler is the Charleston RiverDogs starting right fielder and an up-and-coming prospect in the Yankees’ farm system.

“I wouldn’t say he’s cheering for the Yankees these days, but they are starting to grow on him,” Austin said with a chuckle.

On a team littered with young Yankees prospects — catcher Gary Zanchez, outfielder Mason Williams, shortstop Cito Culver and third baseman Dante Bichette, Jr. — Austin has quickly established himself as one of the RiverDogs’ top threats at the plate.

“He’s a gamer,” said Charleston RiverDogs manager Carlos Mendoza. “His work ethic is very impressive. He’s got power, he hits for average and he drives the ball all over the field.”

Through Sunday, Austin was leading the South Atlantic League in home runs (11), slugging percentage (.718) and triples (4). He was also fifth in RBIs, all the while hitting above the .300 mark.

“I think he’s been our most consistent hitter,” said RiverDogs hitting coach Greg Colbrunn.

Austin, 20, has quickly established himself as one of the elite power hitters in the SAL with a couple of tape-measure home runs to his credit. Earlier in the season, Austin crushed a ball into a stiff wind against Lexington that traveled well over 400 feet.

“I’m not sure how far it went, but there was no doubt it was gone the instant he made contact,” Colbrunn said. “He’s been fun to watch.”

Austin, who was selected by the Yankees in the 13th round in 2010, was drafted as a catcher out of high school and split time between first and third base during his first two pro seasons.

“He had a long way to go defensively,” said former RiverDogs manager Torre Tyson, who serves as the Yankees organizational defensive coordinator.

With Bichette being groomed as the third baseman of the future, Austin moved to right field this spring and has never looked back.

“He’s picked up the position faster than we thought,” Tyson said. “He runs well, he’s starting to get a better jump on the ball and he’s faster than you think.”

While some observers outside the Yankees organization might be surprised by Austin’s early success at the Class A level, Tyson is not one of them.

“He proved last year that he was a pure hitter and those guys are going to hit at every level,” Tyson said.

His grandmother passed away in 2001 and Tyler said he doesn’t think it was a coincidence that he was taken by the Yankees.

“I truly believe she’s up there looking out for me,” Austin said.