Around 5 a.m., June 2, Austin Slater loaded the bus en route to Albuquerque, New Mexico with his Sacramento RiverCats teammates.
Manager Dave Brundage stopped him, said Slater:
“He was kind of messing with me, because it was so early, I was just trying to get on the bus and he wouldn’t let me on the bus and he was like, ‘Have you paid your rent for Sacramento this month?’ and I’m like ‘I don’t know, what is this guy talking about?’ And he was like ‘you have to get off the bus.'”
Slater was headed in the opposite direction, to Philadelphia, to make his major league debut with the Giants. The team needed an outfield boost — a young ‘shot of adrenaline’, as Bruce Bochy likes to say — and quick.
During this season alone, San Francisco has sent 11 guys into left field: Brandon Belt, Orlando Calixte, Gorkys Hernandez, Aaron Hill, Chris Marrero, Michael Morse, Eduardo Nunez, Jarrett Parker, Justin Ruggiano, Kelby Tomlinson and Mac Williamson. They all retreated.
Slater made his left field debut in Milwaukee on June 6, and stuck.
That’s because Slater is putting together a breakout year at the plate, obscured a tad by the team-wide woes. After a slow 3-for-14 debut on the road in Philadelphia and slow rise at Milwaukee, Slater found his center at home:
“I’m definitely a routine oriented person so finding yourself out of your comfort zone puts you out of unease. I definitely felt the first two games in Philadelphia. After that, I felt like I was starting to get into a routine on the road and then I started all over again at home. It was a quicker transition at home, I felt, the first night game the adrenaline was really pumping.”
Slater teed off, relatively speaking, in his second game in front of the AT&T Park fans against the Minnesota Twins and sailed from there.
His compact swing makes him a threat to any part of the field — spay percentages: 32 percent pull; 38 percent center; 30 percent opposite. In 18 games, Slater has maintained a .333 average with an .889 OPS including five multi-hit games.
The 24-year-old’s ascent started in high school Jacksonville, Fla., before being drafted in the 44th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2011 MLB draft. A freak frisbee accident gave Slater a broken ankle and curbed his baseball career for a year:
“It was one of those things where it happened a week before my senior season started and I missed that whole time and it basically put me back a whole year as far as playing, which is another growing experience. Really had to rededicate myself to a craft.”
On the rebound, looking to regain his routine, Slater officially planted his roots in California. He headed to Stanford to play for legendary coach Mark Marquess.
High academic standards in Palo Alto were met with a laissez-faire coaching style. Marquess and his staff gave their players leeway and didn’t force study halls or ‘real help’ provided through the program. Student athletes were treated like students, first and foremost:
“You feel like you’re a normal student and it’s a time in college in general when you’re learning a lot about yourself so I thought it was a great environment to find out what kind of player I was and what kind of player you are.”
It was at Stanford under Marquess’s tutelage that he learned how to be a self-starter, a self-motivator — staples of San Francisco Giants baseball. Slater kept that mentality through the minors, where he’d play a season and head back to Stanford each September to work toward his degree in Science Technology and Society:
“I learned a lot of life lessons as far as how to approach the game of baseball and how to hustle. How to be your best own motivator, which I think are important when you get into pro ball because you’re your own best coach, and you’ll hear a lot of guys say that, and understanding yourself and how you go about the game is big to your own individual success.”
The Giants will take this lost season as an opportunity to look at rookies like Slater, whose success on this team will depend on an ability to carry a self-motivating mindset to the big leagues, to parks with a third tier and a fan base looking for something onto which they can cling.
The organization has been long struggling to fill that dark hole in left field, and Slater might be the one. And soon, he may see a hoard of former minor league teammates joining him in an eminent club re-tooling.