Xavier Avery could have excelled in any sport, but he chose baseball because he saw it as a game his talents could grow into with hard work. He enjoyed the challenge of playing a sport in which there's always room for improvement — where getting three hits in 10 at-bats is universally seen as successful.
To him, it's a game best-suited to his competitiveness, and having grown up in a family that has collected plenty of athletic accolades, Avery had little choice but be competitive.
His older half-brother was one of the top high school quarterbacks in Georgia and went on to play wide receiver at Memphis. Another half-brother, two years younger, has emerged as an All-America baseball player and will likely get drafted in two weeks.
Avery was in the middle — a football and baseball star with rare speed — growing up outside Atlanta. When the Orioles took him in the second round of the 2008 draft, he had already signed to play football at Georgia.
Quietly confident, his father, Teddy Griffin, calls him.
"He loves to prove what he can do, but he doesn't say much," Griffin said. "He always says to me, 'I'm not going to tell you, I'm going to show you.'"
Now, the secret is out. The 22-year-old rookie outfielder has had his taste of the major leagues, his contract purchased from Triple-A Norfolk on May 13 to fill left fielder and leadoff hitter spots ravaged by injuries.
This time last year, he was struggling through Double-A, but suddenly, he has been thrust into an everyday role. Avery, less than two weeks into his big league career, has made an immediate impression on the Orioles brass.
"He's taking it in," manager Buck Showalter said, "and not going around with big eyes. He's been on the big stage before. He's been around the lights and the attention."
Avery is here by circumstance. If a rash of injuries hadn't occurred, he would still be with Norfolk. But starting left fielder Nolan Reimold is out indefinitely with a bulging disk in his neck, and backup outfielder Endy Chavez is on the disabled list with an intercostal strain. Reimold and Chavez had split leadoff duties.
"I understand that this doesn't happen to a lot of rookies, so the situation I'm in, I'm thankful for it," Avery said. "I get a chance to prove myself. I'm getting a chance to see what my game is like against other major leaguers. It's not just showing fans and the team how I play, but also, I wanted to see what I was made of."
Avery has reached base on nine of his past 10 games after going 0-for-4 in his major league debut May 13. He began his second game with a double into right-center field off New York Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova, then hit an run-scoring triple off Nova for his first RBI.
He has five multi-hit games in 11 starts and owns a .347 on-base percentage. When he's on base, his speed adds a dimension these Orioles haven't had.
"He creates some anxiety, and he makes people hurry," Showalter said. "I don't care how long you've been playing, it's a dimension every team's in need of. There's some energy there that [the Orioles] get from being able to go multiple bases on one ball."
'I've always believed'
Orioles scout David Jennings remembers one of the main moments that sold him on a teenage Avery. He was at a showcase event at the Detroit Tigers' spring training home in Lakeland, Fla., when Avery turned on a fastball and blasted it over the scoreboard in right field of Joker Marchant Stadium.
"[The scouts] still talk about that every summer in Lakeland," Jennings said. "He had the power. He could lay it down and play small ball. He could use the whole field to hit. He could run down any ball. And he always has well above-average speed. He was raw coming out, but his speed could make up for most things. A lot of talent and a lot of tools, they just needed to be refined."
Avery played on travel-ball teams with Atlanta Braves outfielder Jason Heyward and Colorado Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler, so he had to fight for the spotlight.
It was the same with his half-brothers. His older brother, Maurice Avery, set the foundation of success. He played wide receiver at Memphis, was briefly recruited to play on the school's basketball team, and even now is the leading receiver for the Allen (Texas) Wranglers of the Indoor Football League. His younger brother, Trey Griffin, was always biting at his heels. Like Avery before him, he was an Aflac High School All-America outfielder.
"We were competitive with everything," Griffin said. "From sports to chores, even who could finish washing the dishes first."
Said Avery: "My confidence is always there. I've always believed I can play. It's just the competitiveness in me. That's the way I was raised. I have two brothers, and we always compete. We never stepped down. I don't care who I'm facing, I always think I can beat them."
Then there was his father, Teddy Griffin, who kept Avery grounded. When Avery signed with the Orioles for a $900,000 bonus, Griffin made sure it was spread over five years. When Avery wanted to spend money on a new car with 300 horsepower, Griffin talked him into a more sensible sedan.
"I told him, 'You're trying to be a baseball player,'" Griffin said. "'We're not developing a racecar driver here.'"
'A lot of learning'
Avery showed his speed throughout the minor leagues, stealing 30 or more bases in each of his first three full seasons. But he also averaged 132 strikeouts a year, including 156 last season at Double-A Bowie.
He knew he needed some seasoning — especially against left-handed pitching — so he went to play in the Arizona Fall League with the focus of refining his game. He cut down on his strikeout numbers there while hitting .288 with a .378 on-base percentage,.414 slugging percentage, four doubles, five triples and nine stolen bases. He also began a transition to left field, his likely home with the Orioles.
More importantly, he has learned more about his hitting approach. Left-handers would jam him inside with two-seam fastballs, then make him chase outside sliders. Now, he's more patient at the plate. It showed at Norfolk, where he hit .273/.373/.469 with five homers, 16 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 33 games before he was called up.
"Honestly, I think everything's carrying over from Arizona at the end of last year because I went through a lot of learning then, getting used to lefties," he said. "I had to learn how to be patient. That's why my strikeouts were so high. But there's no doubt I had to learn patience. It's showing now. All the struggling that I went through last year has taught me this year how to be patient in certain counts."
And that's one way he has been impressive in his brief stay with the Orioles. He has been able to work at-bats well against some of the game's top pitchers — James Shields, CC Sabathia, Nova and Stephen Strasburg. But all parties agree that Avery is still learning.
"He's going to do some things," Showalter said. "He's going to get picked off here and there. He's going to get doubled up and do some things. Some of the best coaching you do is the coaching you don't do. He's a smart young man. He'll figure it out.
"He's a watcher. He's analyzing what's going on. You talk to him at the end of a game, and you get a feel for what he sees. I think sometimes we can get a little bit over-coachy and make them robotic. I want a little bit of that swashbuckling with him because I know what it can do when other teams do it to us."
It's unclear what will happen to Avery once Reimold and Chavez return. He very well could be sent back to Norfolk.
But he will keep fighting to get back. Avery's competitive fire knows nothing less.
"That's just me, in general," Avery said. "That's the way my dad raised me. It's kind of a football mentality also, facing the hard knocks. Throughout the minor leagues, I've got hit and had to get back up.
"I'm sure you could look at some of those stats — the strikeouts in my first year — there were times when it was rough. My dad would call me up and say, 'Don't come home.' That's what his words were. I've been through a lot, but at the same time, there's no give in me. I'm never going to step down. I'm going to find a way. That's the way I see it."
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