Baseball people tend to flip over shortstop Royce Clayton. Even himself.
Last spring, when Clayton's St. Bernard High School team took the field at Dodger Stadium for the CIF-1-A championship game, the junior shortstop greeted the crowd with a back flip, a la Ozzie Smith, and landed square on his spikes.
"As long as he doesn't hurt himself, it's all right," Clayton's coach, Bob Yarnall, said of the back flip.
This spring, it's been the college and professional scouts that have been turning back flips over Clayton. In his senior season, St. Bernard's slick fielder is beating on pitchers to the tune of a .511 batting average entering this week. And the 18-year-old Clayton is rated by the Major League Scouting Bureau as one of the top 25 amateur prospects in the country.
Southern California Coach Mike Gillespie is one of the dizziest of the back-flippers. Last week, Clayton signed a letter of intent to play his college baseball at USC.
"Royce is in a class of his own as an infielder," Gillespie said. "He's a marvelous fielding shortstop with great instincts. And he's got great promise as a hitter. He's really a special player."
Of course, scouts have known that since Clayton started spraying base hits and flashing his leather around St. Bernard's cozy diamond. After hitting .448 as the Vikings' leadoff man last season, Clayton was one of only three high school players listed in Bill Mazeroski's Baseball Annual '88 as "must-see" prospects for cross-checking scouts.
Clayton has the quickness and raw speed to have stolen 14 bases this year. As a baserunner, Clayton likes to creep away to a lead, like "an optical illusion."
He's no illusion at the plate, however. He's a gap-busting line drive hitter who splashes hits across the entire field. And since a weight program boosted Clayton's power to the 400-foot range, five of his 23 hits this year from the No. 3 hole in St. Bernard's lineup have left the park.
He's also learned patience--with Tim Williams and Mark Holcomb graduated from the team that were CIF runners-up last year, Clayton and junior Dan Melendez (.591) are St. Bernard's most dangerous hitters. Pitchers have countered Clayton with an array of off-speed and breaking pitches, but the Viking star still has struck out only six times this year.
At shortstop, Clayton is breathtaking and acrobatic. He loves to plunge after would-be base hits and test his howitzer arm from the hole. He's spectacular, but hardly erratic. Clayton's fielding average is .935.
"He has a tendency to look flashy but that's just because he's head and shoulders above other shortstops," said Yarnall, whose St. Bernard team leads the Camino Real League with a 12-3 record. "He's really fundamentally sound."
Clayton gets an incredible jump on the ball. And he showcased his tremendous range and arm in a game against Serra earlier this month.
Serra speedster Cris Aldridge trickled a soft grounder past Viking third baseman Ernie Johnson. But Clayton, on the run, scooped up the ball at the rim of the outfield and rifled an off-balance throw across the diamond to nip Aldridge at first.
"There was just silence after that one," Yarnall said. "There wasn't any clapping for a while. Everyone was in shock. But what's a routine hit for most teams is a routine out with Royce in there."
Later in that game, Clayton blasted a three-run home run to right-center off Serra right-hander Paul Beaman to give St. Bernard a 6-5 win.
Those are the kinds of clutch performances that earned Clayton a berth on the West team in the Junior Olympic Festival in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., last July. When his late-inning home run helped down the South team in that tournament, Clayton was tabbed for the U.S. Junior Olympic team and earned a trip to Windsor, Ontario, for the Worldwide Games.
Clayton's U.S. team lost in the gold medal game to a more-experienced Cuban team, but Clayton recalled some memorable experiences during those Games in August.
"First of all, the pitching was bizarre," Clayton said. "The Chinese changed motions all the time and came after you sidearm. Then I stole second base against an Australian left-hander even though he had me picked off with a throw to first.
"Then, when we played Cuba, the umps had no control. One time, the Cubans had second and third and the guy drove in two runs with a base hit. The bench just erupted. The Cubans came out running past the pitcher's mound--right in the middle of the game--and started hugging the guy that got the hit.
"Then you'd be up at the plate and the catcher would turn around and start yelling at the ump in Spanish. Just hollering. I've never seen anything like that before."
If nothing else, Clayton's experiences in that international tournament will help prepare him for college ball. If things run to plan for Gillespie, who wooed the prize recruit to USC over Florida State and Loyola Marymount, Clayton will start opposite second baseman Bret Boone (.330 this year as a freshman) to form the Trojans' new double-play combination.
The Trojans' incumbent at shortstop is junior Bret Barberie, who is hitting .394. But Gillespie considers it a foregone conclusion that Barberie will sign a professional contract after this season, opening the door for Clayton.
The other candidates for the Trojan shortstop job apparently are headed for other positions. Scott Davison, Redondo's gifted pitcher-shortstop who signed with USC the same day as Clayton, will probably pitch for the Trojans because Gillespie is concerned about the toll that playing shortstop would have on his arm. And junior Rodney Peete, who played shortstop for USC two years ago, is now entrenched at third base.
The only other thing that could thwart Gillespie's blueprint is if Clayton himself decides to sign a pro contract.
"That would be a disappointment to us," Gillespie said. "But if we don't have Royce with us next year it will be because he got a very special opportunity in the pros. I'm sure it would take special considerations--the right organization and situation, not just the big check--to lure him away from a scholarship at USC."
Clayton admitted he would make an early pro debut if the offer was right. He said he'd already filled out applications from several teams--including the Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox--that are basically "psychological feelers" to test how the prospect is thinking.
Over the winter, Clayton got some professional advice--from big leaguers like the New York Mets' Darryl Strawberry and Cincinnati Reds' outfielder Eric Davis and shortstop Barry Larkin--during their off-season program.
"I'm getting input from both sides now," Clayton said. "Larkin went to college but Davis and Strawberry went straight to the pros. Basically all of them tell me to turn pro when I feel I'm mentally ready. There's a lot of politics involved in pro baseball and you've got to keep your head on straight."
Clayton's older brother knows that feeling. Royal Clayton is a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher in the New York Yankees' organization. The older Clayton, who went to Arizona State, is currently pitching for Prince William in Single-A.
"He's had a tough time in the minors," Royce Clayton said. "He's stuck it out even though he hasn't gotten his shot yet. But he's always helped me out and I've always looked up to him. So I'm sure that will have something to do with my decision. That and God. Without God, I couldn't do half the things I do."
And of course, the god of shortstops, Ozzie Smith, the St. Louis Cardinal whom Clayton has idolized since childhood--and emulated with countless dives across St. Bernard's infield.
"Ozzie just seems like the kind of player you'd like to be in the big leagues," Clayton said. "Someday I'd like to play for the Cardinals and maybe become Ozzie II. Except with a bat.
"I like the way he's intense. Because when you're intense you can accomplish anything."
Even back flips.