Former St. Bernard High shortstop Royce Clayton, who had the game-winning hit in the California League All-Star Game at San Bernardino Tuesday night, is one of baseball's hottest commodities in his third year as a professional.
Lee Lacy, an agent and former major league player with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the Dodgers, is one of many baseball people intrigued by Clayton's potential. After watching Clayton, 20, hit a home run for the Class-A San Jose Giants June 12 in a game at Bakersfield, Lacy made a point of introducing himself to the 6-foot, 185-pound shortstop.
"Hey, Royce, I'm Lee Lacy," he said. "You looked good tonight, you can really swing the bat."
Mike Davis, a former Dodger outfielder who signed with San Jose after being released by Los Angeles last season, was putting away his bats outside the clubhouse at Sam Lynn Ballpark. "Royce can play, can't he, Mike?" Lacy asked.
"You bet he can," Davis said. "Just wish we had a few more like him."
Lacy continued to sell his services as an agent to Clayton.
"That was your first?" Lacy asked Clayton while his associate handed the young player a business card. "That's OK, they come in bunches, don't they, Mike?
"Oh, you don't have an agent yet? Well, nice to meet you, Royce, and think about joining us, OK?"
Clayton, as much as any young prospect in the California League, is used to getting a lot of attention. The right-hander was the San Francisco Giants' first-round draft choice in 1988 and the 15th player taken overall.
The Giants are pleased with his development. San Jose Manager Tom Spencer said that Clayton is a better player at this stage of his career than the Chicago Cubs' Shawon Dunston was at a similar point.
"I was with the Cubs' organization and was with Shawon Dunston in the minors when he was about the same age as Royce," Spencer said. "'And there's no question in my mind that Royce is more advanced than Dunston was at a similar stage. Royce is the type of player that you just naturally focus on when you're watching a game."
Although the Giants managed only a third-place finish (33-38) in the first half in the California League's Northern Division, Clayton enjoyed individual success. He hit .252 (fourth best on the team), drove in 34 runs (tied for third on the team) and stole a team-high 14 bases. His slugging percentage for the first half of the season was .367 and his on-base percentage was .357. His hitting prowess and solid play on defense earned him a starting position in the All-Star game.
He responded by singling in the go-ahead run in the sixth inning as the North Division defeated the South Division, 8-6.
As a rookie in the Northwest League at Everett, Wash., in 1988, Clayton hit .259 and stole 10 bases in 60 games. Last year, he hit only .236 with 28 steals in 104 games at Clinton, Iowa, a Midwest League team in low single-A. He was moved up to San Jose, but hit a disappointing .120 with 10 steals in 28 games.
Clayton is a different player in 1990. He attributes the turnaround to his upbringing in Inglewood, which has enabled him to endure the tough times.
"I got off to a really rough start (at Clinton) and had to battle back to get my average where it ended up," Clayton said. "And then things were tough at San Jose, too.
"But I've adapted well. And I give all the credit to my parents. We have a strong family. I never feel like they're far away from me."
Besides his parents, Antoinette and Royal, Clayton has a brother, Royal Jr., 24, a former UC Riverside star and a pitcher for the Albany (N.Y.) Colony Yankees in the double-A Eastern League. Like his brother, Royal Jr. will participate in the league's All-Star Game (Monday at London, Ontario).
Royal is 5-5 with a 3.47 earned-run average.
"I got the call from my mom that (Royce) made All-Stars too, and I felt a lot of pride," Royal Jr. said.
Royce's relationship with Royal Jr. has developed the past several years into one of mutual respect.
"He's been telling me I can play a little bit for the first time ever," said Royce, who signed a letter of intent with USC but never attended college. "In high school, I could go 4 for 5, but I'd come home and he'd say, 'But you didn't knock in that run,' or something like that.
"He was tough on me, but it helped push me. One time we were playing together when I got a bad bounce and the ball hit me square in the mouth.
"I was bleeding a little bit and I think a couple teeth were a little loose. I was thinking maybe I'd have to leave the game, but he said, 'You're not going anywhere.'
"And I stayed in and finished the game. Things like that helped me a lot.
"And I'm really happy for the success he's having. Because of our age difference, we were apart a lot as kids, but every year we get closer and closer."
Likewise, Royal greatly admires his brother. "He liked to play with me and other older guys sometimes, so it was tough on him, but I never wanted him to give up or make excuses," Royal said.
"When he got hit by the ball that time I told him if he was looking for a way out now, he would in the future. Now to see him coming through in the pros, it's a good feeling."
Another of Royce's admirers is the Giants' major-league hitting instructor, Dusty Baker, another former Dodger outfielder.
"Royce has a lot of pressure on him as a No. 1 pick," Baker said. "But I think he's got the makeup--mental and physical--to make it here."
Clayton grew up a Dodger fan and once attended a clinic featuring Baker. Royce got Baker to autograph a napkin and he keeps the souvenir at his parents' house in Inglewood.
"I told Dusty about that when I met him after I signed," Clayton said. "And we've developed a special relationship.
"It's a special feeling to have him teaching me after I watched him for so long. He's a great hitting coach, so I always look forward to going up to Candlestick (Park) to work with him whenever I can."
Clayton feels at home working out at a big-league stadium. He remembers his first chance to perform at a major league park: St. Bernard was competing in the CIF-Southern Section championships at Dodger Stadium in 1987.
"I remember being in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse and feeling a sense of awe," Clayton said. "But at the same time, I felt pretty comfortable there.
"I felt like I belonged. I could picture myself being there in the future."
Clayton might have the potential to be a power hitter despite only five career home runs. His first home run of the season was a low line drive to left-center field with a man on base. The following night he hit a grand slam.
"I hit a lot balls like that," Clayton said after his first homer. "But at (San Jose Municipal Stadium) we have a much bigger field, which is why I have a bunch of triples (a league-high seven).
"And I think home runs are overrated anyway--especially in this league where there are so many big parks."
Clayton doesn't want to be a typical light-hitting shortstop.
"I've been hitting in some tough luck, but my RBIs are up," Clayton said. "And I know I'm capable of driving in some runs."
Clayton struck out 64 times in the first half of the season, but he isn't overly concerned. When asked if the Giants' organization wants him to cut down on his strikeouts to take better advantage of his speed, he said: "Not to the point where I'm a Punch-and-Judy hitter.
"As far as I'm concerned, when I make contact, I usually make good, solid contact. I'm not just trying to slap the ball around.
"I like having men on base . . . you see a lot better pitches and pitchers make a lot more mistakes. It puts me in the driver's seat; it gets me going."
San Jose Manager Spencer said: "He's one of the most intense hitters I've ever seen with men on base. The look on his face tells you how badly he wants to drive in runs."
Spencer believes Clayton can become a major leagues player.
"His talent makes him stand out from everyone else on the field," he said. "He's an exciting player because of his total package of skills."
Clayton knows he has talent.
"I think I have an above-average arm that enables me to step in the hole and make a good throw," he said. "As far as range is concerned, that's more natural than anything--it's instincts."
Clayton said getting to know the opposing players in the California League has improved his play defensively.
"Against guys that I know can run a little bit, I'll cheat in," he said. "Against guys that pull the ball, I'll shade over to the hole."
Clayton said there is not a big difference between high school and Class-A baseball.
"The biggest difference is mental," he said. "But actually now I'm getting to the point where it feels like high school--where I'm getting myself out as much as the pitchers are getting me out.
"It's not like I'm overmatched. Now, when I make outs, a lot of times I'm just hitting the ball hard at somebody."
Clayton said he learned from the difficulties he endured in 1989.
"Looking back, it was definitely a positive," he said. "A lot of guys will get to the big leagues without ever struggling before, and they won't know how to react when they get into a slump. They've never been through anything like that. At least, I can say I have the experience of fighting out of something like that."
Clayton's role model is Cincinnati shortstop Barry Larkin, although St. Louis' Ozzie Smith also rates favorably.
"I was a Dodger fan and really liked Davey Lopes and Bill Russell, basically the old Dodgers," he said. "But when they started making a lot of moves, I lost interest.
"And Ozzie was always a guy I could look up to--there's just nobody that can do what he does--and I'm still looking forward to meeting him someday. In fact, my room at home was like an Ozzie Smith museum."
Clayton said the struggles of day-to-day life in the minor leagues are overrated.
"That's always a question, but it's not always that bad or so tough, even on the road," Clayton said.