Living the Dream: Dustin Ackley

This article first appeared in the August 2011 of The Grand Salami.


Dustin Ackley

By Bob Condotta

The surprise, in a way, is that it’s been no surprise.

Dustin Ackley has made it look so easy that he’s almost made everyone forget how hard the game of baseball
really is. He singled in his first Major League at-bat and hit a home run in his second Major League game, almost immediately beginning to fulfill all the lofty expectations that have surrounded him since he was taken as the second overall pick of the 2009 amateur draft.

But then, Ackley has gotten used to smashing debuts.

As a freshman at South Stokes (N.C.) High, he homered in his first varsity at-bat in a state playoff game, local newspaper accounts saying the ball landed on second base of a bordering softball field, territory
rarely reached by a baseball player.

A few years later, he homered in his first at-bat with the Class-AAA Tacoma Rainiers.

So while his career can sometimes almost read like the stuff of a novel, Ackley has taken it all in stride.
A few weeks into his Major League career, as he was already earning just about the loudest ovation from Mariner fans hoping he truly becomes one of the answers to fixing the team’s moribund offense, Ackley said all had pretty much gone according to plan.

“It’s everything I ever expected,” he said. “It’s been great. I can’t complain about anything that has happened so far.”

Nor could anybody in the Mariner organization, nor fans with long memories who remember the team’s hit-and-miss record with high draft picks. For every Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, there has been an Al Chambers or a Jeff Clement.

In fact, it’s worth recalling that there was some consternation as the season ended in 2008 and a 101-loss Mariner team managed to win its last three meaningless games against the Oakland A’s, handing the Washington Nationals the right to pick pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, leaving Seattle with what most considered a consolation prize in Ackley.

That hardly seems like reason to fret now that Ackley seems like he’ll be a fixture in the Mariner lineup for the next decade or so.

And if Ackley has ever let any of that enter his mind for a second, he isn’t letting on.

“I just focused on getting out here and getting comfortable with the guys in the clubhouse and my surroundings and the field,” he said. “With all that going on, it was kind of hard to think about expectations or what I should have to do or should be doing. It’s more just relaxing and playing my game.”

Those aren’t exactly words that will burn up a reporter’s notebook.

But they are symbolic of a mature approach to the game that has been Ackley’s trademark for years, and one that immediately impressed his new manager, Eric Wedge.

“The way he’s carried himself, the way he’s handled himself, the job he has done at second base and as a baserunner,” Wedge said when asked his early impressions of Ackley. “Really fitting in here with this ball club without any bumps in the road at all. We figured that would happen because that’s the type of kid he is and the type of clubhouse we have.”

But it also figured to happen given Ackley’s pedigree. It’s fair to say Ackley grew up immersed in the game.

His father, John, was a catcher who played in the Red Sox system for seven years. An older brother, Jordan, was good enough to play college baseball.

Ackley’s been around the game for as long as he can remember. For a while, he was a bat boy for some of Jordan’s teams. Sometimes he was allowed to play in those games, on the field alongside players much
older.

“I always followed his team,” Dustin Ackley said.

John Ackley’s dreams of a Major League career were stopped short by an arm injury suffered on a head-first slide; a third-round pick in the 1979 Draft, John Ackley got as high as Class-AAA before being forced to retire.

It’s tempting to color this as a story of a son living out the unfulfilled dreams of the father. But Ackley
says that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“My dad never really pushed it on us,” Ackley said. “It was just something we started doing and we really enjoyed it.”

That lifelong familiarity with the game, however, is surely what has contributed to Ackley’s above-his-years maturity to the game’s ups and downs.

“For a young player, he has tremendous perspective,” Wedge said. “He understands what the priorities are and what his job is.”

Due to concerns over injuries and what position he might play, Ackley went undrafted out of high school.

But he says he wouldn’t have changed his decision to go to North Carolina even if he had been.

“For me, I’d rather go to college and prove myself and have my education to fall back on,” he said. “My
dad, he didn’t go to college and he played in the minors straight out of high school and ended up getting hurt at the end of his seventh year and didn’t have an education to fall back on. So he kind of persuaded me a little more to go to North Carolina.”

That he went undrafted out of high school seemed somewhat foolish when Ackley got to Carolina and immediately began lighting up opposing pitchers.

He led Carolina to three straight College World Series appearances, setting a record with 28 CWS hits. He finished his college career with an average of .412.

Stories of the time often focused on Ackley’s reputation as something of a health nut. For a while, he didn’t drink soda or eat “junk” foods.

“Just trying to be as healthy as I could,” Ackley says.

But his college years weren’t without their bumps in the road. After his sophomore year, Ackley had Tommy John surgery on his right (throwing) elbow, repairing an injury that dated to his high school days.

“I pitched in high school, so I think I kind of did it there,” he said. “When I got to college, I never really got a chance to rest it, so I think that was it.” The surgery and recovery, Ackley said, “went about as smoothly as it could go.”

As a result of the surgery, however, he played first base his final year at North Carolina.

When the M’s drafted Ackley, it was with an eye toward shifting him to second base. The Mariners figured if he could make the move, it would give them a premier bat at a middle infield position, always a prime commodity. It wasn’t a position he’d ever played, and such a move might have proved daunting to some players. But the Mariners considered Ackley’s maturity and work ethic and figured he’d do what would be needed to make the switch.

He hit .267 at Class-AA and Class-AAA last year, showing increasing comfort at second base. This year in
spring training, he’d often do extra work with coaches and veterans on the nuances of second base.

“You have to run every situation through your mind before any pitch is thrown,” he said during spring training. “If there are runners on base you’ve got to be, like, ‘OK, if the ball is hit to right or the right fielder has to go to his left or right, where do I need to be? Do I need to go to first? Second? Do I need to cut it off? You’ve got to run through all those things before it happens and if you don’t you could be somewhere you’re not supposed to be.”

His diligence impressed teammates and coaches alike.

“The thing with him is, he works very hard,” said coach Robby Thompson, who works with the M’s infielders. “He retains things. It’s just a matter of (building) the comfort level.”

As the spring progressed, it became apparent that Ackley was making the adjustment, and the only question became when he’d get the call to the Majors.

The Mariners never said it directly, but it was obvious that wanting to delay his “arbitration clock”—the so-called “Super Two” status—played into the team’s decision to keep him in the minors until mid-June.

If that bothered Ackley, he didn’t let on, saying he “wasn’t going to be mad, or anything like that” about not being on Seattle’s Opening Day roster.

Indeed, he may have known as well as anybody that his time would eventually come—and when it did, it
figured to last a while.

Bob Condotta has been a reporter for the Seattle Times since 2002 and has covered the Seattle sports scene since 1994 at the Bellevue Journal-American and Tacoma News Tribune. He attended his first Mariner game in June of 1977 and has been a regular since.