Dustin Ackley's family talks about his rise to the Mariners
As a child, "Dusty" was just a little guy in the game of baseball but he could hit it a mile.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mariners @ Tampa Bay, 4:10 p.m.,
Monumental home runs tend to stand out in a town as small as the one in North Carolina where Dustin Ackley grew up.
The folks in Walnut Cove, population 1,500 give or take, can vividly recall Ackley's first high-school home run as a freshman for the powerful South Stokes team during the 2003 state tournament. Michael Matthews was in the dugout for South Stokes when the coach of the team, already winning big, gave a freshly promoted junior-varsity prospect his first at-bat as a pinch-hitter.
"It's kind of hard to forget what happened next," Matthews said. "He was basically on the bench cold and he came in and hit a home run farther than I'd seen anyone hit a ball all year. I mean, he hit that thing onto the friggin' girls softball field."
Those who grew up watching Ackley crush any ball that came his way from the age of 5 — be it in baseball, golf or Ping-Pong — aren't surprised by the lightning-quick start to his Mariners career. They say Ackley spent most of his childhood competing against peers much older and that it's helped him do things ahead of his time.
Just two months after being called up to the majors, the second baseman is hitting .286 with five home runs and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .851 while occupying a key spot in the middle of the Mariners' order.
That memorable home run back in Walnut Cove foreshadowed what Mariners fans are seeing.
"I already knew he was good, but I didn't know he was that good," said Danny Brown, a senior on the South Stokes team when Ackley hit the playoff homer. "It was either the first or second pitch. I don't want to say anything too outlandish, but it was probably 335, 340 feet to the fence and he had to hit it at least 370 feet.
"You see how Dusty is now and he's not that big. I can tell you, in high school he was that much smaller. So, you don't forget something like that."
There was another, even taller fence about 20 feet behind the first one Ackley's blast cleared. And then, a hill beyond even that with a downward slope that ran another 30 or 40 feet before reaching the softball field. That's where, local legend has it, somebody finally ran over to second base and picked up the ball.
"I never saw where it landed," Ackley said.
Ackley figures the shot was between 370 and 400 feet. Not bad for a 130-pounder who'd spent the season with the JV team.
"It was pretty special," he said.
There was never anything Seattle's future No. 1 draft pick couldn't shine at.
"He's good at anything he's ever done," said Brown, the onetime teammate who knew Ackley and his older brother, Jordan, well. "From golf to Ping-Pong. Anything he's ever picked up, he had it in no time at all. I remember being over at the house and Dusty's playing Jordan in Ping-Pong and just beating the snot out of him every time."
Ackley was so good at golf that he skipped playing baseball for his school in eighth grade. Instead, he spent that season on the golf team and honed his baseball skills with an AAU summer squad.
He also impressed friends with his juggling skills. His roller-skating, though, was another story.
"I was never really good with things with my feet," Ackley said. "Like skating, or rollerblades and stuff. I tried roller-skating when friends would go out. I was just trying to roll in a straight line and felt like I was falling all the time."
But he more than made up for it with his hands. Ackley's brother can't remember beating him at Ping-Pong.
"I'm actually a decent Ping-Pong player," his brother said. "And I'd even be slamming the ball to the other side five or six times in a row. He'll just stand there calmly and send it right back to me."
The boys spent years playing together at their family's ranch-style home in a rural part of the state once used primarily for tobacco growing. The family of Ackley's mother, Joy, owns 275 acres of farmland stretching as far as the eye can see. Any relatives who wanted the space were given six acres of property to build homes on.
Ackley's family home was one of those. His uncle owns another home about 100 yards away. It takes a hike through the woods to find the properties of his grandparents and cousins.
Ackley's father John, a former Class AAA farmhand for the Boston Red Sox, set up an outdoor batting cage and pitching machine for his boys — the same one his dad had given him as a young boy. There was also an old slowpitch machine with a net set up in the basement for the winter.
"Even now, when Dusty comes back here to visit, he'll use the thing," John Ackley said. "If he's sitting around bored, he'll just go down there and hit some balls into the net to stay sharp."
It didn't take long for Ackley's dad to figure out he had something special in his youngest son. He was the coach on Ackley's first "coach pitch" baseball team at age 5.
"Not all of the pitches were strikes, or even that hittable," his father said. "But he'd hit every single one. If it was over his head, he'd swing at it. Just to see the hand-eye coordination at that young age was something special. We'd have to tell him that he didn't have to swing at every pitch. I don't think he understood that part."
Ackley's brother, who went on to play college ball, said his father's tutelage had plenty to do with the players they became. It would prove invaluable, he added, when his brother began to play with kids much older.
"He never really stood out on the teams he played for until much later on," Jordan Ackley said. "Because the kids on the team were always two or three years older than him."
Ackley was the batboy on his brother's summer-league team for years, accompanying them on trips when his own team wasn't playing. He'd take batting practice with the older kids and occasionally get into the odd game or scrimmage.
"Playing against older guys always helps," Ackley said. "Just seeing that kind of level at a younger age."
Ackley won two state titles with his tiny Class 1-A high school, while his AAU summer teams won national championships in the 13-and-under and 15-and-under age classes.
"He was always fortunate enough to be with some talented teams," his father said. "You're never going to get better playing with kids that aren't that good."
Ackley's mother had noticed something peculiar about both her sons from a young age. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were popular back then and Dustin and Jordan were trying to color them in some coloring books.
"Everyone knows that turtles are green but they both kept coloring them orange," she said.
It turns out that both boys were partially color blind, a hereditary condition on their mother's side. They had particular trouble differentiating orange and green. Ackley can also remember a kindergarten class where he colored something purple after the teacher told him to do it blue.
But the condition was never a serious problem. His mother jokes that her sons could never use easily-tracked orange golf balls on a course because they'd have to spend the entire day looking for them.
Ackley laughs about not being able to shop for his own clothes, knowing they'd never match. But hitting a white baseball was never an issue, which Ackley showed in his three seasons at the University of North Carolina.
"Even in college, there were always kids who may have hit more home runs than him and maybe been a little flashier, but he'd always be collecting his two hits per game," his father said. "And he'd hit his home runs every now and then as well."
Ackley notched a hit in his second professional at-bat in the Arizona Fall League in 2009, just a few months after the Mariners drafted him second overall. Last year, he homered in his first Class AAA at-bat.
On June 17, he collected a single in his first major-league at-bat against Roy Oswalt of the Phillies and hasn't slowed down since.
Those close to Ackley say that if he had his way, he'd sleep until 2:30 in the afternoon, tinker with his baseball bat, go out and play and then get to bed early so he can do the same thing the next day. When his friends were partying in college, he was perfecting his swing.
Not that he had to excel at baseball. His brother thinks he could have played on the PGA Tour had he stuck with golf. Or that he might try to play on a professional senior tour when he retires from baseball.
"He's such a natural at anything he tries to do," his brother said. "He plays golf any chance he gets when he's back home.
"I'll bet you he can fly down right now, pick up a club for the first time in who knows how long and go out and shoot par just like that."
Ackley smiles when told of the compliment, but quickly dismisses any pro golf suggestions. Hitting one type of ball for a living is all he's worried about for now. And so far, it's working. Just like it always has.
"I plan to be doing this," he said, "for a long, long time."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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