He reached base in 101 straight games while playing for the Texas Longhorns, and was drafted three times. Now Mark Payton hopes to prove that his offensive struggles during a recent eight-game stint with the Cincinnati Reds, during which he hit.167, will prove to be merely a slow start to what could be a long professional career.
Each of these statistics holds a special place in the baseball career of former Longhorn star Mark Payton, with one representing the beginning of a journey, one representing a launch point and one marking the end of one journey and a start of another. Such is the life of a pro baseball player, competing in a sport that is characterized by its ups and downs.
While in Triple-A, Payton had heard the cliché time and time again. He knew that he was just “one phone call away from the majors.” But as he continued to ride those buses across the country, enduring the grind of minor league life, doubt had to go through his head. He knew the numbers, he knew how close, yet how far, he was from accomplishing the dream of nearly every kid to put on a baseball uniform: reach the Major Leagues.
That dream became a reality Aug. 22 for the 28-year old outfielder, who got into the game for the Reds against the St. Louis Cardinals as a pinch hitter. Three days later, he earned the first hit of his big league career, a double, on the road against Milwaukee. It was all a blur for Payton, who went from the alternative training site in Mason, Ohio, to playing in an Major League game in a matter of days.
“[It was] obviously really emotional,” Payton told the media after receiving the call that he was moving up. “I really don’t know how to put it in words yet. It’s going to be exciting and I'm looking forward to getting out there and doing what I can to help this team win.”
Of course, his journey to the big leagues was far from a blur. Following four years at Texas, he toiled in minor league stops like Trenton, Charleston, Tampa and Las Vegas.
Payton made his way to the Forty Acres by way of St. Rita High, in Orland, Illinois. There, he achieved statewide notoriety, earning Illinois Player of the Year and all-state honors in both his junior and senior seasons, and was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 31st round of the 2010 MLB Draft.
At Texas, it was very much the same story. Payton, who never had flashed a tremendous amount of power at the plate, hitting just 10 home runs during his senior year of high school, became UT’s No. 2 hitter, typically reserved for a player who can get on base regularly with or without a powerful bat. That described the speedy centerfielder, who stole 19 bases in 2014 for the Longhorns. In fact, his knack for reaching base ended up resulting in a Big 12 record: between March 5, 2013 and June 14, 2014, not a game went by in which Payton did not reach base. On some days it came from hits, on others it came as a result of walks or being hit by pitches; some days, it was a combination of a few of them.
Regardless of how he reached base, Payton strung together a streak of 101 games that culminated in a College World Series game against UC-Irvine in his senior year. Once he was on base, he proved to be just as dangerous. Before he graduated in 2014, Payton was the Big 12’s active career leader in stolen bases with 385. His career .425 on-base percentage was also the conference’s highest. He was drafted again, this time by the New York Yankees in the seventh round of the 2014 Draft.
Nearly every pro player will say that life as a pro athlete greatly differs from that of a college player, but that does not mean it affects everyone in the same way. For Payton, his bat never quieted. He came right off of the College World Series, in which he reached base in all four games, to Charleston, the Yankees’ Class-A affiliate. Splitting the summer between there and Tampa, his batting average surged to .320. Over the next three years, he moved up in the organization, hitting over .256 each season. As he approached his goal, he began to wonder what more he needed to do to show the general managers that he was ready for the highest level of baseball. As he recalls, he found that extra edge in the power of his swing.
“I don’t hit home runs,” Payton told CBS Austin’s Bob Ballou in May. “I think I hit six in my career at Texas. I started seeing what other people were doing to get called up to the big leagues, and it was the power numbers. So that’s what I figured I had to do. I went back and did some swing change work.”
That small switch paid big dividends for Payton last season at the Triple-A level, starring for the Las Vegas Aviators and swatting 30 home runs. The home runs alone caught the eye of the Cincinnati Reds front office, who selected him in the Rule 5 Draft last December.
On top of that, he earned the opportunity to represent Team USA in December, playing alongside top minor league prospects. Baseball has taken him all over the country, but it was the absence of baseball that introduced him to a brand-new hobby, away from the field.
“It took 28 years of my life and a countrywide lockdown for me to go fishing,” he jokingly told Ballou. “I’m still learning all the fish, I don’t even know what I’m catching yet.”
But just as more experience will allow Payton to become more knowledgeable as a fisherman, the same can be said for his time in the big leagues. As he gets more at-bats, plays in more games, the adjustments soon will be made. If anything, fishing has taught him that it may take more than just a few attempts to become an everyday player at the highest level of baseball.
Payton recently was optioned back to the alternative training site. But he already has reached his goal once, and is fully confident he can do it again, despite the .167 average with which he left the Reds.
“I just try to play my best game daily,” Payton told Ballou. “That gives me the opportunity when the time comes.”
The road to the big leagues has been anything but quick for Mark Payton, but as he looks back, he appreciates every swing, every fly ball, every game that got him to the point of playing in the MLB.
“It’s been a wild year,” he said. “I had no idea what was going to happen when I didn’t make the team the first go-around. I just tried to keep it to myself, put in some work in case this time did come and [I’m] very thankful for this opportunity.”