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Disabato: St. Rita grad Mark Payton a big hit at Texas

Mark PaytUniversity Texas baseball player St. Ritgraduate. | Supplied photo

Mark Payton, University of Texas baseball player and St. Rita graduate. | Supplied photo

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Updated: April 25, 2013 6:40AM



Mark Payton has heard all the wisecracks about his height — or lack thereof.

It’s been a constant throughout life for the 5-foot-8 Orland Park resident.

For the most part, Payton, a junior outfielder at the University of Texas, has been able to remain focused and avoid the urge to respond verbally to hecklers.

He prefers to let his bat do the talking. This season, Payton’s Marucci bat is talking — to the tune of a team-best .406 batting average through Thursday.

He also leads the Longhorns in triples (4), RBI (15) and slugging percentage (.580) through 20 games.

“It’s nice having some guys hitting around me,” said Payton, Texas’ cleanup hitter. “It’s also my third year now. I know the pitching a little better and what pitches I can handle and what pitches I can’t.”

Payton’s coach at Texas, Augie Garrido, is a college baseball legend, the all-time winningest coach in Division I history with more than 1,800 wins. Garrido’s teams have won five national championships during a 44-year career, with stops along the way at San Francisco State, Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton twice, Illinois and Texas.

Garrido is the only coach to lead two different college programs — Cal State Fullerton and Texas —to national titles.

He’s coached 52 All-Americans and had 117 players selected in the Major League Baseball Draft, including 15 first-rounders.

My point is, Garrido has seen it all, coached and played against the best players in college baseball. Even he’s impressed with what Payton, a former SouthtownStar Player of the Year, has been able to achieve this season.

“Mark’s gift is his attitude, his commitment, his belief in himself, his will, his character and his mental toughness,” Garrido said of Payton, a 2010 St. Rita graduate. “There isn’t anything in his mind he can’t do, which is why he can do things a lot of other people can’t do.”

Such as hitting above .400, while leading Texas to a 12-8 record.

Of course, 20 games doesn’t make a season. But take into consideration the Longhorns boast a team batting average of just .256, and through Thursday only one other starter was hitting above .300. That makes what the 175-pound Payton is doing even more impressive.

“I’m just playing hard and letting things take care of themselves,” Payton said.

Payton always has been a humble kid, even during his record-setting days at St. Rita. The left-handed-hitting Payton hit balls as hard and as far as any player I have covered. The home run he hit as a junior during the Class 4A state finals at Silver Cross Field in Joliet still might be traveling if the ball hadn’t hit high off the building beyond right field.

“Mark was an excellent player as a freshman,” Garrido said. “We’ve had guys who have gone backward their junior year — guys who hope to be drafted and then play outside their own game. Mark understands what he can do and it goes back to his self-confidence. Baseball is a game of failure. Mark is motivated by failure.”

It also helps that Payton, whose father, Dave, played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, is a student of the game. He doesn’t have to be reminded of first-and-third situations, how many outs there are or what the count is in a particular at-bat.

He knows when to swing for the fences, lay down a sacrifice bunt and hit behind the runner.

“Mark’s baseball IQ is off the charts,” Garrido said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but he steals more bases than anyone. His size and passion for the game is why he outperforms people.”

But it’s also his size that leaves some professional scouts questioning whether he’s major league material, though Minnesota drafted him in the 31st round out of St. Rita.

Don’t count Garrido among the skeptics.

“It only takes one scout to see him for who he really is and see his value and potential,” Garrido said. “His attitude and work ethic is unbelievable. If he was 6-3 and playing exactly the way he’s playing right now, it would be a no-brainer,”

Payton made it clear he’s not concerned about the upcoming draft. He’s just focused on the task at hand, which is to help Texas to the College World Series.

He does say, however, there’s been a time or two when banter from opposing fans made him lose focus — as recently as this season against Stanford.

“I was standing at home plate and one of their fans yelled, ‘Who left their bat and helmet on top of home plate,” Payton said, still chuckling while telling the story. “I usually block that stuff out. But that time, I had to step out (of the batter’s box) and kind of giggle. Then got back in and focused.”



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