Adam Eaton brought only a couple bags with him to Chicago for the regular season.
He’s packing lightly — except for the chip on his shoulder.
That’s a non-negotiable, travels-everywhere item for the center fielder who makes his White Sox debut Monday when the team opens the season against the Minnesota Twins at 3:10 p.m.
Often overlooked because of his 5-foot-8, 185-pound frame, Eaton thinks embracing himself as an underdog has been a catalyst in his career. So far it has helped — Eaton has a .450 career on-base percentage in the minors and the White Sox liked him enough to trade Hector Santiago. But to become a solid everyday major leaguer, Eaton knows he’ll have to lean on the chip more than ever.
“I have to have it,” Eaton said. “I can’t really rely on my physical attributes. ... When I step into that batter’s box I have to have that mentality that it’s me versus you. I don’t care how I’m going to beat you. It can be the ugliest swing in the world. But my mentality is you’re not going to get me out.”
Eaton’s me-against-the-world mentality has developed over time but took root after colleges overlooked him in spite of a strong prep baseball career.
A search of the archives of Eaton’s hometown newspaper, The Springfield (Ohio) News Sun, reveals no record of his exploits at Kenton Ridge High, though the paper has thoroughly covered him since.
Eaton produced gaudy high school numbers, enough that his dream college, the University of Texas, called his coach to ask about his availability. Texas was enamored, but when they learned about Eaton’s size, “the phone call quickly ended,” Eaton said.
Ohio State is also on the list.
Then-coach Greg Beals, who also attended Kenton Ridge, never recruited Eaton, who attended Miami (Ohio) University.
And every team that didn’t draft him despite his outstanding numbers at Miami is also on the list.
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Eaton produced a .340/.441/.586 slash line with 24 home runs and 66 steals in 158 collegiate games, numbers that would earn a player 4-to-6 inches taller a hefty signing bonus. But according to then-Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Josh Byrnes, the man who drafted Eaton in 2010, first-year area scout Frankie Thon had to “pound the table” for the team to risk its 19th-round pick, the 571st overall selection, on Eaton.
“It gets me fired up just thinking about it because I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not supposed to be in a professional clubhouse,” Eaton said.
Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said he loves Eaton’s mentality and hated to lose the outfielder. But the Diamondbacks think they have filled a void with Mark Trumbo, whom they flipped Santiago and prospect Tyler Skaggs for in the Dec. 10 trade.
Gibson said he called Eaton afterward and told him he hopes Eaton never loses the attitude, even if it might ruffle a few feathers.
“He’s worked very hard to get where he’s at,” Gibson said. “He can steal bases, he runs the bases great. He’ll sacrifice himself, and I guess one of the things about him the most is he plays with a chip on his shoulder. But he doesn’t care, and if other guys don’t like it that’s not going to matter to him. ... That is one of his best strengths.”
Third baseman Matt Davidson thinks it’s a power that could lend itself to a very good big league career. Davidson, who played alongside Eaton in Arizona’s farm system, has seen how his teammate gets on base in any fashion — he draws walks, is willing to get hit by a pitch and can bunt — and figures he can become one of the great leadoff hitters in baseball. But what impresses Davidson most is how Eaton drives the other team mad once he gets on base.
“He’s getting hit or walking or hitting a single, and some guy makes an error and he’s on second already,” Davidson said. “Stuff like that. Even just taunting. Get a single and just taunt an outfielder to throw it at him. He definitely plays with a chip on his shoulder. That’s how he has grown up, but that’s also how he has gotten so far. It’s cool to see he plays with such intensity. You probably don’t like him on the other team, but you want him on yours.”
Eaton said his motivation isn’t so much about proving people wrong, it’s about helping his team win. But he also admits his chip is vital, and that’s why it goes wherever he does.
“I need that chip where its like, ‘You’re not going to fricking get me out,’” Eaton said. “It doesn’t matter what happens. Same defensively, coming in on the ball. I take it personal when some guy goes first to third or some guy is going to score on a shallow sac fly. That’s how I go into it. ... I continue to push, and if I can have a chip on my shoulder and help my team win day in and day out, that makes me happy.”