ARLINGTON, Texas -- On an 80-degree May evening here, he's the only Texas Ranger wearing knee-high blue socks in old-school fashion, tucked into (rather than hidden beneath) the standard white pants. His shaggy brown hair sticks out in pieces under his baseball cap and his scruffy five-o'-clock shadow is barely visible. With his average height (6 feet), average build (200 pounds) and boyish features, he looks like he could blend into most crowds.
But then Ian Kinsler begins to play: diving to stop balls hit between first and second base on defense; leaping to grab a catcher's high throw and then pivoting around to thwart his opponent's attempt at stealing second. His fluid motions look effortless, acrobatic, yet each is precisely calculated.
Standing at the plate, his knees crouched, bat at the ready behind his shoulder, he waits, focusing on which ball he'll drive to center field for a base hit or down the right-field line for a running double. Earlier in his career, the 26-year-old says he didn't know how to use his legs when hitting; instead, he'd "swing as hard as I could at anything." Not anymore, as evidenced by his stat line: Through June 2, he's hitting .277 and ranks in the top 20 MLB hitters in at-bats, runs (T-14th), home runs (T-12th) and RBIs (T-16th).
His path to the majors wasn't as arduous as some; rather, Kinsler says, his high school and college teams were the tougher test. "I always knew I'd get a chance and get drafted, but I basically had to prove myself to put myself on the map," he says. "I think that almost worked to my benefit, flying under the radar a little bit."
Kinsler's Canyon del Oro High School team in Tucson, Ariz., looked more like a pro roster, stacked with four current major leaguers (besides Kinsler): Kinsler's best friend Brian Anderson (White Sox), Scott Hairston (Padres), Chris Duncan (Cardinals), as well as Shelly Duncan and Ryan Schroyer. Kinsler was drafted in the 29th round, behind his teammates, but didn't feel ready for the pros. Because he hadn't been recruited by any D-1 programs, he headed to junior college at Central Arizona and played for a year before being drafted, again in the mid-20 rounds. "I still felt like I wasn't ready or mature enough to play every day at the big league level, and I needed to play college baseball a little longer," Kinsler says.
He transferred to Arizona State University (where Dustin Pedroia was a teammate) for the spring semester, but played poorly in his first 10 games. He was benched for the rest of the season. "That was the toughest time in my baseball life," Kinsler says. "Sitting on the bench isn't fun, and I'd never had to do it before. It was tough to jell with my teammates, too, who'd been playing together that whole year."
He talked through most of his decisions with his father, Howard, a former prison warden. Howard had coached Ian in his younger years, and following Ian's dismal spring, the two agreed that transferring might be his best option. He moved again, this time to the University of Missouri for his junior year.
Kinsler hit .335 for Missouri and was drafted in the 17th round by the Rangers in 2003. After his first year in the minors, "I was probably 170 pounds and I decided I needed to lift, put on some weight, and eat as much as I could," he says. "And I learned how to hit."
His work made the minors a quicker and easier road: He had a breakout year at shortstop in 2004, splitting the season between A and Double-A and hitting so well (20 HRs) he was named the Rangers' minor league player of the year.
If you play baseball your whole life and believe you're better than everyone else you play, that can continue.
-- Ian Kinsler
Kinsler spent 2005 in Triple-A, transitioning from shortstop to second base, hitting .274 with 23 home runs. And then, in spring training 2006, he won the Rangers' starting job at second. He debuted April 5 against Curt Schilling and the Red Sox and finished 2006 with a .286 batting average and 14 home runs. Defensively, he led all AL second basemen in errors with 18.
In 2007, Kinsler led all AL second basemen with 20 home runs and was 23-2 in stolen base attempts, one of only 6 batters in the AL to have at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Before the 2008 season's start, he signed a five-year deal worth $22 million guaranteed, which will jump to $32 million if the Rangers exercise an option for 2013. "It's a lot of money," Kinsler said at the time. "I've never imagined being in this position in my life."
He moved to the Rangers' leadoff spot in 2008 and was voted to the MLB All-Star team. Kinsler dominated the statistics through late July, leading the AL in batting average, runs, hits, total bases, at-bats and plate appearances. Many fans and even reporters believed that, had he not suffered a sports hernia that took him out for the rest of the season, he would have been voted the AL MVP over his former college teammate.
Given how he's started 2009, Kinsler might have that chance again. Those errors he tallied almost once every seven games early in his career? Out of 50 games thus far, he's had only four.
Kinsler is laid-back, funny and straightforward. In a recent nationally televised game, announcers compared him to baseball legend Rickey Henderson. Whether he'll live that out remains to be seen, but he believes in his ability to prove any naysayers wrong. "If you play baseball your whole life and believe you're better than everyone else you play, that can continue," Kinsler says.
Even if that means logging some "under-the-radar" time.
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.