Sam Travis began most days in spring training last year by trying to field 400 grounders in a row without a bobble. He rarely took a break or cracked a smile. His concentration never wavered.
After one such session, Boston Red Sox infield coach Brian Butterfield, who has tutored so many players over the years that his fungo bat is practically an extension of his arm, asked Travis how he's able to maintain his uncommon focus.
"I've got to," the 23-year-old first baseman said, serious as a quadruple bypass. "I've got to."
Travis, ranked this week by ESPN's Keith Law as the 98th-best prospect in baseball, resides at the intersection of passion and obsession. Travis' former coach at Indiana University calls him "Mr. Intensity" and is still amazed he played his entire sophomore season with a broken hamate bone in his right hand. Travis can't comprehend laziness. He knows only one speed: full.
"Have you ever seen those Ken Burns documentaries in black and white? That's the era Sam Travis was supposed to play in. He was supposed to play with Cobb and Jimmie Foxx. He's all baseball, all the time, and it's not just an act. He's a kid that doesn't care about his bonus, or what car he's driving or what meal money is. He just wants to play." Blair Henry, Red Sox amateur scout
Imagine, then, what it was like for Travis after he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on a rundown play at Triple-A Pawtucket on May 29. A few days later, he had season-ending surgery, a fate worse than torture for someone so single-minded in the pursuit of reaching the big leagues.
"All I did was wake up early in the morning, go to rehab, come back and watch MLB TV every single day," Travis said recently after participating in the Red Sox's annual rookie development camp. "I don't really own any video games. I'll watch some shows every now and then. But I'm pretty much all baseball. I was going a little insane, so I got MLB TV. I would watch the Red Sox every day."
Travis discovered another form of therapy: a chain of commiserative text messages with Kyle Schwarber, his close friend and former teammate at Indiana.
Schwarber, the Chicago Cubs slugger, was involved in an outfield collision on April 7 and tore two ligaments in his left knee, including his ACL. Like Travis, he had surgery and sat out the rest of the regular season, but came back for the World Series -- and went 7-for-17, no less.
"Honestly, it didn't surprise me at all. The guy works his tail off," Travis said. "He was one step ahead of me [in the rehab process] at all times, so he gave me the lowdown on what it was like. It's obviously awesome to see what he did, especially after the type of injury we both had. You love to see the success that comes after it."
The way Travis sees it, Schwarber's triumphant return was a precursor to his own.
Schwarber and Travis have been in virtual lockstep since arriving on Indiana's campus in 2011.
For three seasons with the Hoosiers, they batted back-to-back and were among the most feared hitters in the country. Schwarber hit .341 with 40 homers, 149 RBIs and a 1.044 OPS in 180 games; Travis batted .327 with 31 homers, 165 RBIs and a .954 OPS in 184 games.
Tracy Smith, Indiana's coach at the time, dubbed them the new "Bash Brothers," not that Schwarber and Tracy understood the reference. Neither is old enough to have seen Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in their Oakland A's heyday.
"They didn't even know who the real Bash Brothers were," said Smith, now coaching at Arizona State. "They thought it was someone from 'Mighty Ducks' or something. I was like, are you kidding?"
Schwarber, a left-handed hitter, is a free spirit, happy-go-lucky with an outgoing personality and swing-for-the-moon power. Travis, who bats right-handed, is a throwback. He doesn't wear batting gloves, hits everything hard and never stops hustling.
They became fast friends, not to mention each other's best coaches. They developed a friendly rivalry, too. Schwarber wrapped a home run inside the left-field foul pole at Target Field in Minnesota in the third inning of a 2013 Big 10 tournament game against Nebraska, so Travis one-upped him by crushing a homer into the second deck in the fifth inning.
"They would help each other. They would push each other to become better," Smith said. "It was a unique time to have two guys of that caliber, that advanced, just coaching and working with each other."
Scouts came to Indiana to watch them both, although Schwarber got more attention by virtue of being a catcher and having immense raw power. Travis was a line-drive hitter, but because he was only 6 feet tall, some talent evaluators were skeptical that he would grow into the power required of a corner infielder.
Yet Red Sox amateur scout Blair Henry was just as bullish on Travis, noting in his reports an advanced plate approach, an uncomplicated swing and a no-nonsense attitude.
"Have you ever seen those Ken Burns documentaries in black and white? That's the era Sam Travis was supposed to play in," Henry said. "He was supposed to play with Cobb and Jimmie Foxx. He's all baseball, all the time, and it's not just an act. He's a kid that doesn't care about his bonus, or what car he's driving or what meal money is. He just wants to play.
"You call him up and go, 'What are you doing, man?' He goes, 'I'm about to go to the cage and crush it.' That's him. It's not fluff."
Henry feared the New York Yankees would take Travis in the second round. But when they opted for left-handed pitcher Jacob Lindgren, Henry told then-Boston scouting director Amiel Sawdaye, "If you draft this kid, I'll never ask for another player in the draft."
In 934 minor league at-bats, Travis is a .303 hitter with 58 doubles, 22 homers and a .364 on-base percentage.
"We're lucky this guy won't be beating us at Yankee Stadium in the next year or two," Henry said.
"They didn't even know who the real Bash Brothers were ... They thought it was someone from 'Mighty Ducks' or something. I was like, are you kidding?" Tracy Smith, who nicknamed Travis and Schwarber the "Bash Brothers" while coaching the pair at Indiana University
It wasn't the warp speed with which Schwarber flew through the Cubs' system after being drafted fourth overall in 2014, but Travis was moving at a brisk pace -- four levels in 1-1/2 seasons -- before his injury. If he had not been hurt, there's a chance the Red Sox would have called him up in September.
Rather than dwelling on his disappointment, Travis used it for motivation. One friend who spoke to Travis during his rehab recalled him saying, "It'll only be that much sweeter when I win Rookie of the Year next year."
Driven as ever to be at full strength by spring training, Travis was cleared to resume hitting earlier this month. He wore a knee brace at rookie camp but wasn't held out of agility drills.
Let there be no doubt the Red Sox are counting on Travis, likely later this season.
In signing first baseman Mitch Moreland to a one-year contract rather than chasing free agents Edwin Encarnacion, Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo or Mike Napoli with multiyear offers, the Sox were as mindful of not blocking Travis' path to the big leagues as they were of wanting to stay below the $195 million luxury tax threshold.
"We really like Sam Travis a lot," president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. "If you sign somebody for an extended time period that's a first baseman/DH, you don't have room for Sam Travis as you go forward. So we really felt it would be better to go on a short-term basis for that guy."
In the meantime, Butterfield best warm up his fungo bat. Travis has to make up for lost time.