<
>

Injury, firings, future decisions weigh on Washington's mind

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Receiving a text message while sitting in class has become standard procedure for the typical red-blooded American high school student. Then there are the text messages that LeVon Washington of Buchholz High (Gainesville, Fla.) is getting these days.

On game days for the Buchholz Bobcats baseball team, the texts are usually abbreviations of the following questions sent from major league scouts: What time is batting practice today? Will you be playing the outfield?

Washington is a 17-year-old senior who has already signed with the University of Florida, just a few blocks south of his high school campus. But his speed on the base paths and overall natural ability and instincts have the scouts trying to decide how high the left-handed contact hitter should be picked in the major leagues' amateur draft in June.

He had shoulder surgery last fall and has only DHed for the Bobcats so far this season. His debut in the field could come next week. That could help determine whether Washington goes straight to pro ball or becomes a college freshman with the Gators.

If all of this has Washington fretting, he doesn't show it.

"I feel like I've already been drafted, by the Gators," he said hours before a recent game. "I know they want me. I don't have control over the other teams."

A covey of scouts, identifiable by their omnipresent stopwatches, converged upon Bobcat Field on Monday in the hope that Washington might play in the field against Palm Beach Gardens. He DHed and only reaffirmed what they already knew about him both in the batter's box and on the bases. After leading off second base, he stole third before the opposing pitcher even got his sign from the catcher. He scored on the pitcher's overthrow of third.

"He's so fast," said classmate Alex Graham, a first baseman/pitcher, "that sometimes it looks like he's slipping."

Washington said he has limited his running so far this season and hasn't been caught in eight attempts. Last year, he said he went 40-for-41 (hitting .353) while playing for Gainesville High after transferring from Buchholz just before the season began. He was only thrown out by his former and now current teammate, Bobcats catcher Will Allen.

"He stole second on me the pitch before," said Allen, a junior. "He just said it was a good throw, that he hadn't seen that in a long time."

Washington stole second and third off Allen earlier in the game. And Washington noted his unsuccessful steal of third came with a left-handed batter at the plate.

"I've got it on film," he said.

Washington is about 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds and has the song "Turn My Swag On" by Soulja Boy and Lil Wayne played at home games when he comes to the plate. He is in the mold of Kenny Lofton and is a little smaller than Jose Reyes, his favorite player. He has been clocked getting to first in 3.95 seconds and running the 60-yard dash in 6.21 on artificial turf. If he accepts an invitation to play in the state postseason all-star game in Sebring, Fla., he'll likely be timed in the 60 again there.

Washington said he didn't grow up always being the fastest kid during recess.

"I was always fast enough, but I was never the fastest," he said. "I just kind of worked at it. You can separate yourself from a lot of people by being the fastest. You're not always going to be the best hitter when you go to a showcase or the best arm, but you can be the fastest. I worked at it the whole summer."

His natural speed has been supplemented by some expert instruction from Gainesville's Derrick Robinson, who was drafted from P.K. Yonge High in the fourth round by the Kansas City Royals in 2006. Robinson ran the 60-yard dash in 6.19 seconds. Playing last season in Class A, Robinson stole 62 bases in 79 attempts.

He and Washington played together on a travel team, and Robinson has given Washington tips on getting leads and running technique.

Washington played the middle infield last season for Gainesville High, which he also did as a youngster playing for his father, after playing the outfield when moved up to the Buchholz varsity as a sophomore. He said the combination of the change in throwing motions from the infield to the outfield plus his habit of sliding head-first combined to create the injury that required surgery.

Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan is a frequent visitor to Buchholz games and often finds himself in curious company. He's surrounded by the scouts who could help Washington bypass college.

"I'm friends with most of them; they've got a job to do," said O'Sullivan, whose team is ranked 20th in the country this week by Baseball America. "LeVon can become one of the best, if not the best, leadoff hitter in the country. He just needs to solidify a position. He just needs to play more. The mistakes that he makes make you smile because they're from aggressive play. He has a chance to become a special, special player."

The Gators' courtship of Washington was relatively whirlwind. O'Sullivan, who took over at Florida in June 2007, soon learned of Washington's presence across town. Shortly after O'Sullivan got the job, he saw Washington take a couple of at-bats in a wooden-bat event in Fort Myers, Fla., and offered him a scholarship soon after. Washington signed in November.

"He's not a hard one to pick out," O'Sullivan said.

Washington's transfer from Buchholz to the Gainesville High Hurricanes just before the start of the 2008 season followed the August 2007 firing of longtime Buchholz baseball coach Bob Smith. Washington's father, Victor, said Smith had decided to move LeVon to second base, which upset some Buchholz baseball parents. Smith's dismissal came days after the Gainesville Sun reported an angry exchange between Smith and Florida's newly hired O'Sullivan. The Sun's sports blog cited the meeting as a potential last straw for Smith at Buchholz.

Victor Washington said LeVon believed he was a cause of Smith's firing and wanted to leave Buchholz. He was allowed to play for Gainesville despite not moving into the school's attendance zone thanks to a waiver granted by Buchholz's principal.

The Washingtons would have had to apply for another waiver for LeVon to play again for the Hurricanes in 2009 as a senior. But LeVon elected to return to Buchholz, "to graduate with the class that I grew up with," he said, and play for David Banes, a longtime coach at nearby Santa Fe Community College and an ex-Bobcats player himself who was drafted by Pittsburgh. The roll call of Buchholz baseball alums includes current Florida Marlins starting pitcher Andrew Miller, a first-round draft pick by Detroit, and Steve Lombardozzi, who played for the 1987 world champion Minnesota Twins.

Victor Washington played baseball and football at Tuskegee (Ala.) University and met wife LaGenia in Tallahassee, Fla., after he enrolled at Florida State for graduate work. Victor works for the ATF, and LaGenia works in banking.

Victor, who mans the booster club grill during ballgames, said he has reminded LaGenia that LeVon's signing with a big league organization this summer would mean, "He's 17, and he's gone."

LaGenia said she doesn't have a problem with that.

"He's very mature," she said. "He can handle himself when he's away."

LeVon and his parents met agent Scott Boras during last summer's Tournament of Stars event at USA Baseball's complex in North Carolina, and Boras is working with them as an advisor. LeVon said Boras has attended some of his games.

Limited to hitting, LeVon can't enjoy the major league DH luxury of going into the clubhouse between at-bats and working on his swing or reviewing tapes.

"It's hard, mainly just staying in the game," he said. "It gets kind of boring to sit in the dugout, wait to come up to bat every other inning. I've got to keep my legs warm. I've got to get out and run to get my best time down the line."

Soon, he'll return to the field. And the scouts will get the message that they're looking for.

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.