In Myers, swagger comes as natural as talent
Rays outfielder displaying confidence while breaking out in big leagues
ST. PETERSBURG -- The story, as Triple-A Durham manager Charlie Montoyo remembers it, goes something like this.
Wil Myers was standing on third base after a hit by infielder Vince Belnome. He made a simple observation to Montoyo: Belnome's a good hitter. Montoyo replied, "Yeah, he's our second-best hitter."
According to Montoyo, Myers responded, "Well, yeah."
There was no doubt who Durham's best hitter was. Nor is there any question that Myers has been the Rays' best hitter since making his much-anticipated Major League debut on June 18.
Montoyo's story conveys one well-known fact about the rookie outfielder: He's certainly not lacking for confidence. Just listen to some of the things he says or watch him flip his bat as he admires one of his prodigious home runs.
But it would be a mistake to misconstrue Myers as cocky, those close to him insist. More than anything else, they say, he's just an exceedingly genuine and straightforward 22-year-old from North Carolina enjoying the only career he's wanted.
"I feel like I'm very honest with what I do," Myers said. "If I don't feel good, I'm going to tell you I don't feel good. If I do feel good, I'm going to tell you I feel good.
"I never had a dream of doing anything else, even as a kid. I was never like, 'Well, maybe one day I'll want to coach.' I always thought I was going to play in the big leagues."
Myers paused and grinned: "Luckily, it worked out."
It was hardly just luck. The story, as Myers' father, Eric, has told it countless times, goes like this.
They were living in a small basement apartment in Thomasville, N.C. Eric would lob plastic balls to his 3-year-old son in their den, and Myers would spray them all over the room with a plastic bat.
"I knew right then the boy had something," Eric Myers said. "He waited until it got in the zone and just unleashed on it."
That might sound familiar to anyone who's seen Myers hit. The Rays have talked about Myers' bat speed and the "different sound" his bat makes from the moment he first stepped into a batting cage this spring.
Acquired from Kansas City in the offseason trade headlined by James Shields, Myers has delivered on the hype in nearly two months with Tampa Bay, posting a .325/.376/.509 batting line with eight homers and 31 RBIs.
Myers' .385 average since the All-Star break ranks first among American League hitters with at least 40 at-bats, and his second-half 1.116 OPS is fourth in the Majors, behind Jayson Werth, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. Less than two months removed from Triple-A, Myers is putting up numbers with some of baseball's best hitters.
"He's able to process stuff, whether it's hitting, defense or baserunning, that not a lot of other young guys process as well as he has," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I think you look at him and you see a rookie, just the way he acts. But then you talk to him, it's different. There's actually some sophistication there."
But it's that part about the way Myers acts -- the "naivete," as Maddon called it -- that stands out at times. Like in Spring Training, when Myers crushed a triple, received some praise from coach Tom Foley for hitting the ball so hard and responded, "I hit everything hard."
"I don't think he means anything by it at all," Eric Myers said. "He's almost too honest."
Maddon agreed that Myers' brand of confident humor is "disarming" in a way that "totally takes any vitriol away." It's also part of the reason he's been heralded as one of the game's best young hitters.
"I don't think it's cockiness at all, but it's certainly confidence," Rays utility man Ben Zobrist said. "You can see that he believes that he's going to be here for a long time, and he believes that he's one of the best players in the game. He doesn't have to question that."
"I think it's just him being goofy and confident," said former teammate Anthony Seratelli, who played with Myers in the Royals' organization. "It helps keep his head high, which is why he plays so well."
The other side of Myers' personality is more visible away from the ballpark. The story, as his mother, Pam, remembers it, displays a degree of humility you might not expect.
Shortly after Myers graduated from Wesleyan Christian Academy, they were talking to his kindergarten teacher, who asked where Myers planned to attend college.
"And he said, 'Well, I got a job out of high school,'" Pam Myers said.
His mother insisted that Myers tell her the whole truth: He'd been picked by the Royals in the third round of the 2009 Draft. His "job out of high school" was professional baseball.
"I would bet almost anything that he's not changed a lick since he was in Little League, seventh grade, high school," Maddon said. "I would imagine he's the same exact guy."
So it's not too surprising that Myers said the most unusual thing about the Majors has been the "different lifestyle ... the overall thing besides the game."
As a rookie, Myers has to arrive to the park before everyone else to get his work in, so he shows up early. He's sought advice from Zobrist, 10 years his senior, and before most night games at home, they sit down to discuss their faith and families, in addition to baseball.
"He doesn't take himself too seriously. He's not afraid to fail or afraid to look stupid," Zobrist said. "I think that's one of those most endearing things that anyone can have in their personality. ... I think that's why a lot of people in this clubhouse have taken to him already."
And Myers doesn't necessarily crave the public spotlight. Consider a more recent story, as his parents remember it, when they were at Tropicana Field for the Rays-Giants game on Aug. 3. Myers made postgame plans for his family to eat together at a restaurant near his apartment.
A few hours later, in the bottom of the 10th inning, Myers laced a single to deep left field to give Tampa Bay a 2-1 win. He got the full walk-off treatment from his teammates, celebrating another career first. But when Myers left the clubhouse, he called off his original plans.
Myers wanted to be with his family, his mother said, and that would've been tough at a place where he knew he'd be recognized as the night's walk-off hero. Instead, he invited the dozen or so family members back to his apartment and put a frozen pizza in the oven.
"I don't think he likes the limelight. He doesn't want to be a movie star," Eric Myers said. "He wants to be the best player on the field."
The thing is, Myers has grown used to being just that. This story, as Myers' parents tell it, took place during the 2008 Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis.
Myers, working out as a catcher, ventured into the stands to ask his father how he looked. More specifically, he wanted to know if he'd done better than the star-studded competition in his group. The answer -- a simple "no" -- wasn't the one Myers was looking for.
"Don't tell him anyone's better than he is," Pam Myers said, laughing.
That doesn't mean Myers is trying to show anyone up, even if his occasional bat flips might lead observers to think otherwise. Maddon acknowledged that Myers may appear to finish his swings in a "flamboyant" way, but Myers says it's just a natural part of his follow-through.
"It's just him being happy about what he did," Seratelli said. "But I don't know how he flips the bat that far. It's actually kind of amazing."
It helps, obviously, that Myers has brought more to the Rays' clubhouse than his considerable swagger and his likeable down-home personality. The numbers help tell the story.
Myers has been on base in 38 of his 44 games this season, including a 22-game on-base streak. He leads all Major League rookies since June 18 in homers and RBIs, and he's second behind Yasiel Puig with 55 hits. Veteran reliever Joel Peralta noted that the expectations on Myers were almost impossibly lofty, but he's "proved himself, that he can hit, since he got here."
Myers will admit he wasn't prepared for all this when the season began. He was eager to get here, of course, but still happy to be close to home in Durham, where the Bulls named a section of seats "WilVille."
Meanwhile, Myers developed a better approach at the plate, improved his defense and baserunning and eventually got into a groove over his last 25 games -- a hot streak that signaled to Tampa Bay's front office that he was ready for the next level.
So far, so good.
"Honestly, I felt like I was big league-ready two or three days before I got called up. It's kind of funny that it happened at the time it did," Myers said. "Even as good as I felt in Durham, I feel like I'm a better hitter now than I was then."
Myers' story, if these first few glimpses have been any indication, is only just beginning.