DURHAM — Tim Beckham is having fun again.
You can see it in his smile, his laughter. You can see it as he dances on the infield dirt between pitches cap on backward, head bobbing in rhythm to songs blaring on the sound system. The 23-year-old bounces back and forth, left and right, instinctively following the flight of each baseball as it leaves the bat. Between pitches, more head bobbing, shoulders moving.
Not everyone is as animated as the Durham Bulls starting shortstop. On this day, not everyone is even on the field. Its an optional batting practice conducted in 90-plus degree heat, and many of his teammates opted to stay inside, relaxing in a cool, comfortable clubhouse. Beckham opted to sweat in the sun, continuing the grind.
Gotta have fun with it, Beckham explained afterward. If you dont have fun with it ...
His voice trails off. He doesnt finish the thought because he knows theres no reason to.
Last year wasnt fun.
Beckham, already under a constant microscope as a former No. 1 overall pick treading to avoid bust status, made headlines for the wrong reasons. He doesnt want to talk about his 50-game drug suspension or anything related to past seasons, and who could blame him.
This game, he said, sometimes you run into a lot of obstacles that you dont see yourself encountering, but you deal with it, you roll with it and put it in your rearview mirror.
The future? Thats one of his new favorite topics. And who could blame him?
He entered 2013 free from the burden of expectations, lofty prospect rankings and preseason photo shoots thank you, Wil Myers and quietly has re-established himself as a major league caliber middle infielder. Nobody questions the glove work or athleticism YouTube his SportsCenter Top 10 highlight juke-and-slide play at home plate. But hes handling Triple-A pitching like never before, hitting nearly .280 until a recent dip dropped his average to .270.
He said every aspect of his game is better this year yet insists nothing is different. The reality is everything changed last season, the most obvious being he grew up.
He provided little insight during a brief, guarded interview, but offered more revealing glimpses, 140 characters at a time, during the offseason.
Among the many inspirational quotes he retweeted:
The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle.
When your mind says give up, hope whispers one more try.
So much depends on reputation. Guard it with your life.
And finally, a telling tweet from Beckham himself:
When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then youll be successful. Thankful for another day.
When a Rays fan asked whether he would be in the major leagues this season, Beckham tweeted: Doing everything I can.
Its true, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said.
What people have to remember about Tim is, hes just a kid, Montoyo said. I know hes got that thing that he was a first-rounder and all that and people wanted him to go (to the majors) fast, but hes still a kid. Hes learning.
Hes always been a hard worker, hes just a year older. Hes been at this level before. He knows what it takes. The sky is the limit because he works so hard. If you come early, youre always going to see him either hitting or taking ground balls, every day. When you have that, you always have a chance to get better, and he is getting better.
We just need to be patient. Not everybody is going to be Wil Myers (of the Tampa Bay Rays). Some guys are going to take a little bit longer in getting there. He knows he can play at this level for sure. Now hes trying to get better for the next level."
That next level never has been closer, and credit Beckham for regaining the Rays trust when, after five modest minor-league seasons, they could have given up and exposed him to the Rule 5 draft. Instead, in November, the Rays added him to their 40-man roster, a milestone that showed they still had faith in his ability and future.
Im really seeing a guy that can be a major-league middle infielder, manager Joe Maddon told the Tampa Bay Times during spring training. He can play here right now on the field and on the bases; he cant play here yet consistently offensively. Once hes able to do that, have a consistent approach and understand what hes doing at the plate, he could play here consistently.
For now Tampa Bay can wait. The Bulls had a game to play, and that had Beckhams full attention.
Its not that far away, but Im here, Beckham said. Im here right now. Im in Triple A, in Durham, North Carolina, and Im playing for the Durham Bulls. And thats what Im waking up every day doing. Im going to keep it like that. Im going to keep it simple.
The interview concluded, Beckham, cap still on backward, walked toward the Bulls indoor batting cage. There was more work to do.