**I wrote this article for The Stokes News in the spring of 2007 when I was just a contributing writer–before my days as editor. Now that Dustin Ackley has recently been traded to the New York Yankees–my favorite team–from the Seattle Mariners, I thought I would pull this old article from my archives. I remember with fondness the day I traveled to my alma mater in Chapel Hill to spend some time interviewing our hometown boy, Dusty, on the beautiful Carolina campus. Hope you enjoy what I wrote!
I had joked for years that if I wore a Carolina cap, my head might rot off. Then, doggone it, two of my children’s basketball teams had Carolina Blue uniforms this winter. I wore a Carolina cap AND sweatshirt to one of their games and emerged, four quarters later, healthy and whole. So with no fear of head-rot, I donned the cap again and headed down to Chapel Hill last week, stepping onto the campus for the first time in 25 years.
After I left “Blue Heaven” a quarter of a century ago, I intended to go back to visit. I thought I might take in a baseball game at Boshamer Stadium where I had been a bat girl for the Tar Heel team. My good intentions never bore fruit. . .until I heard the local buzz. One of Walnut Cove’s own, one of our elite Saura starting nine from state championship days, was taking the ACC by storm as a starting freshman for the nationally ranked UNC team.
It all began on a Sunday afternoon when my daddy asked, “Bess, whatcha hear about that Ackley boy down at Carolina? They say he’s really hot.” Curiosity drove me straight to the Internet, thinking that if I punched in his name—“Dustin Ackley”—I might get a few references. I didn’t expect 586 of them! As I hopped from website to website, my excitement mounted. We should be riding through town with a loudspeaker telling the news! This kid was a phenomenon, not only in the ACC but also in the entire nation!
I had heard that Ackley was signed by Carolina last year after being ranked the number four NC prospect by Impact Baseball. I knew he was named to the pre- and postseason Louisville Slugger All-American team as a high school senior. I remember well when he was voted 1-A conference player of the year while just a junior at South Stokes.
But what I was reading now was the stuff of dreams. Ackley was named ACC Player of the Week two times in a row in March—the first week batting .667 with a three-game stint where he went 11 for 12 at the plate, the second week batting .500 with nine RBI’s and two home runs. Highest overall batting average (.489) in the ACC and second-highest in the nation! ACC RBI leader. Number one in seven different Tar Heel offensive categories. The accolades seemed endless. And to top it all off, like a luscious mountain of whipped cream, was a hitting streak that had already smashed Carolina’s rookie record! At that time, Ackley’s hot bat had sizzled out a hit in 19 straight games. This “lowly” freshman who could be found helping other rookies clean the dugout after each home game was riding the crest of a monster wave.
I was hooked, “pert near” obsessed. With no cable TV, I was forced to listen to Carolina games on the Internet. I did my chores with the play-by-play description in the background. One day Ackley hit a grand slam to add to his home run tally, which was already among the league leaders. Often he would get a hit in his first at bat, saving me from undue stress about this hitting streak.
With each hit to keep the streak going, my 16-year-old baseball-freak daughter and I would jump up and yell in jubilation. Who cared about Barry Bonds and his pursuit of Hank Aaron? We had a local boy taking us for a pretty exciting ride!
Finally, I could stand it no longer—hence, my trip to Chapel Hill. I rationalized that I had been planning to go anyway to research Walnut Cove history at UNC’s Wilson Library. With the prohibitive cost of gas, why not throw in a baseball game for economy’s sake? (It sounded noble and did indeed convince my family!) So on a gorgeously sunny Tuesday, I found myself on ground that some consider hallowed. There I stood in “The Pit,” looking for Dustin Ackley who had graciously agreed to meet me for an interview. I hadn’t seen him since last summer when I watched him swat homer after homer for the Walnut Cove Senior League team.
There he was, wearing a St. Louis Cardinals’ hat—his favorite pro baseball team—looking quite different from the toddler I had seen holding onto his mom at the library’s summer reading program many years ago. As I shook his hand, I made a mental note to try to call him “Dustin” instead of the “Dusty” I had always known him by—just in case this meteoric rise to fame had formalized things a little.
I needn’t have worried. The freshman sensation, whom Baseball America had just named “Midseason Freshman of the Year” and ranked as the sixth-best first baseman in the country, was still his quiet, humble self. He was happy to be at UNC; they had recruited him heavily and offered him substantial scholarships. (He grinned as he admitted he was somewhat influenced by the fact that his family was full of Tar Heel fans!) Was it hugely different from playing high school ball? Surprisingly, Ackley feels that there’s not as big a difference as he had expected. “There’s not a lot of change in pitch velocity,” he explained. “But I’m facing smarter pitchers overall. And the atmosphere is different on the field. There’s a really big base of fan support.”
I had wondered why this former pitcher/outfielder/shortstop was now playing first base. Ackley attributes the change in position to an elbow injury sustained in high school pitching days, but says he may play outfield in the future. “I wouldn’t mind pitching again,” Ackley says. “But I won’t miss it real bad. If I made it to the pros, it would probably be as an outfielder.”
I figure most little boys who love baseball dream of making it to the Major Leagues one day. Ackley was no exception. Ackley says his dream team would be Atlanta since the Braves are close to home. He really doesn’t care, as long as he gets the chance to play. He was actively scouted by the Pirates and Phillies in high school and got letters from many other pro teams. (Being the Yankees fan that I am, I had to know if he would want to play for New York. Since his dad was a star catcher in the Red Sox Triple A organization, I thought Ackley might be adamant about not wanting to play for the Bronx Bombers, but he graciously said he would be glad to have the opportunity to play anywhere.)
With the then 26-game hitting streak making headlines, I was curious if it weighed heavily on his mind. “No one mentioned it much until about 20 games,” Ackley replied. “But now it’s hard not to think about it.” Could he tell me the secret to his hitting success? He laughed, “A little luck maybe.” When I scoffed at that, saying that luck can’t possibly explain such phenomenal hitting statistics over so many years, he admitted that he had always been a pretty good hitter but had never hired a hitting coach or spent more than the normal amount of hours at batting centers. Ackley credited his dad with having been a good influence and teacher but never one of those overbearing baseball dads determined to live out his dreams through his son. A left-handed batter, Ackley often gets his hits by swinging at the first or second pitch.
Sitting at the Carolina Student Union in the April sun, Ackley and I talked of summer plans. He has been invited to play in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League, a rare rookie honor, and may even be eligible for USA Baseball. At this point, things are still up in the air. There’s even a possibility Ackley may come home to Walnut Cove to rest the elbow in hopes of total healing.
Mentioning the elbow injury brought me to the inevitable question: how was the shoulder that he had injured by sliding headfirst into third up at Boston College the previous weekend? I had been listening to the game as the announcers oohed and aahed over Ackley’s incredible base running as he stretched a single into a triple with the headfirst slide, while the ball went home in an unsuccessful attempt to get another runner. He felt nothing that day but woke up the next morning to incredible pain in his right shoulder—his throwing arm. To keep his blazing bat in the lineup, Ackley started the very next day as the designated hitter and felt no real hindrance from the injury, going 1-for-3 at the plate.
I had the opportunity to see the streak continue that night as the Tar Heels took on UNC-Charlotte. Again, Ackley put me out of my misery by ripping a single to right on his first trip to the plate. I jumped up screaming, giving the thumbs up to Ackley’s grandpa, Gray Wall, who was on his feet with a Texas-sized grin on his face.
Our hometown hero added a few cherries to the whipped cream by getting a couple more hits, batting .750 on the night. Ackley now had the third-longest hitting streak in Carolina history.
I couldn’t get enough. I persuaded my parents to drive back down with me just three days later as the Heels played those despised Duke Blue Devils. It took no persuasion to get two of my children into the car.
My 11-year old son is a rabid Tar Heel fan who sat in ecstasy at the game, holding an autographed copy of Dustin Ackley’s rookie trading card. Even my dad was on his feet when Ackley, mercifully in the first inning again, extended the hitting streak to 28 games, tantalizingly close to the record of 31.
UNC’s baseball coach, Mike Fox, called me at home the next day to discuss Ackley—someone he calls “a special talent” and “pretty spectacular.” I wondered if, in his 25 years of coaching, he had ever seen a freshman do this. The response was immediate: not only had he never seen a freshman do this—he had never seen any player do this! Coach Fox credits Ackley with incredible hand/eye coordination, great balance and a “picture-perfect” swing. “Dustin keeps the barrel of the bat in the hitting zone as long as anyone I’ve seen,” he explains.“Then he gets out of the box quickly, almost while he is swinging—what we call a transfer swing.” As we said our goodbyes, I asked Coach Fox if he had a final comment. With a chuckle, he said, “I’m just glad he’s on my team!”
With 39 games down and 18 to go, the Heels travel to Florida State this weekend to take on the Seminoles who are first in the ACC and ranked by USA Today as number two in the nation, just one spot ahead of the Heels. Baseball America has the teams reversed, ranking UNC number two and Florida State, number three. Ackley’s streak was snapped this past Saturday as the Tar Heels lost to Duke in the first game of a doubleheader, but he was unfazed as he went 2-for-4 in the second game, back in the field for the first time since his injury.
The campus newspaper, The Daily Tarheel, called him “Mighty Ackley at the Bat.” His teammates nicknamed him “Roy Hobbs,” a la Robert Redford in “The Natural,” leading the Charlotte Observer to dub him “Wonder Boy.” But despite all the attention, you’ll find he’s still just “Dusty”—genuinely humble about his success. He didn’t even tell his mother when he was ACC Player of the Week; she had to hear it through the grapevine. Dustin Ackley, Carolina’s shooting star, just wants to do what he’s done for as long he can remember—play baseball.