They are lured by the sharp, rhythmic hammering of maple on cowhide. It echoes through this quiet High Point, N.C., neighborhood every time Wil Myers steps into the batting cage he built in 2007 with Scott Davis, then his coach at Wesleyan Christian Academy. When Myers gets down to work in Davis's backyard, the curious show up to see the majestic stroke that launched 37 home runs last season in Double and Triple A—a total no 21-year-old in the high minors has surpassed in nearly half a century.
Last Friday evening neighbors and friends, their faces frozen in awe in the twilight chill, watched as Myers obliterated one ball after another off a tee. Robert Whitehorne, who lives next door, was one of them. "Lots of guys will use this cage, but I always know when Wil is in here because the sound is so different," Whitehorne, 59, says. "I never saw Mickey Mantle play in person, but I imagine the sound of his bat hitting the ball was just like Wil's."
"If I had this batting cage in the big league city where Wil was playing," says Davis, who has coached at High Point's Wesleyan Christian for 10 years and won a state title with Myers in 2008, "I could charge $5 per person and make $10,000 a night. It's always an amazing show."
Myers's bat has made him one of the top prospects in the game and—after the Royals rather stunningly made it known last month that they would listen to offers for their best young power hitter—one of the most-discussed players of the off-season. On Dec. 9, Kansas City sent Myers and three other prospects (pitchers Mike Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi and third baseman Patrick Leonard) to the Rays for righthanders Wade Davis and James Shields.
For the last two seasons, the Royals have had one of the most admired collections of minor league talent in the game. Progress at the major league level has been disappointing, however; arms have been especially slow to develop. So Kansas City made the curious decision to part with BASEBALL AMERICA's 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, a 6'3" 205-pound outfielder who hit .314 with a .987 OPS in 134 games at Double and Triple A and reminds many scouts of a young Dale Murphy, another catcher converted to outfielder. (To take the comp one step further, take another look at the photos on the previous page.) "Wil has a chance to hit in the middle of a major league lineup for a long time," says Andrew Friedman, the Rays' general manager. "He's a prospect who has a lot of confidence in himself, which helps."
Myers is likely to begin the 2013 season at Triple A, but he could be in the Rays' lineup by May or June. There are edges to be smoothed: He's still learning to play the outfield—he only moved from behind the plate in 2011—and he struck out 140 times in 591 plate appearances last season. But ... "Every night Wil would do something that would make you say 'Wow,'" says Odorizzi, Myers's roommate in Triple A. "At the plate he can go off at any time, and he's getting close to becoming an elite outfielder. He doesn't overthink anything, which is good for a hitter, and his confidence was always high last year. The game just comes natural to him."
To hear Eric and Pam Myers tell it, the signs first revealed themselves when their oldest boy was three. On a winter day Eric put a plastic bat in Wil's hand and tossed a plastic ball in his direction. Eric, who works in landscaping and never made it past JV baseball in high school, expected his son to try to block the ball. Instead Wil, like Bamm-Bamm on The Flintstones, took a full swing with his club and sent the ball smashing into a lamp. "That was the end of us playing that little game inside," Eric says.
At age five Myers joined a T-ball team, playing shortstop. He was the only kid who could throw the ball across the field to first base, but when he did the first basemen ran from it like it was an incoming UFO. "Wil," the coach yelled, "you have to roll the ball to first base. Your arm is too strong." Eric Myers, standing next to the field, smiled proudly.
Myers was a twiggy 5'5", 145-pound freshman at Wesleyan Christian when he hit .530 and was named all-state at third base. After his sophomore season he was offered a scholarship by South Carolina coach Ray Tanner (acting on the advice of Davis and one of the Gamecocks' coaches), which Myers accepted at the start of his junior year. For fun during practice, Myers started taking grounders at shortstop and would throw the ball between his legs to first base. "All the local scouts knew that by the time Wil was a junior he was our best player at every position," says Davis, who notes that Myers consistently pushed 90 mph on the radar gun when he was on the mound.
During a game in his junior year Myers, who was behind the plate, missed a signal from the bench calling for a pickoff play at first base. The opposing batter hit a double on the pitch that was never supposed to be thrown, and Wesleyan lost. The next morning at six, Davis met his team in the Wesleyan gym. "I'm going to shoot 20 three-pointers," the coach said. "If I hit 10, you guys pick one person to shoot. If he doesn't hit as many as me, you're running." Davis then connected on 12 of 20 shots.
A handful of players on the roster also played basketball, but Myers, who didn't, immediately stepped forward. "Give me the ball, Coach," he said. Myers missed his first two three-point attempts—then drained 18 straight. "It was my fault we lost, and I wasn't going to be the reason we were going to run," says Myers. "That simple."
By his senior year, with his legend in North Carolina growing, some 600 fans started following the Wesleyan baseball team around the state, their cars forming a river of headlights as they traveled back to High Point after games. When Wesleyan played in nearby Greensboro in the middle of the season, four scouts from the Royals sat behind home plate. Myers crushed three home runs, the last soaring into the top of a 50-foot tree beyond the right-centerfield fence. The scouts hurried out of the stadium, eager to relay their oh-my moment back to Kansas City. "That homer went 420 feet," says Davis. "It was the single most impressive high school home run I've ever seen."
Before the 2009 draft Eric Myers received several calls from major league scouts wanting to know how much money it would take to sign his son. South Carolina coach Tanner—by now well aware that the prodigy was no longer earmarked for Columbia—had initially recommended that Myers not accept anything less than a $1 million signing bonus. But then Tanner saw Myers play in person for the first time, in a summer league game at South Carolina's stadium. After seeing Myers muscle a ball 430 feet over the left centerfield fence, Tanner, according to Davis, called Davis and said, "That number is now $2 million." The Gamecocks' coach then told Eric and Pam Myers, "I appreciate your commitment to South Carolina, but your son will never step foot on this campus."
A few days before the draft, the Royals invited 60 high school and college prospects to Kauffman Stadium for a tryout. Before batting practice, Myers approached J.J. Picollo, the team's assistant general manager. "When are you going to turn on the fountains [beyond the centerfield fence]?" Myers asked.
"Why?" Picollo replied.
"Because I'm going to hit some balls into the water," Myers said. The water never went on, but, with Kansas City's entire front office watching, Myers deposited seven balls over the wall during his 30-pitch session. Four landed in the fountain area.
The Royals took Myers in the third round with the 91st pick, eventually ponying up a $2 million bonus that the commissioner's office recommended for the ninth draft selection. He signed on Aug. 14 and left home the next day. After he hugged his parents and his younger brother, Beau, Myers steered his 1995 Acura Legend toward Burlington, N.C., to join the Royals' rookie league club. Sitting behind the steering wheel, with his childhood in his rearview mirror, tears ran like melted candle wax down Myers's cheeks. This is it, he told himself. My new life is starting right now.
For all his talent, Myers was still something of a revelation. He had a .369/.427/.679 line in 22 games of rookie ball, followed by a .934 OPS in 126 games at two levels of Class A as a 19-year-old. In 2011, after shifting to the outfield, he was off to another solid start with the Double A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, but on Easter Sunday a rainstorm swept through the town of Springdale and canceled the team's game. Myers drove home and, after debating whether to sit in the car and wait out the deluge, sprinted for his apartment. As he ran, he slipped on a concrete sidewalk and his left knee smashed into a brick column at the base of a stairwell. He required two stitches and four staples and missed eight games. Three games after he returned from the injury, he slid into second base and ripped open the scab. An hour later, while in the shower, his knee swelled and stiffened. Myers was diagnosed with a staph infection and the next morning underwent surgery in Kansas City. He was out of the lineup for three weeks.
"When I finally came back, everyone in the league was in midseason form, and I wasn't," Myers says. "For the first time in my life I lost my confidence. And when that happens as a hitter, you're in big, big trouble." Myers finished the season hitting .254, with a slugging percentage under .400 and only eight home runs in 416 plate appearances. Suddenly, he was no longer a can't-miss prospect.
He returned home to High Point for the winter and went to work in Davis's backyard cage. With his old high school coach throwing to him, his timing at the plate—and, swing by swing, his confidence—returned. "Wil started hitting straight back up the middle," says Davis. "He's a rhythm and a feel hitter and he found it again."
Myers looked like his old self when he returned to Northwest Arkansas for the 2012 season. He was promoted to Omaha in May, and in 99 games he belted 24 home runs. In July, Myers played in the All-Star Futures Game at Kauffman Stadium, where he went 2 for 4 with three RBIs before a crowd of 40,000 chanting his name during every at bat. At a Fanfest event two days earlier he had attracted more autograph hounds than former Royals great Bo Jackson and Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Andre Dawson.
On fan message boards it was an article of faith that Myers would one day be the face of the Royals; after the Futures Game Myers thought he'd be asked to stay in Kansas City and join the big league club. "The year I got hurt and struggled was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, because before then I was thinking, You know, this game is pretty easy," Myers says. "Well, it's not. But I do think about what would have happened—and where I'd be right now—if I had decided to stay in the car that Easter. Would I have gotten called up [to Kansas City]? Would I have gotten traded? I'll never know."
Myers's cell phone vibrated at 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 9. He was in Charleston, S.C., with a female friend watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, when the Royals' Picollo delivered the news: Myers was being traded to Tampa Bay. "I was sure that J.J. was going to tell me I shouldn't listen to the trade rumors," Myers recalls. "I was in shock."
The next morning, on his 22nd birthday, Myers and his friend drove to Atlanta to celebrate. They shopped at the Lenox Square mall, visited the Georgia Aquarium and had burgers at The Varsity restaurant. That evening Myers received his most gratifying birthday gift: a text from Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. "Just wanted to let you know that we are happy to have you and I will do everything in my power to make u feel at home," Longoria wrote. "See you soon bro."
"When I read that, I immediately felt more comfortable with the trade," Myers says. "I couldn't be more excited."
As he spoke of his future, Myers stood outside of the batting cage where his swing was born. The biggest crowd he ever attracted to a BP session in Davis's backyard was during his senior year, when more than 20 scouts and 50 neighbors were summoned by that hammer of maple on cowhide. Cars clogged the quiet, tree-lined street in High Point that afternoon; some fans didn't even get close enough to see Myers. They simply sat in their cars, rolled down the windows and listened to the sound of the big leagues.
In the Club
Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year Award—Wil Myers won it this year—is a strong indicator of big league success. Of the 12 POYs from 2000 to '11, all but one (Jon Rauch) have been an All-Star or received an MVP, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year vote.
Jay Jaffe analyzes and handicaps the chances of the 2013 Hall of Fame candidates in his JAWS reports, at SI.com/mlb
Photograph by ANDREW WOOLLEY/FOUR SEAM IMAGES
WIL POWER Myers (here with the Royals' Triple A team) saw his stock drop during an injury-filled 2011, but re-established his value (and comparisons with Murphy) with a monster '12.
RICH PILLING/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (MURPHY)
[See caption above]
POUYA DIANAT (MYERS)
CAGE ANIMAL Myers helped build a place to hit in his high school coach's backyard, then spent hours there honing his power swing.
KATHY KMONICEK/AP (RAUCH)
BOB ROSATO (BECKETT)
TOM DAHLIN (BALDELLI)
TOM DAHLIN (MAUER)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (FRANCIS)
CHUCK SOLOMON (YOUNG)
JOHN BIEVER (GORDON)
JOHN BIEVER (BRUCE)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (WIETERS)
CHUCK SOLOMON (HEYWARD)
GARY BOGDON (HELLICKSON)
ROBERT BECK (TROUT)