Monday, February 26, 2001

Kearns: 'Really nothing he can't do'

By Chris Haft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Austin Kearns
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        SARASOTA, Fla. — Few professional ballplayers had a better 2000 season than Austin Kearns. Well, maybe Alex Rodriguez. And he had to sign a $252 million contract to make his year complete.

        Yet the person least impressed with Kearns, the Reds Minor League Player of the Year last season, is Kearns himself.

        “It's something that's on paper,” said Kearns, politely dismissing the publications that label him Cincinnati's No.1 prospect. “So that doesn't mean anything. Sure, it's nice to hear things like that, but you still have to go out and play.”

        Kearns played well enough to earn Midwest League Co-Prospect of the Year honors at Single-A Dayton, leading in home runs (27), tying for first in RBI (104) and finishing sixth in hitting (.306). The right-handed batter also ranked among the league's top five in eight other major offensive categories. Kearns also stole 18 bases in 23 attempts.

        “There's really nothing he can't do in this game,” Reds general manager Jim Bowden said of Kearns, the team's No.1 selection in the 1998 amateur draft.

        This marked significant progress for Kearns, who posted good but not great numbers in 1999 for Single-A Rockford (.258, 13 homers and 48 RBI).

        “I came in knowing what to expect, as far as the full season goes,” said Kearns, a Lexington, Ky., native. “And I stayed confident. I knew I wasn't overmatched the year before. I knew I could do better than what I did.”

        Like many power hitters, Kearns doesn't apply that label to himself.

        “Home runs are something I've never really worried about,” he said. “I really don't consider myself a home-run hitter. If you hit them, great; if not, so be it. I'm more of a gap-to-gap hitter.”

        Kearns might struggle to convince observers of this, especially since he set a league record by homering in 10 consecutive games last July.

        “It seemed like everything was in slow motion,” he said. “Every hitter goes through a streak like that. It just happened that a lot of balls I hit were home runs.”

        It just so happened that Kearns also homered against Philadelphia in a major-league exhibition game last March. But he suited up that day just to fill out the Reds' bench. This is his first genuine major-league camp invitation. It won't be his last.

        “I'm just here to learn, try to get better and take what I can from this experience,” he said.


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