Rainiers’ infielder Dustin Ackley is just 22 years old. He has played baseball most of those years and won many honors and set many records while attending the University of North Carolina. While there, he led the nation with 119 hits in his freshman year. Drafted second overall in the 2009 amateur baseball draft, Ackley began his professional career in 2009 in the Arizona Fall League. This spring he started the season at double A West Tennessee. On July 14 he was promoted to Tacoma where he is batting .274 in 51 games. Of his 57 hits, four are home runs. One of these came in his first at-bat as a Rainier on July 15 in Reno.
Ackley spoke with Tacoma Weekly baseball writer Karen Westeen about his fast rise from playing in college just over a year ago to becoming one of the building blocks of the Mariners’ future.
TW: After three very successful years playing college ball you were drafted, but did not sign until the middle of August, so you did not start your professional career until last fall. What was it like for you not to play baseball all summer?
DA: I had played a long college season, so it was good to have some time off, get a little break. I got to go to Seattle after I signed. I worked out two days there, and then I was sent to fall instructional league. The summer seemed short because I was traveling so much.
TW: Where were you on draft day?
DA: On draft day my team was still in the college playoffs and I was at home with family and a couple of teammates. Right before I was drafted I had a good idea of about three teams where I could go. I figured whatever happens, happens. It was pretty exciting when they called my name.
TW: Your college team went to the College World Series all three years you were there. Where did they finish?
DA: The first year we were second, and the next two years we were third.
TW: How did they do this year?
DA: They only made regionals this spring.
TW: You finished three years of college before starting your professional career. Do you plan to finish?
DA: Maybe at some point. I’m real busy now in the offseason. Maybe I will find some time to take classes eventually online. Right now I just want to focus on baseball.
TW: What was your major?
DA: Exercise and sports science. I figured it would be useful to my life, and I could do a lot with it.
TW: Have you thought at all about what you will do after baseball is over?
DA: I’m only 22. I haven’t thought much about that, but probably something in sports.
TW: You had Tommy John surgery between your sophomore and junior years. Have you had any problems from that?
DA: No. The surgery went well and I was able to start my junior season okay with the college team. I was playing first base then. I had the whole winter to get in shape. I took it slow, but pitchers take it a lot slower.
TW: You broke an aluminum bat while you were in college. Does that happen a lot?
DA: Yeah, players break aluminum bats all the time. If you hit with one a lot it will gradually start to disintegrate. Mine had a crack all the way down.
TW: Was that when you got the nickname “The Natural” after the movie character Roy Hobbs?
DA: It was just one teammate who started calling me “The Natural.”
TW: Was it hard for you when you started using wooden bats?
DA: I had a little trouble. Before I turned professional I only used wooden bats when I played one summer in the Cape Cod League. There were only 12 games, so I couldn’t tell much. When I got to West Tennessee this spring I really started to learn about bats. It took a long time to find a model I liked. I narrowed it down to two or three. There’s a lot of difference in the wood. Some are lighter, others more dense. Right now my bats are 34 inches long and weigh 31 ounces.
TW: I read that you said you had some problems with your timing at the plate. Have you gotten that solved?
DA: At the beginning of this year I did, but after a month I began to feel more confident. Things started coming together with more at-bats. All it takes for me is more at-bats, plus getting comfortable at second base, the position I started learning in spring training.
TW: You have played outfield, shortstop and first base in college and professionally, but you have never been at second base before this season. What is your natural position and did it take much time for you to get comfortable at second?
DA: First base was my most comfortable position coming into pro ball because I had played three years there in college. The Mariners told me I’d probably be playing second base this year, so I went back to the Peoria complex after Christmas and worked out there on learning the new position. It’s been a good experience. It takes your mind off hitting because you’re pretty much in everything. I didn’t really have a set position coming in.
TW: You began the season with double A West Tennessee and then came here in mid-July. Was it a surprise to get the call up to Tacoma?
DA: I knew I’d played pretty well in West Tenn, and coming here was a good opportunity to get more experience.
TW: Both Arizona and Tennessee are a lot closer to your home in Walnut Cove, North Carolina. What was it like to play so far from home when you came to Tacoma?
DA: It was an easy transition since I knew all the guys here from spring training and some from West Tenn, and I knew the coaches too. The weather’s a lot nicer here also.
TW: Has your family been able to see you play here yet?
DA: No, but my dad did make a surprise trip to see the team play in Reno.
TW: Your dad played with the Red Sox organization. Has he helped you much now that you are starting your professional career?
DA: He’s been a big help, especially when I was younger. But he has pretty much let me learn my own way since I got out of high school. We talk about how things are going in general, but not much about baseball specifics such as mechanics and hitting.
TW: Do you feel you help the team out more with your offense or your defense?
DA: Right now it’s offensively. It’s been a slow year at second base, not a lot of opportunities to turn double plays. The biggest thing for me is to get on base and let the guys behind me drive me in.
TW: What has been the highlight of your first year in professional baseball?
DA: Being drafted. To suddenly go from a college team to seeing Griffey and Ichiro in the clubhouse, and to have the opportunity to play professionally.
TW: You said that former Mariner Mike Sweeney did a lot to make you feel comfortable on your first trip to Seattle after you signed your contract.
DA: Mike’s a great guy. When I got to Seattle last summer I didn’t know anybody there. Mike took me to the batting cage, introduced me to the players, then we met here again when I came up to Tacoma this summer and he was rehabbing. He’s always fun to have on the team.
TW: Will you get some time off once this season is over?
DA: I think they’ll send me to the fall league again, so I can get some more at-bats and some more experience at second base. If I do get some time off, I might take a vacation. I know that next year could be a big year and hopefully I’m a part of it.