Dustin Ackley: More than a baseball player Mariners first pick has UNC roots

This article was originally published in IdeaMarketing.com.

She still calls me, “B.”

“Go Dusty!” I had text messaged her as I watched the young man come to bat on my new flat screen T.V.

From the red section of seats in Omaha, she replied, “Hey, B!” and then, “Finally, a hit!”

Her son, Dustin Ackley, had walked and reached on an error. He was due for a hit and he delivered, driving in two RBIs with a blast to left field.

But Dusty was accustomed to delivering blasts. He led the North Carolina Tarheels into post-season play with a 427 batting average, 65 RBIs and 8 home runs. Those stats earned him National Freshman Baseball Player of the Year. By the time he left UNC last spring, he was the first three-time All-American in North Carolina history, number two in the college baseball draft, and the Seattle Mariners first-round pick.

His mom, Joy, was my “potluck” roommate my freshman year at UNC thirty-three years ago. We have been friends ever since.

In our days at Carolina, we dreamed of the years ahead–our professions, marriage, families–with the hope that we would remain close. I married and moved to Baltimore while she married and stayed in Walnut Cove, a folksy town in North Carolina where we once rode around in her blue dune buggy and stopped at the famous Burger Barn. We kept in touch via phone calls, visits, and now through the wonders of electronic communication.

Her first-born preceded my first-born by a few years. Then Dusty was born on my birthday.

Eighteen years later, Dusty began his college baseball career at UNC where my daughter was a sophomore. Ironically, Joy and I crossed paths in the apartment parking lot where Dusty had moved–in the building next door to my daughter.

Two Carolina moms and their Carolina kids–it was the stuff dreams are made of. We dined together one evening and marveled at our children’s different, but same, college experiences.

Dusty seemed untouched by freshman fame and honors. He was quiet like his dad, but said what he thought like his mom. In all ways, he was polite and respectful, thanking and ma’am-ing me more than once.

His quiet confidence reminded me of other great athletes I’d had worked with–B.J. Surhoff, Cal Ripkin and Michael Phelps. Each man had supported our Baltimore non-profit, Pathfinders for Autism, an organization I helped found ten years ago along with B.J., his wife, and other parents of children with autism.

I am convinced the common denominator in all these men is in the eyes–an ability to listen with their eyes so intently that you feel like every word is quenching a thirst. Yet, they know how to focus on only what is important. The steady gaze they each have radiates a look of so much experience and training that nothing throws them off track. They have huge filters and laser focus–a winning combination no matter what the sport.

But you don’t reach that point in life without hard work and commitment, from both the athlete and the parents, Joy and I learned.

They were a baseball family. We were a wrestling family. They had a batting cage in the front yard. We had a wrestling mat in the basement. We spent time in hot gyms on hard benches. They braved the ballpark’s choice of cold, heat, or rain.

When Dusty elbow required surgery, Joy called me. My son had the same injury the year before, but was too young for the Tommy John surgery. We compared notes, doctors, and our mutual frustrations. It is a devastating injury, sure to take a chunk out of an athlete’s rhythm and give a mom a whole new set of worries.

But we survived it. Our sons did, too.

Over the last eighteen months, Joy taught me a new two-word phrase that seemed to spark fireworks, no matter what the setting: Scott Boras, the controversial advisor they had met. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the man and his methods. I worried for my dear friend and her son.

“I wish you could meet him, B,” she said to me on the phone as the signing deadline loomed. “What he says makes so much sense, and he has the numbers to back it up.”

I listened, and asked a few questions that others had asked me. She addressed each issue with almost encyclopedic knowledge. She’d done her homework.

“It’s really Dusty’s decision,” she concluded as she finished her early morning three-mile walk. And that made me feel better as I recalled those eyes, his mom’s eyes, that reflected such steely resolve.

I told her I would pray for clarity for her and her family.

I waited patiently Monday night, refreshing my computer screen every thirty seconds looking for a negotiation update. I found a headline reporting a $9.5 million deal and immediately texted Joy my congratulations.

“Thanks, B. We’ll talk soon,” she replied.

And I wondered how much her life changed in that instant. I tried to fathom what it must be like to parent a child like Dusty–so gifted, so dedicated, and so committed to excel–and then watch his future negotiated by others, whom you hoped you could trust.

I read more about what sports pundits thought, but my concern was how Joy and her family felt. I hoped they were happy; it’s hard to know the drama behind the details.

I soon found out.

“Are you on your morning walk or has life changed forever,” I texted her Wednesday morning.

A few hours later, my cell phone rang.

“Hey, B,” she said. “I’m on my walk. Later than usual, but life has not changed that much so far.”

And she told me “the scoop,” as we called it in our college days.

Dusty was in California, per Boras’ instructions, as the midnight signing deadline approached. Joy and her family sat in front of a computer screen in their Walnut Cove home, tracking the fate of their son with Baseball America’s ticker clock.

At 11:43 p.m., Dusty called them while he waited for word on the contract. And they waited, a phone line connecting them and their future.

As expected, nothing much was said, Joy reported.

“How close can they cut it?” Joy asked at one point.

At 11:57 p.m., she found out. The offer was made and accepted.

The life ahead, undoubtedly, will be very different. But in some ways, I’m sure it will be the same, too.

He is still Joy’s boy, my friend’s son. And like all moms, we worry about the people in our children’s lives–who we can trust, who can teach without taking too much, who will influence our child beyond our family foundation.

Their experience with Boras had been a good one, and that’s all that mattered to me.

But finding the right expertise to support the challenges ahead will become a life-long pursuit–as we all discover at some point in our lives.

So for those of you who will soon know and support this amazing athlete who swings a mighty bat, remember that he is more than a collection of statistics paid to perform. He is a fine young man from a closely-knit family who values strong and deep-rooted relationships.

After all, his mom still calls me, “B.”