CHICAGO – Austin Hays is afraid of heights. He’s tried to overcome it, much to his credit, but prefers his feet planted on the grass unless he’s scaling an outfield fence in pursuit of a fly ball.
The phobia dates back to his childhood, as it often does.
“My dad’s a general contractor, chief inspector, so he goes up on scaffolds for a living and inspects balconies and a lot of high-rise buildings,” Hays said. “Just the thought of that when I was younger was enough to bother me, just thinking about seeing him up on a scaffold. He’s 30 stories in the air. That alone, me standing on the ground, made my stomach churn.
“Other kids would love to go on roller coasters, my friends would go on roller coasters, so I went on one and it was just, I got off it and my arms were bruised from me squeezing the protector so hard.”
Hays tried to tackle his fears during his senior year of high school while also impressing his future wife, Samantha. A noble gesture that backfired like an old car.
“I found this place in Orlando where we could go repelling from tree top to tree top,” he said. “She loves heights, she loves roller coasters, she’s been sky diving, she loves all that stuff, and I hate it. I was like, ‘I’m going to show her how tough I am. I’m going to take her on this date.’ So we get to the first one, I’m shaking, and I can’t even talk. The woman’s like, ‘I can’t believe you would bring your boyfriend up here and make him do this,’ and she said, ‘He brought me up here, what do you mean?’
“She’s like, ‘It’s not too late to turn back now,’ and I’m looking at her and I’m like, ‘All right, I just have to do it.’ But it was a miserable time, it was not fun. I feel like for most people you get over the fear of just doing it, and you make the jump and you’re like, ‘That was so much fun.’ For me, that wasn’t the case. I’ve tried it numerous times, different occasions of heights, and there’s nothing about it that’s fun for me. I hated it.”
Which leads me, on a winding road, to this professional segue:
Hays won’t be afraid of his rising salary. And it’s going to soar in 2023.
The Orioles signed Hays for $713,000 in his final year before arbitration. The timing of his breakout season is sweeter than candy.
There are trade chips and there are players that a team builds around as it moves further past its teardown and begins to see the bright light at the end of a rebuild. Hays just needed to prove that he could stay healthy, which he’s doing. The numbers and his impact on a nightly basis figured to go through the roof if he remained in the lineup.
Hays is more comfortable on the ground floor, but not professionally. He’s a special talent at the plate and in the field, and he’s going to get paid. The Orioles just need to decide how much of a commitment they’re willing to make as the raises keep coming over the next three years.
The outfield is the deepest position in the organization. The Orioles can send out Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander, with Trey Mancini available as a fill-in at the corners. They can start Ryan McKenna at any of the three spots and trust his defense, an ideal extra coming off the bench for that reason alone.
Kyle Stowers, whose four-hit game last night with Triple-A Norfolk included his 13th home run, made his major league debut in Toronto and is going to return this summer, perhaps for good. The Orioles don’t want to treat him like a yo-yo. Not that guy. They really like Robert Neustrom, who’s also at Norfolk. They really like Johnny Rizer, who rose to the Tides before going on the injured list. They’re trying again with Yusniel Diaz, who’s on an injury rehab assignment with high Single-A Aberdeen and working to dispel the myth that his hamstrings are made of rice noodles.
Diaz is so toolsy. He looked so good again in spring training, and early on with Norfolk. The Orioles would love to get him on their roster but can’t because his body keeps failing him.
This was supposed to be the year. Maybe later.
Outfielders Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser are the last two first-round picks, and Hudson Haskin is a second-rounder in 2020 who’s playing at Double-A Bowie - he hit his eighth home run last night - and deserving of his No. 15 ranking in the system by MLBPipeline.com. Druw Jones and Elijah Green are on the Orioles’ draft board.
The talent pipeline is supposed to pump out an excess, allowing the front office to swing trades to improve other areas. This certainly seems to be happening with the outfield.
Holding onto Hays, however, seems to make the most sense. Today, tomorrow and beyond arbitration.