By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
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He's pretty good at both.
The 26-year-old Los Angeles native attended the University of Miami on an academic scholarship paid for by Boeing and majored in aerospace engineering. Barton, who has one semester of coursework remaining before he completes his degree, walked on to the university's elite baseball program and eventually led the Hurricanes squad to an eighth-place finish in the College World Series his junior year and batted a team-high .371 as a senior.
Now in his first season in the big leagues, Barton has seen his popularity with St. Louis fans skyrocket thanks to his broad grin, flowing dreadlocks and seemingly effortless speed on the base paths. After seeing scant playing time early in the season, he has begun to find his way into the starting lineup with increasing regularity.
Seated in front of his locker at Busch Stadium before a recent home game, however, Barton explains that he wants to be remembered for something other than his brainy background and athletic achievements. "I just want people to know me for more than just a baseball player or an engineer," he says. "I'm a broader person than that."
Barton says his favorite thing to do is travel. He visited Ethiopia while in college; he has a tattoo outlining the continent of Africa on his arm. ("I just have pride in my culture and where my ancestors came from," he says.) He's also done Europe (favorite stop: Munich) and plans to visit Australia and Japan in the upcoming off-season.
He likes old soul and R&B. That explains his choice of Sam Cooke ("A Change Is Gonna Come") as his at-bat music. "It's meaningful to me," he says. "It teaches patience through all the ups and downs. Whether it's on the field or in society, you have to have hope and faith that things will turn around. I like all types of music, but more so as I've grown older I appreciate that type of music more. It's more pure to me."
Barton was born and raised in economically deprived South Central Los Angeles, the part of town where Boyz n the Hood was filmed. He has three sisters and two brothers; the latter pair eventually went on to play college football. He attended Westchester High School, which is known more for its lengthy roster of alumni athletes (including former NFL linebacker Ken Norton Jr. and LA Laker Trevor Ariza) than its aerospace magnet program, which enrolls about 350 students each year. On the baseball field, he was a two-time all-conference selection, leading the Comets to a league championship his senior year. He played safety and wide receiver on the football team and ran the 400-meter for the track squad ("mostly just to stay in shape," he says). In the classroom, his 3.7 GPA helped net an internship in the satellite-systems department of Boeing's offices in El Segundo.
As a youth Barton took part in Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. John Young, a former major leaguer who founded the program in 1989, remembers Barton well. In fact, Young says, Barton used to live just a few blocks from his house in South Central.
"I'm pushing 60 now," says Young, who recalls Barton as a "free spirit" and "a very bright young man." "So I tell these stories a lot of kids have never heard — I talk about Mickey Mantle and Ozzie Smith and tell a lot of inside jokes about them. Most of them, they'd go over the other kids' heads. Brian would get them. He'd do his laugh, but he'd try not to acknowledge it.
"The thing about RBI is that it's about more than baseball," Young adds. "Our mission isn't to develop major-league baseball players, it's to develop good citizens. We use baseball as a carrot to get kids learning academic and social community skills. Basically, Brian is what we're looking to do."
After high school Barton was chosen by the Dodgers in the 38th round of the MLB draft. Rather than sign to play in the minor leagues, he opted to take his Boeing scholarship to nearby Loyola Marymount University. He soon grew restless, however, making the switch to Miami after his freshman year, attracted by the university's proximity to NASA's space program and its unique blend of athletics and academics.
"I just got tired of being in LA," he explains. "Moneywise, I had a scholarship going to Loyola, and Miami is quite a bit more expensive. But it was my first choice. I wasn't happy where I was. I felt in order to be happy I had to follow my heart."
As a transfer, he was required by NCAA rules to sit out a season of baseball. When he got his chance to play, he suffered a hand injury that kept him out of the lineup for part of his junior season. And he struggled to balance the rigorous engineering curriculum with baseball, widely recognized as one of the most challenging sports for student-athletes owing to its exhausting travel and practice schedule.