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He's had a tough time finding his place

A hometown start was not the best fit for Jason Place. A hometown start was not the best fit for Jason Place. (Zach morolda/For The Globe)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 1, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Jason Place would be standing in the cage, the catcalls coming from behind. The "hurry ups" and the "you're taking too many swings" and the messing around, the normal activity at any batting cage at any minor league field. It didn't sit well with Place, the former first-round draft pick, the regimented kid from the regimented family.

They were picking on him, that he knew, because he was a first-rounder (No. 27 overall by the Red Sox in 2006) or because he rarely mixed baseball with fun or because he saw a black-and-white world in a colorful sport.

"It's definitely, you know, a lonely place to be," Place said.

There were fights and disagreements, a young player taken out of high school trying to mature in an environment he sometimes saw as hostile. There were worries about an overbearing father, with a son starting his baseball life in the same town in which he grew up, Greenville, S.C.

It wasn't always possible to break away from that Marine Corps father who had pushed him.

"He was pretty hard-nosed," said Place. "No excuses. He was knee deep in my butt whenever I screwed up. I guess that rubbed off on me."

He adds that the time spent with his father taking swings was "priceless - nothing more valuable than that."

"I expected a lot out of them," said Ken Place of his two children while sitting outside a batting cage at the Sox' minor league complex. "Yes, that came from my military background.

"They had a job just like I have a job. Your job is to bring home good grades. That's your job. If you take on something you want to do, you will finish it. There's no going halfway and deciding you don't like this. That is my military background.

"They knew what was expected of them, both of them."

That is, at least in part, why Place, 20, sometimes ended up nose to nose with teammates, despite their respect for his style and dedication on the field, and why he might have benefited more than anyone else in the organization from the journey to Lancaster, Calif., last season. It was a chance for Place to show the stunning power, the incredible outfield range, all the tools that made him a first-round pick - away from the pressure of home.

It was those tools that gave confidence to a kid who was raised "to be a strutting peacock on the inside, but humble on the outside," according to his father. It started when he was 3, swinging at a taped-up Wiffle Ball, and burgeoned when his father would be there every day when Jason came home from school to go to the field.

"In my opinion, they made an excellent choice in Jason," said Ken Place, who achieved the rank of staff sergeant in the Marine Corps. "Excellent. Because I'm telling you right now, he's going to be there in the end. I guarantee you. I'm telling you, that kid, nothing's going to stop him."

A wake-up call
But things didn't go according to plan. Though the family believed enough in Jason's abilities to adopt a first-round-or-college mantra, no one counted on that average coming out of his bat in Greenville, his first full minor league season. Place hit .214 in Greenville, followed that up with a .213 average in the Hawaii Winter League, and left for Lancaster stunned by his lack of success. Lancaster was, in some ways, a haven for a kid whose father raised a few pressurized "red flags" for at least one member of the Sox organization.

There was a break, a separation. And even Ken conceded that Greenville might not have been the best of places for his son to start his professional career.

"I would have preferred he start out someplace else, to be honest with you," Ken said.

And then there was California.

"He didn't have to look over his shoulder all the time," Lancaster manager Chad Epperson said. "I think he did a lot of growing up in Lancaster, and I think the seed was planted for sure. Now let's see what we've got. This kid, there's a lot there."

As many as five tools, in fact, though the speed shows itself far more in closing on fly balls than on the basepaths. Not only does Place have major league-ready defensive skills in center field, he also possesses exceptional power. Granted, it's in a system generally devoid of power, but Place has the kind of stroke that makes crowds gasp and scouts drool.

"He's got some of the best power in the system," said Red Sox director of player development Mike Hazen. "It's clear any day you watch him take BP, and he has power to all fields, too. We saw that emerge in Lancaster a little bit more last year.

"Like any player that goes to Lancaster, you take some of the power stuff with a grain of salt [because of the strong winds]. We'll see how it plays out this year, but we think that power is going to manifest itself with the continuation and consistency of the swing mechanics."

In 484 at-bats with Lancaster, which is high Single A ball, Place hit 19 home runs, 4 triples, and 25 doubles, though the strikeout numbers are still too Adam Dunn-like - 160 in 2007 and 147 in 2008.

"I still have to prove to myself in Double A that I can be selective," Place said. "I don't go to the cage every day to work on hitting to get walks, but if the pitch isn't there, I'm going to take the walk.

"Driving in runs and scoring runs and on-base percentage, for me, I think are the biggest areas that I need to come through on. Obviously, not striking out 130 times a year would help."

Finding the fun
As he competes for a spot in Double A Portland this summer - his father says, without so much as an "if," that they will be driving there after spring training - Place is coming back from an August injury that mangled ligaments and tendons in his right ankle. The injury kept him from swinging a bat for five months and left him slightly short of the organization's fitness expectations upon his arrival in Fort Myers.

He is continuing that work with his swing, making sure it all comes together with his hands and feet and lower and upper halves combining to form a smooth motion. He is already that "impact defensive center fielder," as Hazen puts it.

Place, who will turn 21 in May, has clearly changed in his three years with the Sox organization. He has relaxed. He has begun to understand that, yes, there can be fun in baseball. There can be jokes, practical or otherwise, and it doesn't have to be all work all the time.

He can get along with teammates, not just the coaching staff. Epperson, in one of his many sit-downs with Place, told him last season that he was the most respected player on the team.

Epperson said he told Place, " 'It's not because you're Jason Place, it's not because you're cool, it's because of the way you play the game.'

"He plays the game as hard as anybody does that suits up in that clubhouse, and those players respect him, no matter what they say to him, no matter what they joke."

"I'm pretty cut-and-dry," Place said. "I come from a military family, so it's all black and white, so I don't cherry-coat anything. A guy'll come up to me, be like, 'Man, I [stink], I can't hit that pitch.' Me being used to having somebody yell at me, being like, 'What's your problem? Quit being a wussy and just go out there and do it, I don't want to hear you whining.' I've learned to say, 'Hey, man, don't worry about it.' "

So there is a different swagger now, as Epperson put it. Perhaps Place's relationships with teammates will improve, but Hazen acknowledges that it doesn't really matter. Baseball, after all, is as one-on-one an experience as you can find in a team sport. As Hazen said, "Everybody's not getting along with everybody. It's just the way it is.

"We try the best we can to sort of create a melting pot. He's done fine. In the game of baseball, too, it's easier. It's not basketball, it's not football, it's a one-on-one battle as long as you take care of business."

That is what Place is striving for. His hopes have strayed from their unrealistic beginnings to the realism of pitch to pitch and at-bat to at-bat. He cannot make the majors on one swing, even one as sweet as the one that took a ball out over the Green Monster in his first workout at the place he wants to one day call his home ballpark.

"Everybody wants to come out of high school and be that first-round pick, be that kid that gets to the big leagues, the next [Alex Rodriguez] when you're 18, 19 years old," Place said. "I had those goals. Obviously, it didn't go that way.

"Boston hasn't given up on me, and I haven't, I'll never give up on them. As far as I'm concerned, it's a confidence thing for me. It's not an 'if I get to the big leagues,' it's just a matter of when."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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