Last year, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dustin Ackley for a piece that appeared in the Tacoma Rainiers game program, The Dirt. Here’s the result.
North Carolina Natural
By Melissa Marchionna
Seattle Mariners 2009 second overall pick, Dustin Ackley may be just 22 years old, but that doesn’t mean his name doesn’t carry any lore. Since breaking out as a star at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Ackley has drawn comparisons to such players as Chase Utley, Tony Gwynn and…Roy Hobbs.
Yes, Roy Hobbs, the protagonist from one of baseball’s classic tales, The Natural. While one might argue that Ackley is a natural himself, born of baseball blood (his father John was drafted in the third round of the 1979 draft by the Boston Red Sox and played professionally for seven seasons), the comparisons go back to the first year of his collegiate career. In an early spring matchup against UNC Wilmington, Ackley hit a grand slam. While grand slams are always considered remarkable, the truly spectacular part of the hit was that it broke Ackley’s bat.
His aluminum bat.
That one swing inspired the nickname “Roy Hobbs,” something Ackley’s teammates continued to call him throughout his college career.
While Hobbs famously said “I coulda’ broke every record in the book,” Ackley almost did. During his storied freshman year, he broke UNC records and led the nation with 119 hits, 296 at-bats and 73 games. He became just the fifth Tar Heel in program history to bat over .400 in a single season and he set a UNC rookie record with 74 runs.
Even before heading to Chapel Hill, Ackley attracted quite a bit of national attention. He played for South Stoke High School for three seasons, helping his team to back-to-back North Carolina 1A state titles in 2003 and 2004. After transferring from South Stoke to North Forsyth High School for his senior year, Ackley earned preseason and postseason Louisville Slugger All-America honors.
Despite those accolades, Ackley went undrafted after high school. Even if he had been picked up by a team, there’s a good chance he would have turned it down in lieu of university life.
“A lot of kids go through high school and they see the money and want to go straight to professional ball,” said Ackley. “I think the best thing for me was going through college for three years and getting experience there. I think that was the best preparation for me to play professional baseball that I ever could have had.”
The decision to go to school in Chapel Hill was not a difficult one for Ackley. UNC was always in the picture for the North Carolina native.
“The baseball team had been really successful in recent years. It’s a really good program. A couple guys I had played summer ball with committed there.
“Plus, everyone in my family is a basketball fan there, so it made it really easy decision,” Ackley said with a smile.
As challenging as it might have been to balance baseball and UNC’s rigorous academic program, Ackley did follow in his family’s footsteps by cheering on the Tar Heels basketball team. “I went to quite a few of the games at Carolina. I think I went to every Carolina versus Duke game at Chapel Hill,” recalled Ackley.
While Ackley has followed in his family’s footsteps as a basketball fan and in professional baseball, they never forced him in a certain direction, allowing him to forge his own path. When asked about how his father John may have guided his career track, Ackley responded with the perhaps surprising answer that he has not tried to.
“He’s let me go my own way since college. He knew I was old enough to know what to do when the situation came,” Ackley explained.
“He’s told me about the things that went on in his professional career. The things he did. But other than that, he’s let me take this in and experience it for myself.”
Still, when you see Ackley volunteering in the community, posing for pictures with Rainiers season ticket holders, or signing autographs for fans before and after each game, you are seeing his family’s influence. When it comes to those “little things”—the little things that have big meaning for baseball fans—Ackley credits his upbringing.
“I was raised right by my parents,” he noted.
With his family across the country, Ackley now looks to role models in the Mariners organization.
“Since coming here I’ve been around a lot of people who have been in the game for awhile. They are teaching me the right way to do things. I try to do them and hopefully things will work out.
“When I first got to Seattle last August, Mike Sweeney was up with the team. He took me in and showed me everything. If it wasn’t for him, I would have been lost up there. He introduced me to everybody and made me feel comfortable. He was the first guy who really influenced me when I signed with the team.”
Just two days after Ackley joined the Rainiers from West Tennessee, Sweeney began a rehab assignment with the team. The five-time MLB All-Star continued what he started in Seattle while rehabbing in Tacoma, helping the rookie feel comfortable and adjust to his surroundings in the Northwest.
“It was great to see him,” admitted Ackley. “He’s good in the clubhouse. He made everybody relax and have fun. It’s always good to have a guy like that.”
While Sweeney’s rehab assignment has expired and he is no longer a member of the Rainiers, his influence can still be seen in the way Ackley treats the fans and his teammates, and the hustle he shows each day on the diamond.
In The Natural, Iris Gaines, a pivotal person in Hobbs’ past, tells Hobbs “I believe we have two lives…the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”
Be it family, college, coaches, or teammates, the people and experiences of Ackley’s past have taught him how the be a great ballplayer—and more importantly a great person. As his first season of professional baseball winds to a close, Ackley appears ready to parlay the lessons he’s learned into a new life in the major leagues.