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Ex-Pirate star rides long road to majors

(ran PW, PS editions)

DIRECTIONS: Get on bus. Ride several hours along country roads. Hole up in second-rate hotel. Nap. Go to field. Warm up. Take batting practice. Play. Go back to hotel. Sleep.

Repeat next day.

And so it goes for 1997 Pasco High graduate DeShawn Southward, whose life is an endless swirl of baseball, hotels, small towns and bus rides as he tries to make his way up the Minnesota Twins chain.

Southward, the Twins' 13th-round pick in 1997, is with the Elizabethton (Tenn.) Twins of the Appalachian League this season. Among the equally unknown outposts where Southward and the Twins park the bus and play are Pulaski, Va., Martinsville, Va., Bluefield, W.Va., and Burlington, N.C.

It's all part of the process of professional baseball, and it can take its toll. Southward is batting a respectable .264 in 125 at-bats. He is his team's top defensive outfielder, and he leads Elizabethton in stolen bases with 13. But the minor league grind has been taxing.

"It's kind of rough right now," said Southward, reached at the team hotel in Pulaski last week. "It's just real tiring on the road, going out and playing for six days straight on the road. I'm loving it, but it's tough."

Becoming accustomed to the drudge, and overcoming it, are the most difficult aspects.

"Right now, we're almost done. Just a month to go," Southward said. "I've been at it five months. That's a long time. But when you're tired, you've got to put it to the side and go out and play."

A superb defensive player, Southward's ability to track down fly balls, cover the gaps and make the long, strong throws from the outfield already might be of major league caliber. Heck, his defensive skills might have been of major league caliber in high school, when Southward and fellow draft picks A.J. Jones and Daniel Boyd led Pasco to the Class 4A state title game in 1997.

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Southward _ he has added 20 pounds since high school _ has such high expectations of his fielding that earlier this season, after he made an error, he let it affect his concentration at the plate and initiate a slump.

"In baseball, 90 percent of it is mental," Southward said. "I started off good. Things were going good, then I started struggling. I dropped a fly ball, and it got to me. I started going up to the plate and swinging at bad pitches."

Elizabethton manager John Mathews said that despite Southward's strict assessment of his own performance, he has played well overall and shown good progress.

"Coming into the year, we knew he was our best defensive outfielder. He runs and throws," Mathews said. "This year, though, he's improved his offensive game. He's a much more multifaceted player now."

Southward started the season in the Twins extended spring training in Fort Myers before being assigned to Elizabethton, where he has played in 36 of the team's 50 games. He spent his first two professional seasons with the Twins' Gulf Coast League affiliate in Fort Myers. In 1997, he hit .260 with 14 stolen bases in 154 at-bats, and in 1998, he hit .267 with 11 stolen bases in 165 at-bats.

For his career, Southward has 444 at-bats and 38 stolen bases but just three home runs and 21 extra-base hits. He needs to maximize his on-base percentage, which is a solid .380 this season because his future is as a leadoff hitter/defensive ace.

"His hitting is the key. He's going to have to get on base consistently," Mathews said.

In addition to maintaining confidence and focus on the field, Southward's main battle has been occupying his free time.

"We sleep in a lot," Southward said when asked what he and roommate Aaron Lough do to combat boredom. "For home games, (the time before the game) is even longer. Sometimes it can get, well, boring."

Southward also was a basketball and football standout at Pasco, and he initially was hoping to get a Division I football scholarship to play defensive back for South Carolina. When that fell through, he signed with Lake City Community College to play baseball, then opted for the pros after the draft.

He spends his off-seasons in Dade City, where he has lived his whole life, honing his skills at The Hitting Zone in Tampa. He also works at the East Pasco Medical Center, where his mother, Lillie, works.

Next season, Southward expects to be promoted to the Class A Quad City River Bandits of the Midwest League, taking another step toward the ultimate goal, the big leagues.

"I've been through some rough times, but I just need to finish strong, get my average up around .280 where I need it to be, and then keep it going at Quad City next year," Southward said.

"I feel like I'm getting back on track. I feel like things will come through for me."

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