May 16, 2003

This story originally appeared in the Times Picayune on May 15, 2003.

Reprinted by permission.

By Fred Robinson
Staff writer

It has been one pressure-packed year for Tulane junior Michael Aubrey.

But with high expectations and plenty of money on the line for the Green Wave junior first baseman, Aubrey has greeted his payoff season in the same manner he has greeted payoff pitches -- with smashing success.

The timing couldn't have been better.

In one month the Major League Baseball draft will be held, and Aubrey, barring an injury, probably will be a first-round selection. The only question is where he will be picked in the first round.

"If it goes according to Coach Prado, he's sitting pretty damn high," said Louisville coach Lelo Prado, who coached Aubrey last summer with Team USA. "Where he goes depends on the pitchers in the draft. The only way he won't be drafted is if there isn't a draft."

College baseball players have the most leverage in their junior season. They still have the option of returning to school for their senior season if contract negotiations fail. That isn't likely to happen with Aubrey.

"What he gets will depend on where he's drafted," said Tulane coach Rick Jones. "The first five picks of the first round vs. the last five picks (of the first round) could be the difference of a million dollars. It's going to be seven figures no matter how you cut it."

Jones uses Jake Gautreau, Tulane's first baseman from the 2001 College World Series team, as his example.

"Jake was the 15th overall pick and he got a $1.875 million signing bonus," Jones said.

One rating service has Aubrey projected as the sixth overall pick.

Jones will be one of the first to acknowledge that Aubrey's stock didn't rise overnight. "He's the captain of a nationally ranked program, he's hitting .400-something (.433) and he's one of the premier players in college baseball," Jones said. "This wasn't happenstance."

The comparisons between Gautreau, who with 57 home runs ranks third among Tulane's career leaders, and Aubrey are common.

"Michael is a very solid offensive player with the potential to hit some home runs at the next level," Houston coach Rayner Noble said. "I think Jake Gautreau was a fine player, and I put Michael in that same category."

Said Jones: "He's very similar (to Gautreau). He makes players around him better."

Aubrey, the national Freshman of the Year in 2001, did not have the type of sophomore season he would have liked. A back injury caused him to miss eight games. However, he healed quickly and had a spectacular summer. He played for Team USA for the third consecutive summer, helping the national team to a silver medal in the World University Championship games in Rome and a gold medal at the Haarlem Baseball Week in The Netherlands last summer. He was chosen USA Baseball's Athlete of the Year.

"Michael was our best hitter," Prado said.

Last week Aubrey, who leads Conference USA in batting average, hits (90) and RBIs (72), was selected a finalist for the 2003 Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the nation's top collegiate player.

The 6-foot-2 left-hander from Shreveport said he has been working very hard to get to this point, beginning at the end of his senior year at Southwood High.

At his parent's home, a scout explained to Aubrey just how far baseball could take him. It opened Aubrey's eyes and put him on a path that could make him a millionaire.

"I always wanted to be in this position, but I didn't know what it would take until my senior year in high school," Aubrey said. "People came into my home and told me that I had the potential to play professional baseball. If not then, in a couple of years."

Aubrey wasn't drafted in 2000, something he's now happy about.

"I knew I had an opportunity to get a great education. I had already committed to Tulane, and I was lucky I had a situation like that to fall back on," he said. "My expectations weren't so high to be drafted out of high school; it certainly turned out for the better."

While he's capable of hitting with power, versatility is probably his strength. At Tulane, he has played outfield, pitcher and first base. In his first two seasons he compiled an 11-2 record before the back injury caused him to give up pitching. Though the Green Wave lost what might have been their best pitcher this season, Aubrey remains a hitter that is feared by opposing coaches.

"I can't say enough good things about him," Prado said. "The way he swings the bat, I think his future in the big leagues is at first base. He doesn't have many holes in that swing."

Aubrey reminds Prado of another first baseman he once coached -- Tino Martinez of the St. Louis Cardinals.

"I would put him in the same category with Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez (Arizona Diamondbacks)," Prado said. "He's got the total package. Half the time teams don't want to pitch to him, and the better the pitching the better he gets. That's where I see Michael Aubrey competing."

Aubrey's work ethic, Prado said, is second to none. Aubrey is constantly striving to get the edge. "He's a great teammate and just goes about his work," Prado said. "I know how hard Tino worked to get where he got, and Michael has some of the same characteristics.

"He's one of the few guys who doesn't have many flaws. He picks up little things from pitchers. While other guys are at the end of the dugout spitting sunflower seeds, he's studying the pitcher. That's the way Tino was."

During the past two seasons, New Orleanian and former San Francisco Giants All-Star Will Clark has become a mentor to Aubrey.

"We met last year and just talked about hitting and the mental aspects of the game," Aubrey said. "Just hearing his perspective of the game and how he approached the game has given me an edge. His most important advice was to keep the game simple: see the ball, hit the ball. He was my favorite player when I was growing up."

There are two similarities between Clark and Aubrey. Clark was a left-handed first baseman who hit with power. He was also a first-round pick (No. 2 overall) in the 1985 draft.

Clark said he has a pretty good idea of what Aubrey is going through as his leverage season comes to a close. "He's done exactly what you'd want him to do," Clark said. "He's a very good athlete who has gotten better each season. There's probably a lot of anticipation going on inside of Michael right now."

Clark said he ignored the pressures, and said he told Aubrey he'd be better off if he could do the same.

"I sort of resigned myself that what was going to happen was going to happen," Clark said. "I was just going to have fun and hit the baseball. I told Michael that he's going to go out there with hundreds of fans in the stands, but he can't play for them. He has to take care of himself."

Aubrey, who has hit 14 home runs this season, has done that.

The two haven't talked much this season, according to Clark, but only because Aubrey is doing all the things they talked about last year.

This year, Clark's advice has been on another subject -- finances. Clark noted that the bonus money players are getting today is much more than when he came out of Mississippi State.

"When I was drafted, the year before was the Olympic team year and guys from that team were getting in the $140s (thousands)," Clark said. "The biggest salary in the majors at that time was $2 million a year."

Just last month, Clark helped arrange a meeting between Aubrey and financial advisers. "He's going to get bombarded from the financial end and the lawyer/agent types," Clark said. "I don't want a guy like Michael to start off in a bad situation. Lord knows I've seen my share."

Because of the back injury a year ago, the question of Aubrey's health continues to pop up.

"What about his back?" Prado said major-league representatives ask him. "I tell them if it held up all of last summer with the schedule and travel we had, then I think he's fine."

To end speculation that he's still not 100 percent, Aubrey has sent MRI reports and other information from medical exams to a scouting bureau that makes such material available to major-league teams.

"Not pitching has certainly helped," Aubrey said. "It's allowed me to strictly focus on what I think I do best."

Aubrey said his teammates have helped him remain loose in a pressure season. They play cards together and often tease Aubrey of the position he's in.

"I've just tried to enjoy myself, especially with my roommates," Aubrey said. "They tease me all the time about not ever having to take another class. What am I going to say to that? I'm going to finish my education, but I don't know when that's going to be."