After beating the University of Texas to win the 2004 College World Series, Cal State Fullerton dog-piled on the field. Near the heap of players was Fullerton bat boy Aaron Payne, who just stood there.
“Even though he didn’t say a lot, you could see it in his smile,” Payne’s dad, Ron, said. “He was so proud to be a bat boy.”
That former bat boy is now Oregon’s senior second baseman playing under George Horton — the same head coach of the 2004 Cal State Fullerton baseball team.
Payne grew up as a fan of Cal State Fullerton after his dad introduced him to the team. When Payne was 9 or 10 years old, he went to a summer baseball camp at Fullerton.
During the camp Payne caught the attention of the Fullerton coaching staff and was invited to be a bat boy for the upcoming season.
“I noticed his attention to detail and his level of focus,” Horton said. “You can kind of tell at that age.”
Panye would be a bat boy for Horton for two seasons.
Payne didn’t talk much as a bat boy, he just focused on doing his job. Payne was Horton’s catcher when he hit ground balls during batting practice and Payne payed attention to what the players did.
“He and I would always have short little conversations,” Horton said. “He didn’t say hardly anything.”
But Payne was learning. He used what he learned from the Fullerton players when he got to little league.
“You got to see how hard those guys work and play,” Payne said. “You’ve got your role models on their team and you tried to play like they did.”
But Payne was getting more than just knowledge from Horton and his team: he was getting noticed.
“Sometimes the genetics don’t catch up to a guy to make him a college-level baseball player, but I can usually tell if their aptitude is at a level that I want to be around him and coach him,” Horton said. “Aaron certainly passed all of my criteria.”
In high school, Payne realized Cal State Fullerton wasn’t for him.
“Growing up I always wanted to go to Fullerton,” Payne said. “Once I got into high school I kind of wanted to go somewhere else.”
When Horton began coaching at Oregon in 2009, Payne was a junior at San Clemente High School. Horton never forgot about the bat boy that passed his criteria years ago.
“He had a late-blooming high school career,” Horton said. “Because of my feeling about him as a young man, that led me to encourage our guys to recruit him.”
Payne has proven Horton right since being recruited to Oregon. Payne holds Oregon career records for runs scored (128), stolen bases (44) and hit by pitches (68).
“We hit the jackpot on him,” Horton said.
Now being a collegiate baseball player for Horton, Payne has come full-circle. But the senior has since corrected an incorrect observation about Fullerton’s players when he was a bat boy.
“I remember being a bat boy and feeling like these were professional athletes,” Aaron said. “Now being one of them, we’re just kids playing the game.”
Follow Andrew Bantly on Twitter @abant3