X Is Still A Factor After All

Xavier Paul and Matt Kemp are buddies. Outfield mates for the past two seasons- at Columbus in 2004 and Vero Beach in 2005- they became close friends. So, naturally, Paul is delighted with Matt's recent call-up to the big leagues. "I'm really proud of what Matt's been able to accomplish," he says. And, yet, there has to be that lingering look at what might have been.

It was in 2003 when both made their professional debuts. Then, it was Paul-the kid they call "X" - who bore the label of the wonderful prospect. Drafted in the fourth round, he went to Ogden where they still speak in hushed reverent tones about some of the home runs he launched. He belabored the ball, batting .307 with 7 seven homers and 47 RBI in 69 games. Won the Guy Wellman Award as the organization's Rookie of the Year. As for Kemp, who hit .270 with one homer in the less demanding Gulf Coast League, it was, "Well, nice athlete. Maybe, who knows."

For the first month of 2004 at Columbus, it was more of the same. Then, Kemp got with the game, and his career went into orbit. But for Paul the hits stopped coming in bunches. The game became a grind of high expectations, low performance. Matt wound up hitting .288 with 17 homers; X managed only .262 with nine.

It was discovered that Paul had poor vision in one eye- a problem that seemed correctable but proved to be balky. He began alternating between contact lenses and glasses, trying one for a period, then, the other. Laser surgery was even contemplated.

Then in spring training last year, just when it began to look like Xavier was finding himself again, he injured his back. Even when activated later, the pain really hadn't gone away so he suffered throughout the year.

Matt, too, had an injury problem at the start- a sprained wrist. He, however, recovered and went on to set the Vero record for home runs with 27.

Xavier continued in his downward spiral - .247, seven homers. He was going so poorly that he even experimented with switch hitting in the instructional camp. If that wasn't bad enough, the family home in Slidell, La., was destroyed like so many others by Hurricane Katrina.

This season Kemp has been the talk of the system, mashing the ball with such regularity that he leaped from Jacksonville to the majors. X, on the other hand, was kept back at Vero where he started slowly. Then, good things began to happen.

Quite possibly they actually started in the off season for he even got some good out of Katrina. As the Paul home was being rebuilt, he spent the winter in Tallahassee where he found that, "Before I would have been hanging out, doing nothing much but my friends were scattered all over the place. So, I got to concentrate on baseball. "

He began the year buried near the bottom of the Vero batting order but the hits started coming so he began moving up. Now, he's the leadoff man, not your prototypal guy perhaps for he still has a slashing style at the plate but he's been getting on and displaying speed when he does for that's another asset he possesses.

The hits keep on coming- oh, he's still a sucker for a good curve but the average has steadily climbed until he's reached .295. And Wednesday night, he had his finest moment yet, coming to the plate with Vero trailing first-place St. Lucie 4-0 and the bases juiced. He sent the ball flying out- a grand salami, his sixth homer thus far. Vero went on to win 5-4 in the 10th. He also threw a runner out with a missile from right for this onetime high school pitcher always has had a bravura arm.

The difference this time around ? "I'm healthy," he allows. "My back doesn't bother me. And I'm playing every day. Last year after my injury, I'd play a day, then sit. Can't get anything going that way."

Oh, it hasn't been a monster breakout. Yet, the signs are there and they've been positive. He just turned 21, hardly an advanced age for high A ball. And he's decidedly reversed that downward spiral for he's conquered a lot that may well have sent him to oblivion.

So, he can rejoice in his buddy's success. And start thinking about the time in the future when they may well share the outfield again.