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Barnes not afraid to get dirty in pursuit of dream

Outfielder's passion for the game, parents' sacrifices paved way to Majors

DENVER -- With an intense grin on his face, Brandon Barnes leaped to his feet and out of a cloud of dust.

The force of his high-fives put his Rockies teammates' hands in danger, but everyone made it out unscathed and ecstatic after Barnes' go-ahead inside-the-park home run on Saturday against the Giants at AT&T Park.

The sight of Barnes covered in dirt is a reminder that baseball does have room for the late bloomer.

To think, Barnes, 28, gave up the sport during his senior year of high school -- at a time when some folks were being drafted by pro teams -- because of circumstances out of his control. Yet here he is. Even before a long Minor League apprenticeship that culminated in time with the Astros in 2012 and '13 and before he was traded to the Rockies over the winter, his road to baseball was winding.

"There are a lot of times when I go out there and I'm like, 'How did I do this?'" Barnes said. "I step out on the field and say, 'Wow. This is what I dreamed of when I was a kid, and I don't know how I did this.'"

As a youth in Orange, Calif., Barnes played in local Little Leagues. Only once, at age 14, did he take the increasingly popular route of playing on multiple youth teams that traveled. That didn't last long.

"I played on five different teams and the only way I could do it was through scholarships from the coach," he said. "But still, it breaks the bank for the parents."

Barnes said he wasn't the best baseball player on his Katella High School team, but he enjoyed the mental challenge. He also liked the physical challenge of football, and played wherever his team needed him.

Barnes could have been recruited by colleges for either sport, but the NCAA Division I baseball scholarship limit is 11.7, spread among up to 35 players. It means baseball players usually are footing a percentage of college costs. Football, by contrast, offers 85 scholarships.

When he sat with his parents, it came down to paying bills.

"My parents didn't have the money to send me to school, and I wanted to go to a Division I school, so I had to get that scholarship so they didn't have to worry about it," Barnes said. "My goal was the NFL. I wanted to be John Lynch."

By the end of his senior football season, Barnes had committed to UCLA. But when the school replaced head coach Bob Toledo with Karl Dorrell, the offer from UCLA evaporated and suddenly Barnes was without a scholarship, and other schools recruiting him had completed their recruiting.

"Every game has politics, and they had to do what was best for the program, but it made my decision tougher," he said.

Even more, though he could have helped his high school's baseball team and possibly played his way to some kind of college assistance, "They wouldn't let me back on the team."

Barnes talked to Fullerton College, a two-year school, about playing football there, and even joined the football team's spring weight-training program. The coaches liked him enough to tell him he had a chance to start at free safety in the fall.

Then a baseball chance came out of nowhere.

"They had Big League, which is like Little League, only older," Barnes said. "I played in a tournament with my buddies, and we ended up in the World Series in South Carolina. I played 10 games and ended up with, like, eight home runs.

"My buddies were like, 'You were born to play baseball.'"

Suddenly, a guy cast adrift by the college of his choice and even his own high school had Fullerton and other two-year schools recruiting him for both sports. Barnes chose Cypress College, which had just baseball.

At the two-year level, financial aid is minimal. His parents scrimped and saved and took extra work to help him, and that was barely enough to get him through that first year.

"They were separated from when I was 11 or 12," Barnes said. "My mom got injured at work and couldn't work, so she was collecting unemployment. She was taking care of me and my sister. My dad was a photographer and a single dad, so he was out there working his butt off. I owe everything to my parents.

"There were some points where I didn't have the money to pay for the units, and my buddy's dad cut me a check. My dad told me if I didn't get drafted, I was going to have to find a job."

One might say Barnes made himself into a fifth-round pick by the Astros in 2005, in part because he couldn't afford not to be drafted.

In 2010, Eric Young, now the Rockies' first-base coach but then an outfield roving instructor with the Astros, noticed Barnes' hunger and aptitude.

"When I got there, Brandon Barnes was No. 9 on the depth chart in the Minor League system," Young said. "But from Day 1, I took a special liking to him, based on the fact he was first in all the drills, doing them correctly, then he translated that into the game. He kept getting better and better."

Young said he had not talked to the Rockies' front office before the club acquired Barnes, along with righty pitcher Jordan Lyles, for outfielder Dexter Fowler on Dec.3. Manager Walt Weiss had seen Barnes deliver a 12th-inning walk-off double against the Rockies in Houston on May 27 after Jose Altuve was walked intentionally.

Barnes has rewarded the Rockies by batting .287 with a .331 on-base percentage, two inside-the-park homers (the other was against the D-backs on June 5), nine doubles and two triples, with one in walk-off fashion in a 5-4 home victory over the Dodgers on June 7.

"He brings a bit of an edge to our club, and he relishes that role," Weiss said. "I'm sure he sees himself as an everyday player, and I think he's right. But in our outfield situation, he's getting a lot of time, but he's not getting to play every day."

Barnes admits he wonders what becomes of the next Brandon Barnes -- the next young man with top-level athletic ability and a love for baseball but not the means for the growing costs.

"I work out at a [baseball] academy and it's not cheap," Barnes said. "I see the prices parents are paying per month for travel ball, jerseys, workouts during the week.

"My workouts were going to those big circle batting cages with the fences and the big Iron Mike pitching machines. I was begging my grandpa and my dad to take me there, put the quarter in and take 12 swings. Ten dollars were swings forever."

The quarters, it turned out, were a wise investment.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.
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