Big-league skills

Michael Choice looks to improve on a season that saw him make five freshman all-America teams

By Danny Woodward

Watch him every day and it all runs together. Rapping out two hits in his first collegiate game. Going 4-for-4 with five RBIs against the nation’s No. 7 team. Batting .430 in the Southland Conference Tournament.

You know he’s UT Arlington’s newest baseball star—perhaps the next Hunter Pence or Dan Ortmeier, both major leaguers—but after a while you lose sight of just how good sophomore outfielder Michael Choice is.

Kendall Rogers, college baseball editor for Yahoo! Sports, knows the national scene and says it’s not every day that a true freshman faces college competition and emerges a “phenomenal” player. “But Choice certainly proved to be one of the nation’s best young players. And he’s got the tools to be an even better college player, perhaps at the next level.”

“It won’t bother me if I don’t make any all-America teams this year. I don’t really pay attention to that.”

“Don’t be surprised if he’s a very high major league draft pick in two summers,” Rogers said.

First things first, however. Choice is expected again to be the Mavericks’ offensive catalyst and center fielder in 2009. He already has one of the best seasons in school history under his belt. As an 18-year-old freshman, he started all 50 games and led the team in batting average (.376), home runs (seven) and RBIs (51). And he committed only three errors.

All of this made him the SLC Freshman of the Year and the second Maverick ever to grace a freshman all-America team (the first was Darrell Preston in 2001). For the record, Choice made five of them and was named to the 2009 Preseason Brooks Wallace Player of the Year Watch List. It seems the only person surprised by the recognition was Choice.

“When they pick those awards, they usually look at [conferences like] the Big 12 or the Pac-10,” he said. “So I never really expected any of it. I was very surprised the first couple of times I was put on one of those teams. Then I guess one leads to another.”

If national pundits did look toward the Big 12—a conference that includes some of the nation’s best teams—they’d have seen that Choice batted .462 against that league. And if they looked closer, they might have noticed that Choice had multiple hits in half of UT Arlington’s games and that he reached base, on average, more than twice per game.

“Closer to the end of the season, people told me how good I was doing. But I didn’t really keep up with everything. I just tried to go out and play my hardest. Going from game to game, I never really knew what to expect because I had never played against anybody on those teams. I had no idea if this guy’s slider was better than that guy’s.”

Choice came to UT Arlington hoping only to compete for an outfield spot. He had the attributes—size (6-0, 210 pounds), arm strength (throws from center field to home plate clocked at 92 mph), sprinter’s speed (6.6 seconds in the 60-yard dash)—that Mavericks coach Darin Thomas noticed when he recruited Choice out of Mansfield’s Timberview High School.

Choice was an all-district catcher as a sophomore and an all-district second baseman as a junior before moving to the outfield (and batting .506) as a senior. No matter where he played, “you could see that he possessed a lot of the physical gifts it takes to play this game at our level,” Thomas said. “He exceeded my expectations as a freshman, but this is a new year with new challenges for him and our team.”

With Thomas becoming head coach last spring and Choice batting lead-off, the Mavericks doubled their win total over 2007 and reached the Southland Conference Tournament. This year’s roster includes 21 seniors, but Choice, the sophomore, remains the biggest weapon.

“I want to concentrate on doing all the little things right, and the big things will take care of themselves,” he said. “It won’t bother me if I don’t make any all-America teams this year. I don’t really pay attention to that.”

Thomas says Choice “understands that he has a long way to go in order to be the best player he can be.” For Choice, that’s increasing his stolen-base total and batting better than .500. The latter, he admits, might be unrealistic. But listen again to Rogers, the Yahoo! editor.

“It’s tough with his level of competition to do much better than a .376 batting average. But Michael and the UT Arlington staff likely would agree that he could do better. That’s so scary for opposing teams.”

And so good for those who can watch him every day.

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