Albert Laboy may not be the most talented player ever to pull on a Hickory Crawdads' uniform, but he is certainly one of the most enthusiastic and most personable.
As he trots toward his position in left field on a perfect July evening – sky cloudless, temperature 88 degrees, humidity low – he flashes a smile to a fan who calls his name from behind the Crawdads' dugout.
Standing 6 feet tall and weighing a lean 177 pounds, Laboy, with his chiseled physique and bulging forearms, looks like a ballplayer. With his thick, wavy hair, his handsome features and his flashing eyes, he also looks a bit like a teen idol.
Laboy, who will not turn 22 until December, is already in his fourth season in the Pittsburgh Pirates' organization and is in his second tour in Hickory. The climb up the ladder in minor league baseball, he has learned, can be a difficult one.
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Summoned to Hickory from the lower minors at midseason in 2007, Laboy provided an offensive spark for the Crawdads and was one of the key reasons the team advanced to the South Atlantic League playoffs.
When this season began, Laboy had been promoted to Lynchburg, the next step up the Pirate food chain. His progress faltered, however, and he was batting a puny .182 when he was demoted to Hickory in June.
“This is a tough game,” he said of that step backward. “But it's my life, it's what I do. I've got to work on some things here, stay confident, and trust that I'll start working my way back up.”
Coming to the plate with the bases empty and no outs in the third inning, Laboy works the count to 2-1, then lashes a ball toward left center. The drive hits off the top of the wall, and Laboy dives safely into second base in a cloud of dust.
“My greatest strength is the way I play the game,” he had said before the game. “I never slow down. I never loaf. I bust my butt on every play. If you really love this game, you'll play every game like it's your last.”
The look on Hickory manager Gary Green's face moments later, when a snap throw from the pitcher catches Laboy too far off second base, make an observer think this could indeed be Laboy's last game.
Dusting off his badly soiled uniform, Laboy trots off the field and into the dugout. He does not sulk, he does not pout. Instead, he stands at the rail with his teammates, cheering for the next batter.
Opportunities for redemption come quickly in the summer game.
In the seventh inning, Laboy doubles down the left-field line, turning on the afterburners to motor into second ahead of the left-fielder's throw. Despite the earlier pickoff, he again takes a huge lead off the bag.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the go-ahead run on third base, Laboy drives a ball to deep center field.
It is not hit hard enough or far enough to leave the yard. But it is more than deep enough to easily plate the runner from third base with the deciding run in what will be a 3-2 Crawdad victory.
“It's all about winning,” the native of Boynton Beach, Fla., said before the game. “If you do the things necessary to help your team win every night, the personal goals and numbers will take of themselves.”
It is this willingness to work hard, to hustle and to win that Laboy believes will eventually carry him to the big leagues, whether it's in Pittsburgh's PNC Park or another major league venue.
“I'm a scrapper,” he said. “I'll make the other team work hard to beat me. I'll play left field, center field, wherever they want me. I'll bat leadoff, I'll bat second, whatever's necessary.”
On this night, Laboy and his teammates have indeed done what is necessary. The thousand or so fans who attended the weeknight contest at L.P. Frans go happily into the soft summer evening.
As the last days of July approached, Laboy's average had climbed above .300. Of his 39 hits, 14 were for extra bases.
“I don't keep track of who's ahead of me (in the organization). I don't worry about that,” he said. “I just do what I need to do.”
The 'Dads are on the road this weekend, in the midst of a road trip that will take them to Charleston and Savannah, Ga. … The team will be home Aug. 2-5 for a four-game series against the Rome Braves. The Aug. 3 game will be “Bark at the Park Day,” with fans encouraged to bring their four-legged furry friends to the stadium. ... Brad Lincoln, the Pirates' first-round draft choice in 2006, was promoted to Lynchburg on July 16. ... First baseman Miles Durham, promoted to Lynchburg in late June, got off to a slow start for the Hill Cats, batting .219 over his first 17 games.