South Charlotte

Panthers slugger now has to deal with a tough call

In a way, Brett Austin is like the millions of other high school students this week dealing with the emotions of graduating while thinking about moving on to the next step in their lives.

Unlike most other graduates, however, Austin, a Providence High senior, will have to choose between college or a seven-figure signing bonus to play professional baseball.

Austin's life changed about 11 p.m. June 6, when the San Diego Padres decided to use their compensatory first-round pick on the Panthers catcher. Austin, who already has signed with N.C. State, now has a difficult decision to make.

"Getting drafted was the most exciting moment I have ever had in my life," said Austin. "But I am not going to lie; this has also been a stressful week. I've got a great opportunity to go to N.C. State and play there, or I can follow my dream with a great organization in the San Diego Padres.

"Right now, I'm torn between the two, but it is definitely a good stress to have."

One big factor in his decision will also be the signing bonus the Padres give him, which likely will be more than $1 million. Brett Eiber, an Arkansas outfielder taken in the same spot last year, got a $1.2 million signing bonus, according to Baseball America.

Austin says he is asking for money "above slot," which will force the ultimate decision on what the bonus can be to the commissioner's office. That decision likely will not be made until Aug. 15.

In the meantime, Austin will keep working out on his own while going to summer school at N.C. State, without knowing what his immediate future holds.

"I'm going to keep working hard on my game this summer," said Austin, the 2010 SW4A and N.C. Player of the Year. "But I am also going to take some time off and get healthy. Either way, in the fall, I'm going to be playing a lot of baseball."

Austin's decision doesn't come without precedent, set by recent Providence High stars like David Mailman, who went straight to the professional ranks in the Boston Red Sox organization after being taken in the seventh round of the 2007 draft. Mailman currently is playing for the Red Sox single-A affiliate in Salem, Va.

Meanwhile, Providence's Richie Shaffer decided not to go pro after being chosen in the 25th round by the L.A. Dodgers in 2009. Shaffer instead went to Clemson, where he is one of the top players.

Austin became the highest pick amongst five Providence players taken in coach Danny Hignight's eight-year tenure, after hitting .537 this year with 12 home runs and 38 RBIs.

But while Hignight has been through this before, he says that for now he is just excited for Austin.

"We all dream of getting drafted growing up from the time we step on a little league baseball field," Hignight said. "Ninety-nine percent of us never even get close to getting there. I know he (Brett Austin) has a tough decision, but it's a good one to have to make."

After over a decade of playing baseball almost year round, Austin's future in baseball came down to one night earlier this month, when the 2011 Major League Amateur Draft began on June 6.

Austin, his dad, Bill and his mom, Sherilette, watched the draft from the comfort of their family room beginning at 6 p.m. with great expectations. Austin had heard he would go anywhere from the first round (picks 1-33) to the compensatory first round (picks 34-60) to the second round (61-90).

Austin didn't hear anything until sometime after 9 p.m., when preceding the 43rd pick, the Arizona Diamondbacks called saying they would pick him if he would accept their offer (signing bonus) right then. Austin didn't take the offer, thus prolonging his wait.

Well over an hour later without hearing anything from a team, the Padres awakened what Austin called his "sleepy" household, by calling his name.

"It was a great moment," Austin said. "I don't think I have ever seen my mom and dad so excited."

Austin's friends were also watching and waiting as he got more than 10 phone calls and 50 text messages immediately following the pick, making him feel like a celebrity.

"I didn't sleep a wink that night I got drafted," Austin said. "I was too excited."

That excitement will have to last for the next two-plus months, when in mid-August, Austin and his family will make a final decision.

"It's definitely something I will be thinking about all summer," Austin said. "But I am in a win-win situation. I don't think I can make a bad decision."