DeLeon Springs is a Florida town different from the white sand beach scenes displayed in tourism guides and on television.

DeLeon Springs is a Florida town different from the white sand beach scenes displayed in tourism guides and on television.

Sure, it’s not too far away from Daytona Beach and the east coast of the Sunshine State (about 25 miles or so), but you won’t find beach umbrellas or shells or even a monster race track around.

Instead, you’d find a place where loyalty runs deep and where roots have been planted for almost as long as people have lived near the natural spring that gives the town its name.

You’d also find a young boy named Austin Hays. Before he’d go on to be one of the top prospects in Baltimore’s system, Hays was taking advantage of his surroundings as much as possible.

“I grew up with three really close friends that were all about a mile from where I live, so we would jog or walk or ride bikes to each other’s houses and hang out,” said Hays. “We’d shoot guns, fish or hunt-just do anything outside. We didn’t spend too much time playing video games or being inside. Each one of us lived on something between 5-10 acres. There’s a lot of open land to do your own thing.

“It’s nice. It’s peaceful. It’s hard to find a lot of areas like that nowadays.”

As Hays got older, his grandfather was among the first to spark Hays’ love of America’s Pastime.

“My grandparents lived across the street from me and my grandfather was a big baseball fan,” said Hays. “Every day–when I’d get home from school and my parents weren’t home–I’d walk across the street and we would hit wiffle balls, acorns, whatever with a PVC pipe. He’d always have some new contraption made that he wanted us to use.”

High school was the next logical step for the Baysox outfielder. He won a state championship his junior year at Spruce Creek High School with the Hawks-an avian mascot whose colors are also orange and black. Despite that, offers to play in college weren’t plentiful at that time. So, Hays headed to Seminole State College, where those metaphorical wheels began turning.

“I didn’t really have any big schools looking at me,” said Hays. “When I went to junior college, I had a really good season that year and started getting recognition from bigger schools. That’s when I realized that this was something I could do for a living if I continued to progress the way I had the last couple years.”

Hays indeed had a really good season, being named the team’s MVP in 2014. The outfielder was named first-team All-Conference and second-team All-State after batting .382 with six home runs, 12 doubles and 38 RBI. This led to an offer from up the road at Jacksonville University.

The largest city in Florida isn’t too far from the Daytona Beach area, but JU’s location was secondary compared to the role loyalty played for Hays.

The Head Coach of the Dolphins is a man named Chris Hayes, born and raised in the River City and an alum of JU. He took the position in 2013 after coaching at Seminole State College, right before Hays headed to Sanford.

“The first college coach that talked to me about wanting me to play for them was (Hayes),” said Hays. “He got a coaching opportunity at JU about two months before I started at Seminole State. He recruited me and was the guy I really wanted to play for, but he took an opportunity that fit perfectly for him. I didn’t really care about anything else. I loved him as a person and a coach, so I really wanted to go to JU to play for him.”

Sophomore year proved tough for the outfielder, but a trip to Hyannis to play for the Harbor Hawks in the Cape Cod League kickstarted Hays’ confidence.

“It seems like every time I move up a level and play against better competition, I personally get better,” said Hays. “That wasn’t different than going from high school to junior college to playing with a wood bat in the Florida collegiate league to playing in Division 1 to playing against the best players in D-1 in the most prestigious summer league.

Photo credit: Bert Hindman

“It was a confidence thing for me. Having a good season against some of the best pitchers and players in the league gave me the confidence to know that I’m a pretty good player, too. I can believe in myself that this is something I can do for a living. I can be a guy that gets drafted and plays professional baseball.”

Get drafted he did. The talks with MLB scouts were cool, but Hays wasn’t fazed or consumed by the impending possibility.

Then came Draft Day 2016.

“Every year, my parents go to Sunrise Beach Club in Daytona Beach for a week,” said Hays. “It just so happened that that week was during the draft that year. We invited some of my friends and other family to be with us that day.

“I had gotten a text right before that said ‘done.’ Before I could even go in and tell everyone that I was about to be drafted, I just heard them screaming and looking at the TV. I didn’t want to watch the TV. I just wanted to wait until my adviser told me that it was going to happen. It was the perfect day. You couldn’t ask for anything more. I was on the beach with my family. It was ideal.”

From that moment, the statistics had Orioles’ staff raving and prospect rumors buzzing. A season in Aberdeen helped catapult Hays to Class-A Advanced Frederick before a midseason jump to Double-A Bowie and a late season call-up to Baltimore.

“It was a chaotic day,” said Hays. I had gotten the call from (Baysox Manager Gary Kendall) and I was at my host family’s house. My girlfriend was in town, so she was the first person that heard because the phone was on speaker. The first person I called was my mom. That phone call was happy and anxious, but I had to tell her not to tell anyone or post anything on social media because I had to get to the field to sign the papers.

“It’s crazy. When you think about getting the call-up, you think about the glamor and the fashion of it, but you don’t realize all the chaotic stuff that goes into getting to a certain point in a certain amount of time to sign a paper that says you can play. I don’t know if I’ve ever had another feeling like I’ve had when Gary had told me that I was going.”

That promotion to the big leagues rekindled that feeling of winning the state championship with Spruce Creek High School. Hays has gotten a taste of life as a major leaguer. That’s still the ultimate goal, but the MLB.com and Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect in Baltimore’s system is the first to remember the importance of the journey.

“The trophy didn’t mean that much to me,” said Hays. “Getting the trophy and the state championship ring doesn’t really mean anything at the end of the day, but the journey and the feeling of winning it meant everything to me. Being able to experience it with my family and friends and teammates was everything.

“It’s the same thing now. I love the journey. I love being on the field and experiencing the success that I had on the field. That means everything to me. The stuff off the field is a trophy after the fact. It doesn’t make me feel better or worse. It’s an added bonus to the other feelings I’ve had.”

True to his roots. True to the people who have brought him this far. True to who he is as a person. Regardless of what level Hays finds himself at, the energy and effort levels will remain the same as it has since the times with his grandpa and that PVC pipe.

“I believe there’s only one way to play the game and that’s full speed, 100 percent,” said Hays. “You owe it to the fans, to the scouts watching you in the stands, and to all the players before you who have played baseball. If you mess up on something offensively, you go on defense and give defense everything you have. If you hit a ball in play, you run as hard as you can until the umpire calls you out. I think that’s the only way anyone should ever play the game.”

By Robby Veronesi / Bowie Baysox