This weekend’s Super Regional has been a long time coming for freshman right-fielder Mark Payton.
Payton gave an early verbal commitment the summer after his sophomore year of high school. It wasn’t too hard of a decision. After all, he wanted to play for a successful coach at a school with a rich baseball tradition and a history of sending players to the bigs.
He was headed to Arizona State.
A highly regarded outfielder from Chicago’s St. Rita of Cascia High School, Payton was set on being a Sun Devil until murmurs of potential allegations started to spread. Head coach Pat Murphy — who took Arizona State to the College World Series four times in his 15 years — was being accused of academic fraud, improper recruiting travel, improper use of nearby training facilities and violations concerning players working for Murphy’s nonprofit organization, according to a 2009 report by ESPN. Murphy’s contract was terminated without clause in November of 2009, the start of Payton’s senior year, after the NCAA informed Arizona State that it would be performing an investigation.
All the uncertainty led Payton to decommit from his dream school.
“They had some violations, broke a couple of rules. I didn’t decommit because the coach was leaving; there were just too many unknowns,” he said. “It hurt. But we thought Texas would be a better option.”
Payton had already signed a letter of intent to play for Arizona State. Once he got his letter of release, the Longhorns entered the picture.
“Texas never called me until I got my full-release letter, then we got in contact with [associate head coach] Tommy Harmon,” he said. “I came out here, took a visit, and committed.”
It was a major coup for the Longhorns, which desperately needed an outfielder.
“I was really excited,” Harmon said. “At that point in time, we needed somebody. We had lost some guys to the draft, and we had lost some guys who ended up going to junior college. There was an open spot for him, and that’s rare here.”
In his first year, Payton has locked down the starting spot in right, and is the team’s two-hole hitter. A member of the Big 12 All-Freshman team, Payton was awarded a spot on the NCAA Austin Regional All-Tournament Team after he went 8-for-16 in the tournament.
“I couldn’t have picked a better place than Texas, I’m happy I’m here,” he said. “God puts everything out there for a reason, and I know I made the right choice to come here.”
While Payton will try to help his team pass the Sun Devils this weekend, with the winner getting a berth to the CWS in Omaha, there was a time not too long ago when he was rooting against the Longhorns — in 2009 when they met and took down ASU in Omaha.
“That was a tough week for me,” he said, laughing. “The day earlier, I had lost the State Championship 5-4. And then of course, Texas comes out and beats Arizona State 5-4. Then the walk-off the next day, that hurt.”
This time, Payton wouldn’t mind the same results.
“It’s cool to play them, and it’s going to be a fun weekend,” he said. “We’ll come out ready to play.”