First Pitch: Payton returns for senior year, poised to lead Longhorns

Evan Berkowitz

For the second time in his young career, outfielder Mark Payton faced the tough decision of whether to go pro or stay in school.

The Cleveland Indians selected him in the 16th round last summer — 15 rounds higher than where the Minnesota Twins drafted the smooth-hitting outfielder in 2010. He was an “intriguing prospect,” according to Baseball America. At 5-feet-8-inches, he is undersized, not very fast and probably more suited for an infield position, were he not a lefty. He does the little things well, but the 16th round may be as high as he ever goes.

“It was tough,” Payton said. “I love playing at Texas and I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to go professional.”

He was coming off a career year heading into the draft. His .393 batting average led the Big 12 and put him No. 12 in the nation last year. But the decision was about more than that. It was about being a Longhorn — something he wasn’t quite ready to give up on.

“I know I made the right decision to return and put this jersey on for one last time,” Payton said. “It’s every kid’s dream to wear this jersey.”

Considering Payton’s offense struggled last season, as he hit just .260, his return is important, and head coach Augie Garrido knows that.

“We are thrilled to have Mark Payton coming back for his senior year,” Garrido said. “His experience and leadership will play a key role in getting us back to winning championships at The University of Texas.” 

He, Erich Weiss — who opted to sign with the Pirates — and sophomore shortstop C.J. Hinojosa anchored the lineup last season. The three of them drove in 45 percent of Texas’ runs, but Payton doesn’t feel he has to carry the offense.

“I don’t feel that pressure,” Payton said. “It’s about being confident and doing the little things right. That’s what baseball is about. Things didn’t fall our way last year. This is a new season, though.”

But it was Payton who really kept the offense afloat last season. The unanimous All-Big 12 selection led the team in hits, doubles, triples, RBI, walks and total bases. But he doesn’t care about the individual stats, reaching the elusive .400 plateau or the name on the back of the jersey. Rather, he cares about the name on the front of the jersey.

“Breaking .400 is not a goal,” Payton said. “My goal is going out and winning games.”

More than likely influenced by Garrido’s way of thinking, Payton knows there’s more to the game than just stepping in the box and hacking away.

“I just got to go out there and play our game,” Payton said. “It’s all about playing hard and doing the right thing. You’ll get rewarded.”

With the season quickly approaching, Payton is ready to get out there one last time.

“I’m anxious to get back out there and get the season going,” Payton said. “Texas baseball is one of the biggest programs known and we need to get it back to where we belong.”