Former Lee County and Florida State two-sport star D’Vontrey Richardson watches a double leave the infield during a recent game with the Brevard County Manatees, who Richardson recently rejoined after walking away from his dream of being a pro baseball player almost a year ago. Since returning, Richardson leads the team in batting and on-base percentage. (Dennis Greenblatt/Hawkeye Sports Photography)
MELBOURNE, Fla. — Brevard County Manatees manager Joe Ayrault likes to have a daily conversation with center fielder D’Vontrey Richardson.
And usually, it’s pretty one-sided.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t walk by him and tell him how much I enjoy watching him play,” Ayrault said. “He’s just that exciting to watch, and I know I speak for the Brewers when I say we’re glad he’s back.”
So is Richardson.
Arguably the most highly touted athlete to play for Lee County High School outside of San Francisco Giants catcher and 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey, Richardson carried a heavy burden when he arrived at Florida State in 2006 as one of the top recruits for both programs. The Seminoles’ football team wanted him to play the demanding job of quarterback, while the baseball team badly needed his MLB-caliber speed, bat and arm.
For Richardson, balancing both was too much. So he quit football to focus on baseball in 2008. Then he quit school altogether to turn pro in 2009.
Not long after, he gave up on that dream, too.
“Sometimes, you just have to give it up whenever it’s not as fun as it used to be,” Richardson told The Herald in an exclusive interview almost exactly a year ago when it was learned he told the Brewers, who drafted him in the fifth round in 2009, he was going home to Leesburg and would not be returning. “It’s a game we’ve played our whole life, and we should just be able to go out and have fun doing it. Practice was fun, the games were fun, but all the traveling and being away from my family and friends (took its toll).”
Then Ayrault got a call three months ago. The news? D’Vo was coming back.
“Our farm director told me there was a good possibility he would coming back to our club very soon whenever he was ready, and I was very pleased to hear that,” Ayrault said. “I mean, he’s such an unbelievable athlete. The tools he possesses are off the chart. I’m real glad he’s back with us and doing a great job.”
Make that a phenomenal job.
Richardson, who said he started thinking about giving pro baseball one final shot while finishing his degree late last year in Atlanta, didn’t rejoin the team until midway through the high-Class A Manatees’ season in mid-June once he decided to pick up the phone and ask to come back. And despite being the new guy with plenty of rust still to knock off, a month and a half after he returned, he’s now an every day starter in center field, hitting .355 — tops on the team — with an on-base percentage of .402, which also leads the Manatees.
“I was just missing it, man,” Richardson said in a telephone interview Friday. “There I was in school, in class, day-dreaming about playing again. I just didn’t want to wake up one day and be 40 years old and wonder, ‘What if?’ You never want to have any regrets in life, and I love baseball so much, I think it took me being away from it to finally realize that.
“More than anything, I’m a competitor. I always have been. And I missed competing so much. That was the turning point.”
After some anxious, butterflies-in-the-stomach moments when dialing the Brewers’ front office — then pressing “end” on his cellphone a couple of times as he continued to try to gather the courage to ask for another chance — Richardson finally pressed “send.”
The response on the other end was nothing short of total reassurance.
“I was nervous, honestly. I thought maybe the door was closed,” Richardson said. “But they invited me right back and told me they were thankful I’d changed my mind. And I told them how thankful I was for that.”
Richardson rejoined the organization in May and was first sent to the Brewers’ instructional league in Arizona — a typical first stop for a new player. And while he was expected to stay for around two months, scouts quickly saw that wasn’t necessary.
“He came right in after less than a month in Arizona, hit the ground running and made an impact for us everywhere,” Ayrault said. “I can’t even pick one moment (that typifies) how good he’s been since he got back — hitting, stealing bases, making diving catches in the outfield. You name it. He does something every day that just impresses me more and more.”
Starting with his very first at-bat for the Manatees.
“I got a hit,” Richardson recalled excitedly, adding that his teammates gave him a raucous cheer from the dugout once he reached base. “Right up the middle. I was worried about being rusty and not doing well, but I singled my first time up. That helped the nerves kind of go away.”
Since then, Richardson has delivered a game-winning hit, several go-ahead RBIs and a handful of highlight-reel catches in the outfield.
“His tools …” began Ayrault, before shifting thoughts. “Let’s just put it this way: I don’t think I’ve had an opposing manager or scout who, once they see him for the first time, hasn’t asked about him. They’ll say, ‘Who’s this center fielder? This kid can really play.’ He has off-the-chart quickness, has great bat speed and good pitch-recognition. He’s running down balls in the outfield, running the bases very well and not just relying on his speed, but working on his breaks and leads. Before his career is over, he could very well become an elite base-stealer.”
In just 31 games, Richardson already has eight steals, which is tied for third on the team with left fielder Ben McMahan — who needed 56 games to steal eight. Fellow outfielder Chadwin Stang leads the Manatees with 11 stolen bags, and it took him 68 games to reach that mark.
Richardson, however, isn’t about to call himself the next coming of Rickey Henderson, the majors’ all-time steals leader. He knows there’s plenty of room for improvement. Lots, in fact.
“I’m still not as fast running the bases as I want. I’ve made a few mistakes already,” said the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Richardson, who ran a 4.5, 40-yard dash during his freshman season at FSU. “Sometimes I think I’m being too anxious. I just need to calm down and let it come to me rather than force it.”
Steve Glover, Richardon’s legal guardian, said that by the time Richardson is done working his way through the Brewers’ minor league system, he could become Milwaukee’s version of Atlanta Braves breakout star Evan Gattis. Gattis, like Richardson, walked away from baseball for a period of time, only to return and start crushing the ball this year, becoming one of the most talked-about story lines of the 2013 season.
“The similarities to Gattis will be drawn to D’Vo at some point,” Glover said. “They’re both freaks on the baseball field. Gattis has the power and D’Vo has the speed. One way or another, you can’t hide a guy like that in the minors very long.”
The Manatees’ three-game winning streak ended Saturday, despite Richardson’s monster night going 4-for-5 with two doubles. The team was nine games out of first place in the Florida State League standings when Richardson returned to action.
Now, they’re one game back.
“He’s into it,” Ayrault said when asked about Richardson’s demeanor since his return after admitting last year he was burned out. “He’s out at the field every day early, staying late. He brings one of the most positive attitudes of anyone on the team every day. He gets after it. Like I said before, I really, really enjoy watching him play.”
And now that he’s finally back pursuing his dream, Richardson — who will next head to the Brewers’ winter league after the season and, he hopes, spring training in March — has no intention of walking away. After hopping off the bus to the majors once, this time he plans to ride it until the wheels fall off.
“I’m enjoying it again, I really am. I’ve never been happier,” he said. “I’m going all out, working my butt off and just living every day like it could be my last on the diamond. I made a mistake giving it up once, and I can’t thank the Brewers enough for welcoming me back in. I hope I can show them it was worth it.”