COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Landon Powell never had a problem with pro baseball. It was the game's business side that drove him nuts and ultimately led him to peace of mind and success at South Carolina.
Powell, then a junior at Apex (N.C.) High School, was a 6-foot-3, 215-pound catcher who could rope liners all day long and make the throw to second with power and accuracy.
He and his father, Ron, knew there was little Powell, already projected as a can't-miss major league first-rounder, could do to improve his draft status his senior year. So on the advice of a scout and family friend, Powell took advantage of a seldom-used baseball rule, got his general equivalency diploma, was declared a free agent and began talks with several teams about life in the bigs.
Instead of financial security and a lifelong dream fulfilled, Powell quickly grew frustrated with the bottom-line side of baseball and tired of those who looked at him as arrogant or his family as greedy baseball parents.
"One day I told my dad, 'You know what, I don't want to do it anymore. I'm going to go back to high school and go to college. If professional baseball doesn't want me right now, that's fine,"' Powell said.
Ron Powell remembers that day. "I said, 'Are you sure?"'
No decision could have worked out better for Landon Powell and his family.
"In my opinion, he's the happiest he's ever been," said South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, who used Powell as a batboy when he managed at North Carolina State. "I don't think there's a better catcher in the country right now."
Powell is not the Gamecocks' offensive leader. He typically bats eighth and is hitting around .290. His six homers through May 2 are tied for fifth most on the team. But he is growing into the player first hinted at in baseball circles during the hectic summer of 2000.
Last month, Powell was the first college catcher chosen for the USA Baseball National Team trials in June.
And he's advanced in many ways that matter more to a father than a director of player personnel.
"He's learned to make his own decisions, when to get up, when to go to class, things like running your own life," Ron Powell said. "He's been exposed to things he's never been exposed to. He had to go to the art museum. He told me the other day he went to the ballet."
Try fitting that in between Midwest League games at Lansing or Beloit.
Two years ago, Powell's life could have been a series of bus rides and instructional sessions.
Ron Powell and his son say they wanted as many doors open for the teen as possible. By getting his GED and becoming draft-eligible as baseball rules allow, Landon Powell could've joined the major leagues, gone back to high school or played in junior college or at a four-year school. "Any of those things had the potential to work out great," Powell said.
Major league baseball validated Powell's GED in August 2000. "The wrongful suspension of Landon Powell is over, and teams are free to negotiate with him," agent Scott Boras, who acted as Powell's adviser, told Baseball America at the time.
Powell remembers tryout camps with about three dozen scouts attending. It was when negotiations began that Powell soured on major league ball. A team would bid then another would overbid and a third would underbid, he explained.
"That made me realize what professional baseball is all about," Powell said. "It was driving me insane because I didn't know what was going to happen."
Also, he was bothered by those criticizing him for his arrogance at not playing by baseball's rules or his association with Boras.
"It was hard to know that everyone's judging you and they don't know much about you," Powell said. "That's something I had to face."
Ron Powell said his son never met Boras, the agent for Alex Rodriguez among other baseball stars, and his family's biggest critics were inside baseball's management "because they didn't have the upper hand."
"It's time people faced facts," Ron Powell said. "All we wanted to do was test the waters."
Once the teen decided on school, Powell returned to Apex for two courses, graduating in December 2000, to meet South Carolina requirements. Then he faced the next hurdle: gaining his teammates' acceptance.
"Everybody was kind of expecting him to come out there and hit 50 home runs in three games, but you can't do that," said South Carolina shortstop Drew Meyer, a second-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1999 who passed up pro ball for college.
But Powell sat patiently as a freshman behind senior catcher Tim Whittaker, gaining comfort and stability. Established stars such as Meyer and pitcher Kip Bouknight made Powell feel at ease.
"Every guy treated me with full respect," Powell said. "That's why I love this place."
Ron Powell said he saw fans and students at South Carolina go from "asking for Landon's autograph to patting him on that back. That's what he needs."
Landon Powell is still as big and powerful and talented as he was two years ago. He and his father know the major leagues will be there at the right time.
His parents drive the four hours or so to watch their son's home games, pleased their boy has found happiness in college.
"I don't know where I'd be if I were playing minor league ball," Landon Powell said. "I probably wouldn't be having much fun. I think college is just the best opportunity for me."
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