Mike Edwards began to emerge as the Western Athletic Conference's best hitter when he decided not to be Bo Jackson.
Recruited out of Valencia High in Placentia, Calif., Edwards made a name for himself as a hitter for the University of Utah in the fall of '89. His hits, however, occurred on the football field. As a redshirt freshman safety, he made 65 tackles while playing primarily a backup role. On the defense-poor Utah team, a first-year performance like that portended a promising future.The next spring, Edwards decided he'd like be a two-sport star and take a swing at baseball. But new football coach Ron McBride didn't think Edwards' grades could withstand the time demands. He told the 6-foot, 205-pounder to choose.
It looks like he made the right choice.
He returned to the baseball team that spring after scarcely swinging a bat for a year. "That hurt me a lot," he said. Hurt so much that he was only able to become the lone freshman on the All-Western Athletic Conference first team. He was second on the Utes in homers (eight), RBIs , and slugging percentage (.593). He batted .320.
With four games left in this WAC regular season, Edwards has dispatched the sophomore-jinx theory by becoming the league-leader in the Triple Crown categories: average, .470; HRs, 17; RBIs, 59.
Most impressive of all Edwards' impressive stats, though, are his totals for the month of April, totals that made him a runaway choice as Deseret News Athlete of the Month. In 18 April games, Edwards hit .533 with four doubles, two triples, six homers, 30 RBIs, seven stolen bases and a titanic slugging percentage of .967.
To put that last figure in perspective, Detroit's Cecil Fielder led the major leagues in slugging percentage last season with a .592 mark.
And if you're wondering whether the kid has a weak glove, forget it. His fielding percentage for April was .983 - exceptional for a third baseman.
Reggie Jackson was Mr. October. Call Edwards Mr. April.
"Right now I'm seeing everything good, the breaking stuff and the fastballs," Edwards said. "I haven't been striking out much, and that's helped me the most. I've only struck out nine times all year.
"Our philosophy is just to put the ball in play with two strikes, and that's what I've been doing. Luckily, they've been falling in for me."
Right. "Falling in" off the walls. Or over them.
Edwards is the first to admit that his game isn't perfect yet.
"I definitely can improve on my throwing, because I do short-arm the ball a little bit. I can get it over there good, it just looks funny from the stands. A lot of people look down and say, 'Gee, how does that guy throw?'
"I have a lot of work to do on my fielding. I can make the real good plays every so often, but I need to work on the routine ground balls day in and day out."
Watch him play third base, though, and it's obvious he plays what may be baseball's most brutal position with a football player's attitude. He'll take a ball in the chest to get an out, and he even chuckles about the time last summer when a hot smash on wet turf knocked him flat on his back.
"That's all part of playing third base," he said, with a gleam in his eye - the kind of gleam a defensive back gets as he recalls demolishing a receiver.
Utah baseball coach Rick Sofield said Edwards' biggest improvement over the past two seasons occurred in his head. "He's grown up a lot," the coach said. "He's a gifted athlete who has worked extremely hard. The bottom line is, Mike gets the job done."
The downside to all this success is that baseball fans in these parts may not have many more chances to see Edwards play. He's 21 now, and eligible for the major-league draft in June. He's had contact with scouts from several big-league clubs, and there's every reason to expect he'll be chosen.
So here's the big question: If he goes high enough in the draft, will he opt to leave school and play professional ball?
"Oh yeah, sure," he said. "If the opportunity was there and everything worked out, you know what I'm saying, I don't want to say money because that sounds kind of bad, but that's going to make a big difference."
"It's a big decision, leaving school. But if the opportunity is there, and it's a good opportunity, you have to take the chance because you never know when it's going to come around again."
Sofield, who played three years in the major leagues, said Edwards' "potential is unlimited" but hedged a bit on assessing his star hitter's pro potential.
"Your guess is as good as mine on that," he said. "I know he's good enough to play at the next level. He runs well, swings the bat with power and plays strong defense. But every level you go to, you have to raise your game to that level."
And if he does end up back at Utah next season, Edwards said he won't be crushed.
"I have a great opportunity here," he said. "I play every day, I like the area. If the weather was a little bit nicer I'd love it. I'm glad I came to the University of Utah. I have no regrets about coming here at all."