If in need of a babysitter to watch his two daughters, Kodiak baseball coach Jason Fox wouldn’t hesitate to dial-up AJ Barton, a player he has coached since 2017.
“He has a heart of gold — the most loveable caring, kind kid. I would trust him with anything,” Fox said. “He could watch my kids whenever he wants to.”
Case in point, Barton was at a local baseball field on Wednesday with his younger brother, teaching him the game that he fell in love with while playing tee-ball on the gravel at Hillside Park.
“I’m teaching him how to field grounders. He is looking good,” said Barton, a senior at Kodiak High School.
Barton was showing his brother the same techniques that he learned a decade ago from his uncle Stewart McFarland, a member on Kodiak’s 2004 undefeated state championship baseball team who had a legendary career on the diamond and the gridiron for the Bears.
Growing up around McFarland, who later played college football for Monterey Peninsula College in California and Simon Frasier University in Canada, set the wheels in motion for Barton’s athletic career.
When McFarland left for college after quarterbacking Kodiak’s football team to the 2006 medium-school championship game, he stayed in contact with Barton, especially after games.
“We were really close when I was a kid. We still are. We talk all the time,” Barton said. “I had some big shoes to fill, but for as much as I have gone through all these past years, I think I have done OK.”
Barton overcame two injuries during his four-year athletic career and was eager to return for his final baseball season before the coronavirus pandemic stole it from him.
“To see a senior year taken away from a kid like that just tears your heart out,” Fox said.
Barton read about the season before his coach told him.
“It was tough. I definitely had some tears,” Barton said. “One of the hardest things I’ve ever heard.”
After spending the majority of his junior season in the dugout nursing a knee injury that he sustained during the 2018 football season, Barton was determined to strap on the catcher’s gear this season.
He started playing that position as an eighth-grader and was Kodiak’s starting varsity catcher by the end of his freshman season.
“I immediately fell in love with it,” said Barton, a third baseman and pitcher before the switch. “It definitely fit me. I took it in and kept it as my own.”
He was on the rise to being an all-conference backstop in until he tore the posterior cruciate ligament and part of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He said it was the worst pain he had ever felt.
“I was running the ball. I saw this kid put his helmet down, and I knew immediately that it wasn’t going to end well,” Barton recalled. “He put the top of his helmet right into my knee, and my cleat got stuck in the grass and my knee hyperextended.”
That set off a whirlwind of doctor appointments, where Barton was informed that it was rare to have both a torn PCL and MCL. Surgery was an option, but by the time a surgeon committed to operate, Barton said it would have kept him from playing baseball his senior season. He opted to rehabilitate it through physical therapy and trips to the gym for leg workouts.
“I was pretty determined to come back and catch,” Barton said. “I was definitely ready before this coronavirus stuff hit hard.”
Fox was convinced that Barton was going to regain his spot behind the dish from the few practices the team had before the season was terminated in mid-March. The coach tested Barton by having him catch 90-minute bullpen sessions.
“He busted his butt,” Fox said. “He showed up. He put his gear on. He was sore and tired, but he was working through it.”
Fox knew Barton was a tenacious competitor when he wanted to play as a junior despite having a mangled knee. Fox found a place for Barton and used him as a pitcher and a first baseman periodically throughout the season.
Ice and ibuprofen were staples of Burton’s post-game rituals.
“If he wasn’t so persistent in doing that, I was going to tell him to concentrate on himself, get healthy and come back your senior year,” Fox said. “Looking back on that now, I’m glad that we had that together last year.”
Fox inherited the baseball program Barton’s freshman year. However, Fox served a stint as Rick Langfitt’s assistant coach from 2005 to 2007 and remembered McFarland. Fox recalled Barton asking him about his uncle and that it was neat to see the connection between the two players.
“I think we both have helped each other grow, as player and as a coach,” Barton said. “It has been really fun having him as my high school coach. I wouldn’t change him out for any other coach.”
Barton is heading to Montana State University Billings in the fall to pursue a career in construction technology. He is hoping to join the school’s club baseball team.
“Montana is really outdoorsy, and I love fishing and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “I think it was a better suit for me.
Considering how much sports has been a part of Barton’s life, he has taken the past two years in stride. He doesn’t regret the knee injury or when he, as a freshman football player, developed a giant hematoma on his neck, which pushed against his windpipe, making it hard to breathe.
“Even with all the injuries, this is going to be something I’m never going to forget,” said Barton about his baseball career.