AUBURN, Ala. — When Anfernee Grier stands in the batter's box against some of the best pitchers college baseball has to offer, he, surprisingly enough, isn't focused on the hurler he's staring down. Instead, he puts his mind at ease by taking in everything around him.
"I just try to think about where I am. Say I'm at Texas A&M. You have to think about what a great opportunity it is to play there. Or at LSU. I just try to embrace that," he said in a phone interview last week. "It helps me to relax. There's a lot of people that can get overwhelmed. So I just try to enjoy what I get to do playing in these different places for Auburn University."
You could say the formula is working.
As Auburn prepares for its opening game in the SEC tournament Tuesday — facing off against Kentucky in Hoover, Ala. — Grier has been the team's most consistent hitter this season. He leads the Tigers in multiple categories, including batting average (.344), hits (78), total plate appearances (259) and at-bats (227). His 78 hits are tied for third-most in the SEC; of those, 22 are doubles, which places him alongside LSU's Alex Bregman at the top of the conference.
Grier said his offensive success this season hasn't really surprised him. It was merely the culmination of a lot of sweat.
"I just worked hard in the offseason. I know what I can do on the field and I just go out and play my game and let everything happen," he said. "It was just about putting the work in last offseason and let the results happen in the spring. I'm thankful for it."
The person least surprised by Grier's accomplishments this season? Tony Rasmus, Grier's coach at Russell County. The first time Rasmus laid eyes on Grier was during a game featuring 13- and 14-year-olds. He walked away convinced Grier would be a star.
"He just looked like a gazelle running," Rasmus said. "He had a bazooka on his shoulder. He had crazy bat speed. So back then, I thought he was going to be a special player."
By the time he started playing for Russell County, Rasmus said there wasn't much Grier needed to work on. That gave the coach a lot of flexibility. He could stick Grier at shortstop and not worry. Or he could put him at catcher. And Grier wasn't out of place on the mound, as Rasmus recalled Grier was clocked throwing "95 or 96" miles per hour during a scouting showcase in his senior season.
Still, Rasmus knew Grier was destined to roam the outfield.
"We always liked putting him in right field — and the entire ballpark would stop in pregame when he threw, because his arm was absolutely phenomenal. It's one of the best I've ever seen in high school," he said. "His outfield play was really good, and once we put him out there, he really excelled at that. When we put him in the outfield his last year, I knew he'd be great there in the big leagues one day."
Ask Grier about playing in the pros, though, and it elicits a nonchalant response.
"I don't really think about it right now. I take everything day by day," he said. "I don't really look at the (MLB) draft and things of that nature. We'll see where it takes me in the future."
If Grier doesn't make it to the majors, Rasmus said he'd be "disappointed and shocked." And one could say Rasmus knows major league-talent when he sees it; though he never made it to the highest level himself after a three-year minor league career, he has coached his fair share of players taken in the MLB draft.
The most notable are two of his sons, Colby and Cory.
And Rasmus believes there are quite a few parallels between Colby and Grier.
"Colby was a little skinny kid, but man, he hit the ball a long way because his hands were so good. His bat speed was incredible. I thought Anfernee was the same kind of player. He had great hands," Rasmus said. "(Auburn pitcher) Keegan Thompson was one of their most dominant players this year, and I watched Anfernee hit a home run off of him that went 500 feet probably. Kyle Carter, who was great, we played a game against Columbus in high school and Anfernee hit two bombs against him. He's got some great speed. ... I'd say him and Colby are really similar in their build. They both have long legs, long arms, can run, got crazy bat speed and both have really good arms. Anfernee's arm is probably a little better than Colby's was in high school. But I'd put him right in the top two with Colby."
Rasmus said Grier's talented on the field was rivaled only by his prowess in the classroom. For an old-time coach, that was refreshing.
"He missed so many practices because he'd come to me and say, 'Coach, I need to make an A in this class. I need a little extra studying. Is that OK with you?' That happened a lot," Rasmus said, "and I thought, 'Wow, how rare is that nowadays to have a kid that concerned about his academics?' That was more important to him than baseball at times. His academics came first. He is the standard, pure example of a student-athlete. He was a student first and an athlete second. And he was really good at both of them."
All of his exploits at Russell County don't help Grier now, of course. But that's OK with him. He hopes when he finishes up his career at Auburn, he leaves a similar footprint.
"I just want to enjoy every game. I want to just have fun," he said. "I don't have certain stats or anything of that nature (as goals). I just want to enjoy playing baseball. As for the team, I want to win the SEC championship. I want to go to Omaha and win there. It would be a blessing."