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The Knights' Joltin' Joe 

Joe Borchard, pro baseball's all-time richest bonus baby, battles injuries and his own expectations

A baseball is a pretty inanimate object, when you get right down to it -- a solid rubber core, surrounded by a layer of cork, all bound with twine and cowhide-wrapped, finished off with red waxed stitching. Bounce one, and you're lucky to get more than a foot or two of liftoff. Get hit by one, and you'd swear it was made of stone.

Watch Joe Borchard take batting practice, however, and you'd think it was a superball. Missile-like arcs spray from his bat like artillery fire, regularly denting the mosaic of signs affixed to the outfield wall of Knights Stadium, or else coming to rest in the cool grass behind them, kicking up divots Phil Mickelson would be proud of.

Then again, this is his job, hitting baseballs, one that made him a multimillionaire at the age of 21. A 6-feet-4-inches switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate, Borchard's variously been compared to Mickey Mantle, Dale Murphy, and Mark McGwire. He's young, good-looking, and speaks with a mix of refreshing candor and count-on-it cliche that would be the envy of any seasoned pro.

So what the hell is he still doing in Charlotte?

Joe Borchard's tale is not a cautionary one. After signing with the Chicago White Sox for a $5.3 million advance as the 12th overall draft pick in the 2000 draft -- a figure Baseball America claims is the largest bonus ever given in professional baseball -- Borchard says he bought himself a new car, maybe a few appliances. Paid off his parents' home loan. He can't remember. No wild parties, certainly, no midnight trips to Vegas. "Just everyday life stuff," Borchard says, shrugging his shoulders. "I bought a car, which was the only major purchase I made immediately."

No jewelry? No bling-bling?

He smiles, shows his calloused hands. "Um, I don't wear any jewelry whatsoever, so that wouldn't have helped me all that much. It doesn't really do anything for me."

"Joe is a hard working individual," says Charlotte Knights VP and General Manager Bill Blackwell. "His is not a loud and boisterous voice in the locker room, but he plays hard and others see how tough on himself he can be. Joe gets along very well with the other players and is just one of the guys. If his bonus situation has ever been a problem, it was before he got to Charlotte three years ago. I have never even heard it mentioned."

"He drove a very modest Ford Explorer or Expedition when he was here," says Curt Bloom, a broadcaster for the Double-A Birmingham Barons. "Joe being from a very humble and blue collar background, never ever gave the impression he had the big contract."

Borchard is from a blue-collar background, but this isn't a Horatio Alger story, either. Borchard's German ancestors, among the first settlers in Ventura County, California, in the 1850s, all hunkered down where Joe grew up: beside the Santa Clara River, the county's main nautical feature. All men of large physical stature, it should be noted. What's in the water there, you may ask? Hard work, balanced equally by hard play.

"I grew up on some farmland in Camarillo, California, which is about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles," Borchard says. We didn't own a lot of land, but we had a farm. My dad (Joe Sr.) worked for a company that takes care of orchards -- strawberries and tomatoes.

"I helped out whenever I could. His company was pretty big, so he had all the help he needed. But whenever I could, and I was available, I'd help out.

"My mom (Janice) was supportive of me all the time. Cookin' huge meals for me every day, working two jobs to keep us goin'. My dad was always throwing batting practice to me, catchin' football passes, playing basketball or whatever it was. He just loved watching us play. They both did. I had an older sister (Julie) and a younger sister (Jill) that played softball, so we kept our parents pretty busy."

So this is the story, then: Boy comes from athletic family, is taught how to switch hit by the old man -- himself a switch-hitting outfielder and a 1969 draft pick of the Kansas City Royals -- plays football and basketball and baseball since the age of eight, does his homework, says Yes Sir and No Ma'am, and idyllically whiles away the day in his little sun-drenched Mayfield-by-the-sea.

All good guesses, but all wrong. Joe Borchard's story is this: How do we fight the expectations others put on us? Better yet, how do we fight the expectations we put on ourselves?

Considering his frugality (and his fragility -- spring training injuries probably contributed to his being in Charlotte this year), Joe Borchard could quit baseball right now -- at 26 -- and probably never have to work a day in his life again. Some people would say Borchard is living a dream, playing a kid's game and getting paid for it. But all that money can seem like a curse to a guy who doesn't care so much for material possessions. When money is what you're known for, and it doesn't necessarily matter a whole lot to you, you tend to stress about whatever messenger brought you fortune in the first place. You swing at that sinkerball in the dirt, the high-and-tight fastball around the letters on the front of your jersey.

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