After Aubrey Huff's father was killed, his mother gave him the tools to succeed

From son to star

February 25, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun Reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.-- --The seven-letter word keeps resurfacing in the life and baseball times of Aubrey Huff.

Without.

Huff, the Orioles' new middle-of-the-lineup slugger, graduated from a Texas high school without being drafted and without getting any serious looks from Division I colleges.

In his first seven seasons in the majors, Huff hit 141 homers without fanfare because he played primarily in the obscurity of Tampa Bay, a place without baseball tradition, without a consistent fan base.

Then, there's his most painful without, the one he could never, will never, shake.

Aubrey Huff III grew up without a father.

When he was 6, his dad, Aubrey II, was murdered while trying to stop a domestic dispute as a bystander in Abilene, Texas.

The boy was at his grandparents' house when the phone rang and his grandmother burst into tears. Suddenly, he and his 4-year-old sister, Angela, had no daddy; his mother was a 28-year-old widow.

Without warning. Without reason. Without goodbyes.

Yet this isn't a cautionary tale about a lost boy reeling from the cruelest blow, growing up bitter and angry. It's very much the opposite.

Because, from that tragic moment in December 1983, Fonda Huff dedicated herself to making sure her children never felt the void of a fatherless childhood.

"That was my whole goal in life," Fonda Huff said last week at the home her son bought for her in suburban St. Petersburg. "I guess I spoiled both of them, but they were not going to do without, just because their dad was killed."

That was the impetus behind the now fabled batting cage, where the boy's dream and the mom's promise melded.

While his father was alive, Huff spent many evenings at the softball field where his parents played in a coed league. Maybe that's where his love for baseball took root.

Cage comes to be

That passion blossomed as he grew older and attended the occasional Texas Rangers game in Arlington, roughly a 90-minute drive from the family's home in small-town Mineral Wells, west of Fort Worth.

On one of those trips, when Huff was 10, he asked his mom for a present: a batting cage in his backyard, one just like the big leaguers used.

"I begged her for a batting cage on the way home and she kind of blew it off," said Huff, now a 30-year-old corner infielder/outfielder who signed a three-year, $20 million deal with the Orioles this offseason. "I kept asking, kept asking and I finally got it. That was one of the biggest splurges for us."

With help from her father, a former carpenter, Fonda Huff built the foundation out of galvanized piping purchased from a hardware store. She added a self-loading pitching machine, netting and lights. All told, it cost about $3,000 - a Texas-sized expense for a single mother working in the seafood and meat departments of a Winn-Dixie supermarket.

She charged it to her credit card. Her grocery store co-workers said she was crazy. But it was an investment in her son's future.

"In the long run, I knew it would pay off," Fonda Huff said. "He always said he was going to be a major league baseball player, he always has. At the time, I wasn't thinking about that, I was thinking baseball scholarship."

She also was trying to level life's playing field.

"These other dads were able to pitch their sons to a higher level that I couldn't do," she said. "That's the reason I bought it, because [having no father] was not going to be a handicap for him."

More than 23 years later, the death - and life - of his father has become almost dreamlike for Huff.

"All I remember much is his face. I don't even remember how he sounds. That's how long ago it seems," Huff said. "The one thing that pops out in my mind is the memory of playing Atari with him, that's about it."

He won't forget his grandparents' reaction to that fateful phone call, however, or when his mother returned from Winn-Dixie 30 minutes later "just red-faced, bawling."

"We sat down and they said, `Your father isn't going to be with us anymore. He is passed on.' And I was like, `What do you mean?'" Huff said. "I kind of remember being upset, but I was expecting him to be back later. I guess, in a way, the way he got killed, if I was older, my God, I would have been [angry]. I probably would have spent the rest of my life looking for the guy if they didn't catch him.

"But being 6 years old, it wasn't as tough as it would have been if I were older."

`I think it hit me'

The funeral was held the day before Huff's seventh birthday. He faintly recalls looking at his father's casket, noticing "my dad's face just didn't really look right."

"I think it hit me then," he said. "I knew he was dead."

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