Michael Bourn had played baseball for years but didn’t really know the mechanics of the game.
He loved it. He had a talent for it. He was fast, strong and competitive. Heck, he had stared down 85 mph pitches from a machine when he was 10.
He played inner-city baseball growing up, and didn’t back down from any challenge, but had no idea about the technical aspects of the swing. And when he stepped to the plate during his freshman year at the University of Houston, he had never tried to bunt. Never squared around.
When he did, the unthinkable happened. The ball hit him in his left eye, causing a traumatic injury. It could have ended his career.
Instead, it was one of those moments that helped jump-start it.
Bourn fought his way through that. He batted lefthanded, so he still had his right eye to lead with and he learned to compensate. He studied the swing. He competed hard for three years at UH, got drafted and …
Well, the gregarious Houstonian wound up leading the National League three years running in stolen bases when he was with the Astros and had an 11-year major league career as a center fielder that included, among other things, two Gold Gloves and two All-Star seasons.
Today, the 37-year-old is retired from the game and is sitting back and watching his three kids grow up. He’s sharing the same values in them that his parents instilled him — hard work, honesty, trust and keep God first.
And, most recently, he showed them the meaning of kindness and compassion.
Bourn owns three Houston apartment complexes and with the global coronavirus pandemic causing widespread economic issues, he waived the April and May rent for some 60 tenants because, he said, it was the right thing to do.
It came from his heart
“I just felt we’re in tough times,’’ he said. “I could just imagine if I were in that situation. Especially getting laid off work. It was going to be hard for people to go find another job in this economy.
“Some of the tenants I have may live check to check and, with that in mind, this is a hard time for everybody. I’d rather have them use that money on food or supplies you need in the house; things your kids need.’’
He had the apartments’ management company put a letter in each tenant’s mailbox.
“Was I going to lose some money?’’ he said. “Of course. But in my head, these people are living check-to-check. I just thought that was the right thing to do. It’s as simple as that. It was from the heart.’’
And, yes, 10-year-old son Bryson and daughter Blair, 6, know the impact of what their father did. Their younger sister — 19-month old Bailey — will learn in time.
“I try to teach them (caring and giving back),’’ he said. “Doing little things for people. Try to be humble. I have no problem with my kinds being confident but it’s a fine line between confident and cocky, no doubt.
“I’m not mad at you if you’re real confident, but there’s a way to do it.’’
Bourn got a roadmap from his parents and he and wife Nikita, who owns a baby-sitting business she built from the ground up, are all about family first, too. In addition to the Astros, he played in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Cleveland, Baltimore and Arizona, but none of them could pull him away from Houston.
“I never wanted to leave Houston to live somewhere else,’’ said Bourn, who graduated from Aldine Nimitz. “I like to be close to my family. I’m big on having my kids be able to see their grandparents and cousins.’’
Bourn was a budding star when he graduated from Nimitz at 17 and was drafted by the Astros in the 19th round. He was headed to Galveston Junior College until current UH coach Todd Whitting, then an assistant to Rayner Noble, saw Bourn play in some AAU games and offered him a scholarship.
“I didn’t even know anybody was watching me,’’ Bourn said. “I had no clue … I laughed at him.’’
Whitting told him he was serious and that he wanted him to meet Noble. At the time, a junior college player only had to play one year before signing with a major league club, while a Division I player had to play three years. Bourn wrestled with the decision and asked his dad for help.
“He told me ‘I want you to make decision for yourself,’ ‘’ Bourn said.
“The only decision I could make was that I hadn’t played enough baseball yet (to go to the majors). I played enough that you could see a little talent, but I hadn’t played enough. That being said, I chose to go to UH.’’
He never looked back.
“I was very raw,’’ Bourn said. “I could run, I could hit the ball, but I didn’t know any of the mechanics. But I could compete. My daddy taught me how to compete. If you put me in the box and I’m competing against you, I’m going to compete. It’s going to be hard for you to get me out.
“I had to get stronger. I pretty much did a whole makeover of my game. But I was willing to do that.’’
He was also stubborn. After the eye injury, he was supposed to wear goggles. He tried but couldn’t do it. “The coaches told me, if you get hit again, it could be end of your career,’’ he said. “I told them I’ll take the risk.’’
It was worth it. After starting at UH in center field for three years, the Phillies drafted him in the fourth round. He was traded two years later in the winter of 2007 to the Astros.
“It was a dream come true,’’ he said. “The first year I tried to do too much. The second year was when I relaxed and just played baseball.
“And I took off.’’
In 2009, Bourn led the National League in steals and earned his first Gold Glove. He followed that up in 2010 by leading in steals again, another Gold Glove and his first All-Star selection.
With the Astros rebuilding, he was traded to Atlanta in July 2011 and still led the NL in stolen bases and made another All-Star team. After a stint in Cleveland, another back in Atlanta then to Arizona and Baltimore in 2016, where he broke his finger.
“I had to rehab (in the minors) and they wanted me to stay down longer,’’ he said. “I told them, I’m out.’’
He sighed. He had some offers to go to the minors, but that wasn’t for him.
“For someone you play in the big leagues for so long, it’s hard to get your adrenalin running (in the minors),’’ he said. “It’s different. You’re so used to playing in a big-league stadium in front of the fans and in a different atmosphere.
“I remember one time I scored the winning run. The coach didn’t actually want me to go from third on a shallow pop fly. I said I’m going. We were talking while the ball was in the air. As soon as he caught it, I tagged, went and I scored. And I just didn’t have that full excitement.’’