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Hughes: 'I need to prove myself'

Hughes: 'I need to prove myself'

NEW YORK -- He walks around the clubhouse in a quiet, if not serious manner. His presence permeates throughout the white-walled lockers. He answers questions with ease and little emotion. Meekness seems sunken into every bit of his demeanor.

Just look at his eyes. It lives in Phil Hughes.

"Humility, that low, sweet root," penned Irish poet Thomas Moore, "from which all heavenly virtues shoot."

Hughes, of course, is no transient miracle hiding in a 6-foot-5 frame. No, he's just a pitcher. A darned good one, too, judging from the Minor League numbers he coaxed last year with that mid-90s fastball and sharp-breaking curve. But beneath the top draft pick label, beneath the electric pitches, and beneath that pinstriped uniform is a humble 20-year-old kid.

Mark Newman, the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations, has said Hughes is probably the best young pitcher the team has had since 1989, Newman's first year with the club.

Hughes' accolades would unfurl like a scroll, but two of his statistics stand out like red ink among black ink: He never faced a batter with the bases loaded in 2006, and his Minor League numbers coming into this season -- 21-7 with a 2.12 ERA -- are comparable to last year's American League Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana (19-6 with a 2.77 ERA).

Jason Giambi gave Hughes another eye-widening honor this spring, dubbing him a young "Rocket" in reference to future Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens. But instead of pumping up his chest and throwing around all 220 pounds of him like he's Terrell Owens with a nasty fastball, Hughes looks toward the ground after comments like these -- perhaps with a slight chuckle -- and prefers to examine himself.

"You kind of just have to take a step back and look yourself in the mirror and say, 'You know, I haven't done anything to deserve all this praise yet,'" Hughes said. "I'm at a point now where I need to prove myself."

All of this garnered him masses of attention. Sean Henn, whose locker sits next to Hughes', explained the one downer to having Baseball America's top Yankees prospect as his clubhouse neighbor: the media crowds his space.

Yes, Hughes' gaudy statistics are a marvel, but no one -- not even scouts whose job descriptions are to first note a player's physical ability -- could help but notice something more about him. It's the way he speaks in calm, few words. It's the way his face looks even after he gives up a homer.

And to those who see it, including his teammates, manager and parents, it's a glimpse that sees the soul. Maybe that's what Jorge Posada saw when he caught Hughes in Spring Training.

"The attitude, you see it," Posada said. "It's not about being cocky. It's just the way he walks around; he belongs."

What ever happened to the spiked hairdos and mohawks, the know-it-alls and balkers, the boasters and back-talkers? They're definitely not extinct in the Major Leagues. It's just that Hughes is a fading breed.

Humility seems to be engraved on his heart. It flows through everything he does and every word he speaks -- pretty impressive considering he can't legally drink until late June. Hughes comes across with the wisdom of a man approaching his golden years in life.

"He seems to be a little more mature for someone his age," Joe Torre said. "He's sure more mature than I was at his age, just [from] the way he carries himself."

Hughes' father, Philip, used to be in the Navy. The straight-shooting advice Hughes' dad gave him, though not what he would consider "strict," helped shape Hughes as a person and his mindset on the mound.

His dad taught him to get things done in a humble way, or, as a Nike commercial might reiterate -- "Just do it." Block out distractions. Get focused. Work hard. Get it done.

That's what Hughes did in his first start in the Major Leagues against the Blue Jays last Thursday, even though he didn't succeed as he hoped.

When he gave up a run-scoring hit to Vernon Wells in the first inning of a 6-0 loss, he kept his head straight. When he struck out two batters to start the second inning, his face looked identical. Sure, some parts of that game worked out better than others for him, but what exactly did Hughes' father teach him to get him through it?

"'Don't get too high, [or] too low.' -- that kind of thing," Hughes said. "That's probably where I got most of my personality."

Caleb Breakey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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