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Mom's extravagance paid off in full

Aubrey Huff's mother invested all she had in his future after his dad's murder.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The black netting draped across the metal pipes, the pitching machine with the automatic ball feeder and the spotlights may have seemed a little excessive and a lot expensive for the back yard of the small house off the Texas country road.

But there is no way to put a value on it.

Aubrey Huff was 6 years old when his father was murdered as an innocent observer to a workplace domestic dispute, and Fonda Huff didn't want her son, Aubrey III, or her daughter, Angela, to suffer any more than they already had.

The one thing Aubrey liked to do more than anything was hit a baseball. He started when he was 3 or 4 and would go out in the yard swinging his plastic bat with his grandmother, Meda Horn, tossing him plastic balls. He kept at it, playing in youth leagues, trying to pick up tips watching Rangers games. As he got bigger, Fonda, who played plenty of softball herself, took over and threw to him as much as she could.

When Aubrey was about 10, he asked his mother if they could get a batting cage for the back yard of their house a couple miles outside Mineral Wells, Texas. It wasn't something she knew much about, nor something she really could afford as a single mom working in the meat department at the local Winn-Dixie, but it was something her son really wanted, and that was reason enough.

They ordered the nets and the pitching machine from a catalog, got some advice from her dad on how to cut the pipes and build the frame and rigged up some lights. She put the $2,500 or so on a credit card and didn't think much else about it.

"Everyone I worked with, they couldn't believe I spent that much money," Fonda Huff said. "I'm like, 'It'll pay for itself,' and you could see they're like, 'You're crazy, lady.' They didn't say it, but you know they thought it. I never had any doubt we'd get our money out of it, at least through a college scholarship. But he always wanted to be a major-league baseball player, and I never told him he couldn't."

Huff could.

And did.

And now the batting cage is referred to as the best investment Fonda Huff ever made.

"I told her, 'One day I'll make the big leagues and I'll pay you back,' " Huff said. "So when I did I let the money grow a little bit and I took out some money and gave it to her and I said, 'Here's for the batting cage.'

"I still help her out with whatever she needs. If she needs a house payment taken care of or something, we have the same bank account so I tell her, 'Anytime you need anything just take it out; what's mine is yours.' She's real good about it; she's not a very needy woman."

Aubrey needed some time, some breaks, some adjustments and some help to make it to the major leagues, and then again to stay there.

He got called up at the end of the 2000 season, was up and down in 2001 and was sent back down at the end of last spring. When the Rays recalled him May 28, he established himself with a breakthrough performance, hitting .313 with 23 homers and 59 RBIs in 113 games. This spring the only question is where the 26-year-old is going to play -- he has looked surprisingly solid at third base -- as new manager Lou Piniella says flatly: "Huff's our best hitter."

Fonda took a more direct route to St. Petersburg.

Having moved the family from Mineral Wells to Fort Worth when she took a teaching job, Fonda closely followed Aubrey's career, from his unimpressive Brewer High School days ("kind of a skinny kid" who wasn't drafted and was better in basketball) to his pivotal breakout season at Vernon (Texas) Junior College (where he gained needed experience and 30 pounds of needed weight) to his successful time at the University of Miami (career .400 average, a team-record 95 RBIs in 1998) to his first year as Rays minor-leaguer (.321 at Class A Charleston, S.C.).

Then she decided to get ahead of the game.

With Aubrey assigned to Double-A Orlando for his second pro season in 1999, Fonda decided to move to St. Petersburg, landing a job and bringing along Angela, who is two years younger than Aubrey. Fonda now is teaching honors geometry and algebra and coaches the junior varsity volleyball team at Northeast High.

"She changed her whole life to move down here, so I guess she never really doubted me," Huff said. "She's at every game, and she's my No. 1 fan."

The feeling, it turns out, is mutual.

"She pretty much raised us all by herself. It's amazing the things she's done for us, keeping us out of trouble and raising us right," Huff said.

"I guess you can say I'm a mama's boy in a way."

Fonda insists she is the lucky one because Aubrey, who would spend virtually every free high school night in the batting cage no matter what his buddies tried to drag him along for, and Angela were good kids who never were a problem.

The reality is they were all in it together.

Aubrey's father was living and working in Abilene, Texas, at the time when he was killed. From newspaper accounts of the December 1983 incident, it appears the elder Huff, an electrician at an apartment complex, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, shot by a man, Travis Ray Hughes, upset with his estranged wife.

After shooting his wife, Hughes took aim at the apartment manager, but Mr. Huff pushed her safely out of the way, police said. Mr. Huff then tried to wrestle the gun away from Hughes and was killed in the struggle.

Hughes is nearly 20 years into a life sentence in a Texas state prison. Aubrey said that is probably a good thing.

"I was 6 years old when it happened, so I really didn't know what was going on," Huff said. "I've thought about it as I've gotten older and if I were to see him, I wouldn't know what I'd do to the guy. I don't even want to see what he looks like. It's probably a good thing it happened when I was so young; it could have traumatized me a little more if I was older."

The batting cage, it turns out, was just part of the healing process.

"I spoiled them growing up," Fonda said. "There was no way I was going to let Aubrey or Angie not have the advantages of anyone else with two parents. Someone else might have a dad who can throw and throw, but I was not going to let it hold him back because I couldn't throw as hard as a dad.

"Instead of it being a handicap, he had the batting cage and a pitching machine better than any dad."

-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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