Jacob O’Conner

Minor League Baseball: The Life the Struggle the Opportunity
The hotel is not a Hilton; valet does not exist here and neither does room service or free internet. Basketball and tennis courts are nowhere to be seen. The balcony view does not paint a majestic landscape of beach front homes and supermodels. Who, what, and where am I? Palm Manor Resort. The residence of Justin O’Conner. Englewood Florida, the residing home for players in the Tampa Bay Rays minor league baseball system. Talk to someone outside of the baseball world about the lifestyle of individuals selected in the first round of Major League Baseball’s first year player draft, and the aforementioned description is not likely to be described. Instead, professional baseball has a romanticized stereotype that prevails in the minds of those who do not understand the hardships along the path to superstardom. Before the expensive cars and five start hotels. Before the private planes and beach front homes. Before the celebrity status and all that accompanies it, sits the life of a minor league baseball player.

MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK IT IS: On June 7, 2010 the O’Conner family and friends sat huddled around a 42” television screen tuned in to channel 275 on regular Comcast Cable. The family sat waiting, hoping, and even expecting to hear the name of the senior high school student from Cowan High School - a small 1A public school located in Muncie, Indiana - announced as a selection in the annual Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft. Interviewer: Take me through that moment two years ago as you sat in your living room, surrounded by family and close friends, waiting to hear your name called in the Major League Draft. What were you thinking? Justin O’Conner: I was nervous; you never know what’s going to happen in the draft. As the picks went by and I didn’t hear my name being called in the slots in which I had been projected, I was a little disappointed and unsure of if I was going to be selected. Interviewer: You were selected though - at 31st overall to the Tampa Bay Rays. What was that feeling like? O’Conner: It was crazy. My name was called on the television screen and

everyone in the did not even hit me until I went official contract.

house went nuts. It felt surreal. It honestly down to Tampa Bay to sign my

Interviewer: What is different about minor league baseball than what you might have anticipated before being drafted? O’Conner: Being a high draft pick, I did not expect to be under a microscope to the extent that I am. I’m getting to see the business side of baseball, something that was completely unknown to me before all of this. I am my own marketing tool; in a sense, I am my own business. How I act and betray myself affects my reputation throughout baseball. After being drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, O’Conner reported for his first spring training three days after signing an official Major League Baseball contract. Over the course of the next three seasons, O’Conner would bounce around to all three sub-divisions of the Rays short-season (rookie ball) affiliates. As a result, he knows firsthand that the levels of minor league baseball are nothing similar to the depictions of Major League Baseball being portrayed on the public’s television screens. Minor League baseball can very easily be described in three words: long days, hard work, and temptation. A typical spring training day alone can last up to twelve hours. A player’s day begins at 6:30 am and does not end until 5:00 pm. Throughout the course of this time, every minute of the player’s day has been preordained. Everything from early work - consisting of positional drills, catching bullpens, and offensive work - to weight lifting, stretching, and team drills, batting practice, more stretching, and eventually a spring training game against an opposing team is covered daily. O’Conner described the dynamics of forcing himself to work hard day in and day out in the following, “Once you start slacking, there is always someone else, always someone trying to replace you. You are only going to get so many chances [to prove yourself] and that goes back to the business side of baseball.” Apart from the daily grind of baseball related activities, remains the aspect of off-the-field demons. Horror stories of players getting in to trouble during their stints in the minor leagues have plagued recent headlines and reside in the forefront of many minds. Stories such as those surrounding the early careers of Josh Hamilton and others like him. These players gave in to the temptations of drug and alcohol abuse. Their stories remind us about the struggles these players must fight through on a daily basis. For the majority of players in the minor leagues, this is likely the first time they are truly out on their own in the real world. For some players, the minors represent their first taste of freedom; it is the first time they are left to their own devices and forced to grow up or drown. It is easy to forget that O’Conner is still only twenty years old. Regardless, he has thus far been able to separate himself from the temptations that have plagued others like him. O’Conner believes the key

to success is, “Picking your friends and the people you hang out with carefully. Being around these guys every day, it’s pretty easy to see who is serious about their goals and who isn’t. There’s a lot of down time and it’s easy to get distracted. That’s why it is such a grind - you have to stay focused.”

INJURIES, A BLESSING IN DISGUISE: At the end of the 2011 campaign, O’Conner noticed a slight irritation in his right hip. The irritation brought back troubling memories of surgery and rehab, lost time and lost opportunities. Two years earlier, O’Conner had undergone off-season surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip - the fear was that he would soon need a second surgery. Thankfully, the off-season in 2011 went without incident and so, Spring Training began in the 2012 baseball season. Unfortunately, just as things were appearing to garner serious momentum for the young twenty year old, that familiar sensation spread through the left side of his leg. He knew what it was and he knew what it meant - another season lost to injury. Interviewer: What was running through your mind upon discovering that you had indeed injured your second hip? O’Conner: Oh shit, this sucks. I was really disappointed and I knew immediately that I needed surgery. The feeling was too close to the feeling I experienced in my right hip. I knew then and there that I would not be catching for that season. Interviewer: What made you decide to delay having surgery right then and there? Why did you attempt to push through the season with this serious injury? O’Conner: I still wanted to get my at-bats. Not only that, but it wasn’t only my decision. The Rays front office wanted me to get to the point where I would be able to move up in the proceeding season. I seriously thought about it [having the surgery], but the season was more important. Injuries are undoubtedly a part of the sports franchise industry. The human body is not meant to withstand the rigorous training and physical requirements that it is put through on a daily basis. Injuries occur to the everyday Joe Schmoe who works at the Deli on the corner of Freemont and St. Clair. Why then, does it come as such a surprise when athletes -who put their bodies through physical exertion to the nth degree compared to Mr. Schmoe - finally succumb to the inevitable? Instead of critiquing the nature of injuries and what it means to the organization, individuals should study the fortitude and determination shown by athletes attempting to

recover. Instead, we - as a society - should admire the way through which athletes time and time again, grow through career-threatening injuries. In the case of O’Conner - if someone were to take my approach - they might notice the personal growth of a young man into a self-actualized adult. O’Conner deliberates on his injuries stating that, “I think it has helped me mature. My first couple of years I think I just kind of goofed around a little bit. I didn’t take things as seriously as I should have … I now know how fragile my career is.” Coincidentally, these injuries have shown O’Conner that dreams do not just materialize out of thin air. In order to reach his ultimate goal of wearing the colors of a Major League Baseball club, O’Conner understands that he must focus on what must be done. In other words, he cannot worry himself about the injury and the potentially devastating effects it could have on a single season. Instead, he must focus on pushing through. He must look at the big picture and work on making his body strong enough to withstand the elements of playing the catching position for a career, not just a single season. The injury is in the past now, and all that remains is the future. SUPPORT OF FAMILY AND COMMUNITY: It is a breezy summer evening in the middle of August. Justin O’Conner sits alone in the visiting clubhouse of the Aberdeen IronBirds. An emotional tidal wave tugs at the edge of O’Conner’s consciousness. The current road trip that his team, the Hudson Valley Renegades, find themselves on has not been an easy one to forget. O’Conner has struggled at the plate - managing only a handful of hits over the four game stretch. On this night in particular, he struck out three times in as many at-bats. Looking for something to take his mind off of the performance, he reaches for his phone. Lighting up the background is a text message from his mother Kim O’Conner. “Justin, you have to stay positive. See the ball and hit the ball. YOU CAN DO IT!!! LOVE YOU!!!” A wiry smile plagues the corners of O’Conner’s mouth; in a world of hurt and tough times, the love and support from back home provides an escape. Interviewer: We have established that Minor League baseball is no cake-walk. That being said, who do you talk to when you need to get away from the game? O’Conner: (With a laugh) My family. They are always watching every game, so there is nothing I can ever hide from them. More importantly though I don’t feel like I ever have to hide anything from them. Interviewer: question? I noticed the laugh. What came to mind when I asked that

O’Conner: My mom texting me motivational sayings before every game; they help me relax, make me laugh, and just take my mind off of things. [My family] have reminded me that baseball is a process and that I cannot go out and hit four homeruns every game. Sometimes I

expect too much of myself, and things like these texts help keep things in perspective. The month long stretch from February to early October are devoted to baseball for individuals like Justin O’Conner. Throughout this nine month period the term ‘home’ transforms into something of dual meaning. For all intents and purposes the hotels, buses, and clubhouses are better described as being home. Nonetheless, that distant memory of the ‘real’ home constantly knocks on the consciousness of the human brain. Again, it is easy to forget that O’Conner is only twenty years old. At eighteen he was forced to grow up fast. There was no transitional period that is afforded to others his age that are still experiencing the college life. In other words, he cannot take his dirty laundry home to Mom. Compounding these difficulties are the all too familiar reminders that baseball is no longer just a sport; baseball is now a job and the pressures are real. Sometimes however, these pressures can manifest themselves from those that are closest to minor league ball players - their family. O’Conner tries to explain saying that, “I’m from a very small community where you know everyone from five grades ahead of you to three or four grades below you. There is pressure that stems from that. I don’t mean that I am pulling everyone on my back or anything, but you don’t want to let people down.” O’Conner is one of the first people from Cowan High School to graduate and make a name for himself that transcends what most people are afforded. That is not to say that he has done something better than others before him, but the fact remains that a spotlight has undoubtedly been cast upon him. Family and friends hold a special place in O’Conner’s heart. He does not owe anything to the people around him. However, through the support of those closest to him, he has grown aware of the fact that he owes it to himself. The people behind him, sitting in his corner, are there to stay. They serve as a constant reminder as to what is important in life. Text messages remind him of home and everything that word entails.

THERE’S MORE TO BASEBALL, MORE TO LIFE: Spring Training has just begun for the Tampa Bay Rays and professional baseball as a whole. For the Rays however, the month of March is more than just the beginning of a new season. For the Rays, Spring Training presents an opportunity for the whole organization to become involved in the community. Every year the Rays take a trip to the Boys and Girls Club. On this day, Justin O’Conner immerses himself in the life of others. He plays kickball with little kids that could have easily been him had things in his life taken a different path. Looking into the eyes of these kids, he sees nothing but pure happiness. As he looks into their eyes an understanding overwhelms him. At the end of the day Justin O’Conner is just a professional baseball player, and his problems are not the problems of those less

fortunate. Interviewer: Every Spring Training the Rays take the opportunity to give back to a charity event. What are these experiences like for you personally? O’Conner: The Rays have a great program and are awesome about wanting their players to give back. It is a rare thing to be in our shoes and there are a lot of people who are less fortunate. It humbles me. Interviewer: Would you say then, that giving back to the community is a responsibility for someone like you, in your position? O’Conner: I don’t know that it is a responsibility - it is not something that I have to do. However, I feel like it is my duty to do something - it’s something I want to do more than anything. I understand that there just aren’t many people that get to do what I am doing - who have this opportunity. I want to share that with others whenever I can. Interviewer: You mentioned that baseball is an opportunity to do something. Do you mean more than just baseball? O’Conner: So much comes with being a professional athlete or anyone who is in a position similar to mine. Other people know who we are, so an opportunity to help others does exist there. There are a lot of things I haven’t been able to say to the people that have helped me get to where I am now, but it’s something that is always on my mind giving me extra motivation to do well. I want to do something for them in the future to show my appreciation for what they have helped me accomplish. Baseball is a game. Baseball is a sport, it is a profession, and for Justin O’Conner it is a job. In many facets however baseball can be transformed into something entirely different. For professional athletes, their profession enables them to reach others. For O’Conner, baseball represents a foothold for something more. In the off-season O’Conner tries to stay involved in a community that gave him every possibility. He donates his time to little league camps and off-season workout clinics. O’Conner believes, “To me, it is important to give back to any little kid. It takes me back to when I was living in their shoes. It’s important to me to keep the baseball tradition alive and to show people that anything is possible through hard work and dedication.” In many regards though, O’Conner will argue that he has learned more from the people he has helped rather than the other way around. He referenced the children he visited at the Boys & Girls Club and the cancer patients at an area hospital to support this claim saying, “Some of the kids you see who are so bad off, they aren’t sitting around and sulking. They are up playing around, smiling, and having fun. It has made me realize that my problems are not their problems. When I have a bad day at the field I know there is always going to be another day of baseball.” Baseball has given O’Conner the opportunity to do

something significant for those he cares about and others in his community. Through these opportunities and the individuals he has met, the young man has matured and come to the realization that life is bigger than just baseball. Justin O’Conner may not yet have a beach house or a celebrity girlfriend. He does not ride in luxurious planes or sleep in five star hotels. O’Conner lives the life of an everyday minor league baseball player. He puts in long days and works hard. The injuries and the life lessons learned from those who came before him keep O’Conner focused on the future. The minor leagues are a struggle. They are a grind, constantly wearing down someone’s mental strength. The minor leagues are an opportunity and the family and friends sitting in O’Conner’s corner help to motivate him when times get tough. He is driven by a passion to help those he cares about to thank his community for all that it has enabled him to do thus far. O’Conner’s story is just beginning to unravel and only he can dictate the direction of the following chapters.