“Sometimes to go forward you’ve got to go to the depths of your own personal despair and claw yourself back,” former Scottish soccer player and manager Gordon Strachan once said. “From that point, no matter what happens, you know you can do it.”
While there’s much work to be done to reach the ultimate goal, former L. C. Bird baseball standout (Class of 2011) Nick Conner achieved a part of his dream when he made his professional debut on Father’s Day for the short-season Class A Auburn Doubledays, a minor-league affiliate of the Washington Nationals.
Conner entered the game in the top of the eighth with one out and two runners on. He worked around a walk, doing his job as a reliever to stop the rally, as he allowed no hits in two-thirds of an inning of work and neither runner scored.
Conner’s path to this point wasn’t a fairy tale, having to claw his way back into the game.
During his senior year of high school, Conner dealt with the unimaginable. His father Jeff suddenly died of natural causes at age 44, leaving his mother Kim and his older brother Bradley – a former football and basketball standout at L.C. Bird (2009) – behind.
“Happy Father’s Day, it was kind of crazy that I pitched in my first professional game on this day,” Conner said on his Facebook page. “That was my gift to you and I know you had the best seats in the house. Thank you for everything you did for our family and friends. I love you and miss you like no other!”
In high school, the Skyhawk received some college interest from William and Mary and Virginia Tech. Coaches noticed his talent after coming to scout players from James River. With a 1.8 GPA, Conner admittedly didn’t have the grades to head to a four-year school right away.
“When something like that happens, you have to grow up, it’s not an option,” Conner said. “I don’t know that I would have focused and gotten opportunities the way I did if this hadn’t happened.”
He would finally get his chance.
Conner left for school that fall at Pitt Community College in North Carolina, but ultimately made the difficult decision to return home to be with his family. The hopeful baseball player took a job at GNC and worked as a manager at the Fort Lee location. While he put his dreams on hold, he never gave up on them.
“My brother Bradley was just an inspiration to me,” said Conner. “He just did everything he ever did 100 percent and he pushed me to keep going.”
In the summer 2015, Conner went to a tryout for the Philadelphia Phillies. Though it was unsuccessful for him, Dean Grant of RISE Baseball caught wind of the situation and offered to help the aspiring hurler. Grant was an assistant coach at Deep Run this past season.
“I saw a young man who needed a father figure,” said Grant. “I told him that I would help him as much as I could as long as he gave me 100 percent. I felt like he didn’t have that push in this life anymore, that spark.”
Grant, a Manchester graduate, worked with former Richmond Braves player and pitching coach Dave Clay on Nick’s delivery. While the righty has a cannon for an arm, he wasn’t throwing as hard as he could, and needed to use his lower half more effectively. With coaching, his velocity increased from the normal 89-91 mph range that Conner was throwing when he started working with the duo.
“They [Clay and Grant] taught me lots of things,” Conner said. “They mainly taught me to be a pitcher, how to work out properly and with the mental aspect of it – just waking up and doing the same routine every day.”
After throwing again in Wisconsin and Nick hitting 97 on the radar gun, Grant was able to organize a private workout for Conner at Deep Run High School in October in which 15 teams attended.
He was being caught by Thomas Dale catcher Hunter Vay, on the fifth pitch of the workout, scouts had seen enough.
“That’s the point where I saw radar guns go down and cell phones come out,” Grant said.
Grant said that scouts were flabbergasted because they had never heard of the athlete they saw throwing the baseball.
At lunch afterwards, Grant’s phone starting ringing. Teams were interested in signing Conner, including the Nationals, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Houston Astros, and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Conner signed in November and started his professional career on track for our nation’s capital.
“I felt the most comfortable with the Nationals,” Conner said. “Plus the games are on the East Coast, where my family can come watch me.”
After attending minor-league camp and extended spring training for Washington, Conner got the news that he was headed to Auburn, N. Y. to start his career in the New York-Penn League. The club is starting him out in the bullpen. Conner was also able to gain experience and have success coming out of the bullpen, eventually closing games.
Conner’s journey will take him as close to home as he’ll get all season as Auburn opens a three-game series with the Aberdeen Ironbirds on June 22, about four hours north of Chester.
“I’m living for him [Dad],” Conner said. “I know he’s looking down on me and smiling, he knew that I had it in me. He’ll be watching every step of the way.”