It is a summer night, the sun is setting and a pink glow is on the horizon. The smell of hot dogs on the grill, family and friends in the stands cheering and the glow of the lights fill the diamond. Even though there are no-post game interviews, no contract agreements and no signing bonuses, this is where ball players fall in love with the game of baseball. The little league diamond. A place where dreams come alive and memories are etched in stone. Kids across the country and around the world dream of becoming a professional baseball player, playing for their hometown team. El Paso Chihuahuas second baseman, Brooks Conrad is living that dream.
"It was my favorite sport when I was a little kid and both my parents are big baseball fans. My dad was the one who introduced me to the game, coaching all my teams when I was coming up. It was all I wanted to do. Go out and hit balls from the age of five. I fell in love with it," Conrad said.
Growing up in Spring Valley, CA and graduating from Monte Vista High School in 1998, Conrad left his mark by becoming a four-year letterwinner and a team captain his junior and senior seasons. Coached by Mark Smelko, who played for the California Angels, Conrad was a four-year selection to the all-academic team, a Golden Glove winner all four years, first-team all-league in '96, '97 and '98, first team All-CIF in '98, named '98 Division II Player of the Year and was a member of the Union Tribune All-County team. He also won the Grossmont Conference batting title in '98 to add to his already impressive list of high school accolades.
Since Spring Valley is only an 11 mile drive from San Diego, Conrad is now playing for his hometown organization, the San Diego Padres.
"I have a chance to play for my hometown team. When they called me this off-season I was so fired up to finally have the opportunity to play for the San Diego organization."
That excitement has led the five-foot-ten middle infielder to a hot start early on this season. With a .298 batting average, 124 at-bats, 16 runs scored, 4 homers, and 11 doubles, Conrad leads the team in runs, hits (37), doubles, and total bases (60). Cementing himself in the top five of most offensive categories including, RBI's (18), at-bats, and games (31).
After an impressive high school career, Conrad ended up playing for Chihuahuas Manager Pat Murphy at Arizona State University.
"It's pretty crazy, who would've thought 13 years later I would be back playing for my college coach. I never thought it would happen but it is a whole lot of fun. He is one of the best coaches and managers I ever played for. It is pretty special."
Arizona State is at the top of college baseball royalty, producing countless Major League All-Stars, including Dustin Pedroia, Barry Bonds, Reggie Jackson, Andre Ethier and Ian Kinsler.
As a junior at ASU, he was named first-team All-Pac-10 for the second consecutive year, and played in all 58 contests starting in 57 of those. Playing every infield position (43 starts at second base, one at first base, nine at shortstop, and three at third base), Conrad acknowledges that experience helped him in the long run.
"I came up mainly at second base but he (Murphy) mixed me around a little bit. Coming up with Houston, I played mainly second base but then you get a little older, you're going to have to move around. You have to play different positions if you want to stick around, so I was able to play all the infield positions allowing me to be comfortable wherever I go."
Not only was his sure glove helpful for the Sun Devils but his bat came alive early in his collegiate career as well. Conrad started his junior campaign on a 14-game hitting streak after leading the team with 34 two-out RBIs, while hitting .392 with runners in scoring position as a sophomore. He also posted a 21-game hitting streak, which was the longest by a Sun Devil in 2000.
While attending ASU, the San Diego native took his talents to Alaska to compete in the Alaska Collegiate Summer League.
"Alaskan summer ball is so much fun. Two of the greatest summers I ever had. If you are a guy who likes the outdoors, you're going to have a blast. It's playing baseball and fishing every day, with beautiful country. It's probably the last wild frontier we have in the United States and it is gorgeous country, so I had an absolute blast."
Before there was the Cape Cod League, before the Coastal Plain League or the Northwoods. Alaska Summer League Baseball was on Mount Rushmore for collegiate summer ball destinations, molding some of the best players in the majors. This included former Texas Rangers All-Star and possible future Hall of Famer, Michael Young who was named MVP in 1996 for the same team Conrad played for three years later.
Other notables include, Bret Boone, Jered Weaver, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Dave Winfield and Chihuahuas hitting coach, Jacque Jones.
Conrad credits his college success to his experience in Alaska. Playing two seasons with the Alaska Goldpanners Conrad was named MVP while leading the Goldpanners to the NBC World Series in 2000. Conrad perfected his skill in what was considered one of the best summer leagues in the country.
"It's pretty good competition, a lot of guys you play against in college are up there. It is a whole lot of fun but the competition is really good. You're going to see a lot of the guys at the college level and down the road. And pitching wise it is a pretty good league so that prepares you for the college level."
Entering his 14th season playing professional baseball, Conrad was drafted by the Houston Astros in the eighth round of the 2001 amateur draft and made his MLB debut July 21st, 2008 with Oakland A's.
The middle infielder has developed into a utility man at the major league level, serving five years in the MLB, making stints with Oakland, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay, becoming a clutch reserved player off the bench, producing big hits in pinch-hit situations.
His heroics at the plate in 2010 became nothing out of the ordinary, notching five game-winning or game-tying hits.
On May 20th, 2010, he blasted a pinch-hit walk-off grand slam off of Cincinnati Reds closer Francisco Cordero, who was second in the National League in saves and had successfully closed 13 out of 15 attempts. The walk-off home run capped off a seven-run ninth-inning rally, which was the largest in Braves history and only the 23rd time in baseball history that a walk-off grand slam overcame a three-run deficit. It marked only the second time a pinch hitter accomplished this feat.
Not even a month later, on June 12th, 2010, he dropped down the eventually game-winning suicide squeeze bunt in an interleague matchup with the Minnesota Twins, proving small ball does in fact win games at any level.
On July 24th, 2010, the former Sun Devil showcased his clutch power once again as he hit another pinch-hit grand slam in the eighth inning to eventually defeat the Florida Marlins 10-5. His home run helped the Braves overcome a three-run deficit at Sun Life Stadium
His next superman moment come on August 10th, 2010, blasting a two-run homer in the top of the ninth to help the Braves defeat the Houston Astros 4-2.
Finally on August 13th, 2010, Conrad smacked his last game-winning home run of the season. With the score knotted at zero against the Los Angeles Dodgers, he broke the tie with a solo blast in the seventh inning. The Braves ended up winning 1-0.
"Being a pinch-hitter has been my role at the big league level and it is a really fun role to have but it is also extremely tough because you're coming in and facing the best-of-the-best out of their bullpen. Usually in a pressure situation. You get up there and the game might be on the line with bases loaded so you have to prepare mentally," Conrad said.
Conrad stated, sitting on certain pitches plays a factor in pinch-hit situations, reverting back to the mental stage of an at-bat.
"If you can get to a state where you're confident in every at-bat, locked in on that first pitch fastball. If you don't get it, you're not going to swing but if you do get it you know you're going to hit it. That is what you want. Even though you aren't going to hit it every time, at least you have a certain mind set going to the plate and that really helps. It's a tough job but they are fun at-bats."
Conrad has quickly become one of the most consistent players in all of Minor League Baseball leading the Chihuahuas this year and in 2006 with the Round Rock Express, he led the Minor Leagues with 79 extra-base hits (40 doubles, 15 triples, 24 HRs).
What is the secret for this year's success? Focusing on pitch to pitch adjustments and a little advice from Chihuahuas pitcher Jason Lane.
"I've been talking to Jason Lane a lot because he has a lot of good things to talk about with hitting. He's a pitcher now but being a former position player he has good advice. That's the good thing with our team, we have a lot of veteran guys and we can bounce ideas off each other regarding with offensive approach."
That advice has helped him in situational hitting, boasting impressive numbers especially in counts when he is favored. With a .436 batting average when he is ahead in the count, Conrad has been watching for certain pitches.
"Rather than going up to the plate with only one thing on my mind, and that was to go up there and 'I am going to do damage' instead of focusing on pitch to pitch, what I can do with that pitch and seeing the ball better. I am happy with the approach so far and that is the thing with this game, the more consistent you can stay, the more success you are going to have and the more opportunities you're going have to help the team."
With the roar of the crowd erupting throughout the stands Conrad is still playing a kid's game when stepping into the box with no gloves, dirt on his jersey, staring down the pitcher, thinking what the sequence of pitches will be. Silence, the crowd suddenly seems non-existent. No noise, slow motion until the crack of the bat. As if on cue the crowd jumps back, filling the air. Just like the little league field at the age of five, where he fell in love with the game for the first time.
Fun Facts on Brooks Conrad
- Last season went overseas to play with the Hanshin Tigers of the Nippon Professional Baseball League located in Japan…Has a career .207 BA, 71 RBIs, 89 hits and has belted 18 HRs.
- Hit his first Major League triple off of Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano (July 7th, 2009). Hit his first Major League home run (three-run shot) as a pinch-hitter against the Washington Nationals. Both as a member of the Atlanta Braves.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.