When former Cowan baseball star Justin O’Conner ponders what exactly has gone so right this season, he settles on something somewhat rudimentary. It’s not so much the now-Tampa Bay Rays prospect’s proficiency with the bat or the live arm that allows him to gun out runners at a level high enough to entice major league evaluators.
It’s been the ability to stay on the field at all, a consistent problem that’s been part of his past. But now that he’s been able to quiet that, he got a sign of what might be in store for the future.
Specifically a spot in the Major League Baseball All-Star Futures Game, a showcase for some of the top young prospects in the sport.
A few weeks ago, O’Conner, now with the high-Class A Charlotte Stone Crabs in the Florida State League, got the news he’d head to Minnesota this weekend to play in the game at 5 p.m. today. It pits a team of players from the United States against an international squad, and a look across past rosters reveals a large number who found themselves in the actual All-Star Game down the road.
And the key for O’Conner getting to this point is just getting on the field.
“The main thing is that I’ve been able to stay healthy and play as much as I can,” O’Conner said. “That’s really my main focus right now. It’s allowed me to improve my game because I’m playing more.”
By its very nature, a catcher’s squat puts pressure on a variety of joins in the lower body, and O’Conner was twice sidelined by torn labrums in his hips. He’s been able to stay healthy this season and all of last summer, and that’s allowed him to get back to some of the simpler aspects of a baseball career like just falling into a daily routine during the minor league grind.
That wasn’t possible when he was limited to 125 games in his first three seasons.
Through the middle of last week, he was at 64 games this season, mostly at catcher with a few DH days mixed in. He’s managed a .258 batting average (a career high) with six home runs, but his best work has been behind the plate. He’s thrown out 53 percent of the runners who’ve tried to steal on him.
O’Conner, who led the Blackhawks to the state finals in 2008, said the news of his All-Star selection came in an odd way from his manager Jared Sandberg.
“He told me he needed to see me in his office, and he said it with like a real straight face,” O’Conner said. “I thought I was in trouble. But I went in there. He surprised me. He told me he had good news. I’m just honored to be able to have this opportunity.”
O’Conner admitted it was unexpected, something he didn’t foresee as he was just trying to get healthy and playing. His father, Randy O’Conner, said it might have taken a little time for it to sink in, but he’s excited for the chance.
And now it means a break from the usual grind and a trip up north.
He said he’s been to Minnesota a few times for tournaments in his younger days. Back then he played in the Metrodome, but now he’ll get a first look at Target Field.
Although Justin O’Conner doesn’t have much planned for the weekend outside the festivities set up by Major League Baseball, he won’t be up there alone.
“My wife and I and our older son, we’re all going up there this weekend to watch,” Randy O’Conner said. “Should be a lot of fun.”
Justin O’Conner called this a big opportunity, the chance to play in front of a lot of people and show what he can do, but he’s also taking a relaxed approach to being showcased as a top young talent.
“The way I’m looking at it, it’s just going to be a fun time for me,” Justin O’Conner said. “I’m just looking forward to getting there and taking everything in”