A couple weeks removed from his high school graduation, a first-round draft choice of the Oakland Athletics faced a Kansas City Royals team that was on its way to a third consecutive AL West title in the second game of a June 23, 1978, doubleheader at Royals Stadium.
``First hitter I faced was Freddie Patek, and I thought the first two pitches were pretty good pitches, but they were called balls,’’ said Conroy, now a scout with the Atlanta Braves. ``It was the first time I had ever been in a game with four umpires, and I remember the second-base umpire (Bill Haller) strolled in toward the mound and said, `Kid, those aren’t strikes here.’
``He took me to a 3-2 count and then hit a line drive back at me. I never saw it, but I heard it.’’
Conroy wound up battling his way through 3 1/3 innings in what became a 6-5 A’s victory. He was charged with only one run and gave up only two hits, but walked five batters. Six days later, he started again, retiring only four batters and giving up five runs against Texas, then was sent to the minor leagues, not to return to the majors until September 1982.
Conroy is one of 10 pitchers to come directly out of high school or college and go directly to the big leagues since the advent of the draft in 1965. He was joined in 1978 (as the 20th player taken overall) in Oakland by Mike Morgan, whom the A’s selected in the fourth round of that same draft.
The group is about to be expanded to 11. On Saturday, Mike Leake, the eighth player taken in last June’s draft, is scheduled to start for the Cincinnati Reds against the Chicago Cubs, his first official game action since he pitched last spring for Arizona State.
``To be honest,’’ Conroy said, ``I always thought it was easier for a hitter to make that jump if he is a patient hitter. As you move up in pro ball, the strike zone gets smaller and narrower. If you are a disciplined hitter, you benefit from that.
``You look at a guy like Bob Horner or J.D. Drew and you are looking at pure hitters with short strokes and the confidence they can hit anybody at any time. For a pitcher, when the strike zone gets smaller, the game gets more challenging.’’
While Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman was the focus of the Reds' pitching plans this spring, it was Leake who stayed in the background, doing a solid job and earning the big league job so many thought might go to Chapman. Leake is described as a ``Greg Maddux type,’’ which means he doesn’t overpower, but has a feel for how to mix his pitches, throws strikes and doesn’t rattle in tight situations.
The fastball is steady at 89 to 91 mph, his changeup will range from 81 to 83 and he has a slider that’ll consistently hit 88.
He won 10 or more games each of his three years at Arizona State, finishing his career as a two-time Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year with a 40-6 college record, going 16-1 with a 1.71 ERA his junior year. That came after a 20-4 record during his high school days in Fallbrook, Calif.
``Obviously, it’s a different situation for a pitcher out of college than high school, but the challenge isn’t about your physical ability, it’s about the mental aspect of what you face,’’ Conroy says. ``You come out of the draft and you are used to winning. I think I lost two games from ninth grade until I was drafted. You don’t know anything but success, and then … ‘’
Well, Burt Hooton, the No. 1 pick of the Chicago Cubs in 1971, is the only one of the 10 who’ve retired with a winning record (151-136), and his debut in the bigs was more a promotional event than a game plan. He was immediately sent out after the game to spend time in the minors.
Morgan wound up spending all or parts of 23 seasons in the big leagues and shares the all-time record for playing with 12 teams with Deacon McGuire, a first baseman/catcher who played from 1894 through 1912; and left-handed pitcher Ron Villone. Morgan, however, had a winning record in only five seasons, including a 1-0 record with Arizona in 2001 at the age of 41.
Jim Abbott, the No. 1 pick out of Michigan in 1989 by the California Angels, was 40-37 his first three years, but the left-hander, who was born without a right hand, finished his career just 87-111. A touch of irony is that it was Pete Broberg who came out of the bullpen for Oakland to get the victory in Conroy’s debut. Broberg was the second pitcher to make the direct trip to the big leagues, back in 1971, when the Washington Senators drafted him out of Dartmouth.
Scouts remain convinced that Darren Dreifort, who went directly from Wichita State to the Dodgers after being the second player selected in 1993, had the physical ability to be the exception and dominate in the big leagues, but he wasn’t able to stay healthy. Retired since the end of the 2004 season, and with only 43 wins on his resume, Dreifort has undergone 22 operations since singing his pro contract.
``In high school, I’d pitch once a week and always had my best stuff,’’ Conroy said. ``Then you get in pro ball and you have to learn to pitch without you best stuff. Ray Miller once said if a pitcher gets 35 starts, he’ll have his best stuff seven times. Eleven times he will not have good stuff. The other 17 will determine what kind of year you have.
``To deal with those 17 games, you have to have the scars of battle. When you go to the minor leagues is where you learn how to handle those scars. It’s tough to learn to deal with failure when you haven’t failed before.’’
And then there’s the attention that comes with being a baseball sideshow.
``The calmest time for me was actually when I was on the mound,’’ he said. ``That’s where I was used to being. I wasn’t used to being in a clubhouse (with grown men) and dealing with the media, and there’s a lot more media now than there was when I came up.’’