Leake to make historic debut for Reds

Tim Conroy still remembers his big-league debut.

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.’’