Mike O’Connor looked like a rookie. A euphoric, somewhat childish look overtook his face after the hours of batting practice and pre-game workouts when he realized what was about to transpire.
Clad in a pristine, white Washington Nationals jersey, red undershirt noticeably protruding from his sleeves, the 2002 GW graduate did what many baseball players begrudge: signed autographs. The new Nationals pitcher put his John Hancock on everything thrust his way with a smile, as a rookie would.
For O’Connor, everything is new. He was recalled from Triple A New Orleans to the big leagues on April 26 and shipped to St. Louis for his first start. He’s the new kid. And it’s easy to tell.
His practice sneakers, a pair of black Nikes, are still clean. He borrowed the bat he used in batting practice from catcher Matthew LeCroy, although new sticks will be delivered in time for his first home start against the Pittsburgh Pirates May 6.
Three days before that game, he knew that playing 39 miles from his home in Ellicott City, Md., and in his college town, would not be an easy task.
“It’s crazy,” O’Connor said with a chuckle. “My mom got 20 (tickets) but I couldn’t get enough for everyone. I’d bet there will be 80 people here that I know and even more that know me.”
O’Connor’s game-day estimate was around 100 friends and family members.
The familiar faces didn’t help O’Connor much against the Pittsburgh Pirates, his first start at home. In five innings, in front of 30,659 fans, he gave up five hits, three earned runs, four walks and hit two batters, including the first batter of the game. He still collected the win, thanks to an uncharacteristic offensive explosion.
“It was a little worse because I hit the first batter,” O’Connor said. “You always want to get that first guy out. I got through that inning only giving up one run. I was happy with that. I felt alright after the first inning.”
“I didn’t have too many quick innings,” O’Connor joked. “Every inning was a battle.”
His pitching motion is unique. His skinny 6-foot-3 frame coils like a spring and as he releases the ball, his body explodes, ejecting the ball toward the batter. The motion has served O’Connor well, earning him minor league pitcher of the year honors in 2005 and allowing him to earn a reputation as one of the best young placement pitchers around.
Even after pegging a few batters, Nationals manager Frank Robinson said O’Connor showed him something during the game.
“The kid has a lot of heart,” Robinson, a baseball legend, confessed. “He doesn’t back down or back off.”
O’Connor’s strong will may have given him wins and a 2.12 ERA, but being a rookie in Major League Baseball is not easy.
Pitcher Gary Majewski knows. Majewski was a rookie in 2004, when the Nationals were still the Montreal Expos, and he learned the norms of being a young gun in the league.
“He’s got good stuff,” Majewski said. “He’s not afraid to go out there and put everything on the line and most importantly throw strikes.”
“He’s a rookie, just like I was,” Majewski said. “You come in, keep quiet.”
It may take a few wins or a handful of good outings, Majewski said, to become a real member of the team.
O’Connor was already a member of a team. The 2002 GW squad, which won the 2002 Atlantic 10 championship team, stays close and O’Connor tries to keep in touch with all the coaches and players. Former GW coach Tom Walters flew to St. Louis to watch him in his first game.
Coming out of the A-10 Conference and being recognized is not easy, but O’Connor contended that the differences between the conferences weren’t that significant.
“It’s not like the ACC or the SEC, but the competition was not far off,” O’Connor said.
But like most college players, O’Connor paid his dues in the minors. He had bounced around the Montreal Expos farm system since graduating, logging time with the Vermont Lake Monsters (Single-A), Savannah Sandgnats (Single-A), Brevard City Manatees (Single-A) and Potomac Nationals (Single-A advanced).
After being named minor league pitcher of the year, O’Connor attended Nationals’ spring training in Viera, Fla., where he expected to be sent to Harrisburg (Pa.) to play Double-A ball. At the end of spring workouts, the pitcher was sent to the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Nationals that often serves as the last stop before RFK Stadium.
Metairie, La., which the Zephyrs call home, is not as damaged from Hurricane Katrina as other parts of the New Orleans area, but O’Connor and his team saw the suffering.
“It was pretty crazy down there,” O’Connor said. “The second day we were there we went on a two-hour tour. Where we were, if you didn’t know, you couldn’t tell. If you go five minutes into the city it’s a totally different world. We went to the Lower Ninth Ward, and there were houses laid on top of each other. It was crazy.”
But the player called up to be a Band-Aid for the injured John Patterson has established himself after road starts in St. Louis and a seven-inning two-hit gem in New York.
Saturday night in Atlanta, O’Connor had another solid outing. In five innings, O’Connor gave up five hits, three earned runs, two walks and four strikeouts. A ninth-inning grand slam by Jeff Francoeur gave the Braves the win and O’Connor his second loss as a major league pitcher.
At RFK, two bats are stored in the dugout. These two are unlike the others – they are clean, new and tattooed with “48” on the butt. O’Connor’s bats clearly show that he is still a rookie.
Despite the wins, strikeouts and what seems to be a permanent place in the Nationals’ rotation, the bats are new and as Majewski said, O’Connor will be new for a while.
If the look on his face while signing autographs means anything, though, O’Connor seems just fine with that.