The most improbable blast
Brooks Conrad wanted a brief scouting report on Francisco Cordero as he prepared to pinch hit in the ninth inning Thursday. So as the switch-hitter went back to the dugout to get his left-handed equipment after the Reds changed from left-hander Arthur Rhodes to the right-handed Cordero for Conrad's at-bat, he asked Chipper Jones what to expect.
Jones gave him a little rundown of Cordero's stuff, and gave him a simple suggestion: Make him throw strikes, Chipper said. Conrad was absorbed by all this, in this moment. Bases loaded, the Braves down three runs, after being down by six to start the bottom of the ninth, and Conrad wanted to move the inning along.
He walked to the plate, and home plate umpire Lance Barksdale dusted off home and said something to Conrad that he didn't immediately understand. Then Ramon Hernandez chimed in, as well: Conrad had forgotten to change his helmet, to bat left-handed.
"I tossed it over [toward the dugout], and I had to move past that embarrassment," Conrad said Thursday evening, chuckling over the phone.
Did he ever; what followed was one of those moments that we'll remember long after the season.
What led up to that has been years of work, years of perseverance. Brooks Conrad was an eighth-round pick of the Houston Astros in 2001, and he would have about 4,000 at-bats in the minors before seeing a pitch in the major leagues. He got to know Round Rock, Texas, very well, probably much more than he would've liked -- he played Double-A there for the Express in 2004, and remained there after the franchise moved up to Triple-A, for 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Conrad says he never thought about quitting, about finding a new profession. "I love to play the game," he said. "I wasn't about to go and do something else. ... I never had that attitude."
What he hoped for was a better opportunity in another organization, and he signed with the Oakland Athletics before the 2008 season -- and for the fourth consecutive year, he hit 20-plus homers in the minors. At age 28, Conrad got his first shot in the big leagues, with the Athletics.
He signed a minor league contract with the Braves before the 2009 season. "We liked his versatility, and the fact that he was a switch-hitter with power," recalled Braves GM Frank Wren, through e-mail. "He's a gamer with a great attitude."
As Conrad shifted into a support role for the Braves, he asked questions of others, like Greg Norton, about being a pinch hitter, about how to prepare for a moment that he found himself in on Thursday afternoon, in Turner Field.
Cordero threw a strike, and Conrad dropped the head of his bat, smashing the ball squarely, toward left field. Off the bat, he thought his long drive had a chance to clear the fence in left field ... and then saw Reds left fielder Laynce Nix close on the ball, reach out for it.
"I thought he caught it," Conrad said. "I kind of turned."
He looked away, and what he did not see was that the ball had glanced off Nix's glove and bounced over the wall, for a grand slam. Not knowing what had transpired behind him, Conrad lifted his hands over his head with some exasperation -- and that was the moment when he saw the fans going crazy, and his teammates running out of the dugout.
And then Conrad went crazy, too. It was the No. 1 moment in Conrad's career, for sure, he said. "It's a really cool feeling to get up there in a pinch-hit situation," he said, "and make the most of an opportunity like that."Here's a link to the video. Great stuff.
The aging question
Had a discussion the other day with an executive about how younger players have a greater role these days, and it raised an interesting question: Has the overall production and use of players in their mid-30s generally declined?
The answer, as it turns out, is overwhelmingly yes. And the numbers are dramatic, and fascinating.
For a really fascinating take on what the latest data on age regression proves, plus injury updates, trade talk, game results and a pile of other storylines, you must be an ESPN Insider (which costs mere pennies a day).