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Indiana graduate Cohen voice of the Iowa Cubs

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

When Alex Cohen went to college, he was surrounded by Chicago Cubs fans.

Growing up a baseball-loving kid in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Cohen pulled for that city’s team and he let his friends at Indiana University know about it.

“I was an obnoxious Phillies fan,” says Cohen.

His first memories of the game surrounded the 1993 National League champions featuring Darren Daulton, John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra and Curt Schilling.

The first foul ball he ever gathered and first autograph he ever got was from Mickey Morandini, who had played at IU.

Some non-Phillies that got Cohen’s attention were Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Sheffield and Manny Ramirez.

Cohen played at Upper Dublin High School in Fort Washington, Pa. When not on the diamond himself, he was rooting for Phils stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels.

It was also at Upper Dublin that Cohen and friends formed a sports broadcasting club.

Josh Getzoff went on to become pre- and post-game host and play-by-play announcer for the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

Stephen Watson would go on to be a sports anchor for WISN News in Milwaukee.

Flash forward more than a decade after his high school days and Cohen is the play-by-play voice of the Iowa Cubs, Chicago’s affiliate in the  Triple-A Pacific Coast League. The 2020 season is to be his third in Des Moines.

“This is Cubs country,” says Cohen. “Being the voice of a Chicago Cubs affiliate, it comes with a lot of responsibility.

“There’s just so many Cubs fans who come out in full force. You can tell that the Cubs fans are just a little bit different.”

And not just at Principal Park in Iowa.

Cohen recalls a game during a steamy 2018 day in Fresno, Calif.

“I’m getting to the ballpark a little bit late and I see a line out the door with Cubs fans,” says Cohen. “It was essentially a Chicago Cubs home game.”

That’s when he really began to recognize the national appeal of the Cubs.

Cohen was a Journalism major with a Sports Marketing & Management minor at Indiana, a school that was talked up by a friend who went there. The deal was sealed after a visit to Bloomington.

His freshmen year, Cohen wrote about tennis for the Indiana Daily Student.

He worked four years at the student radio station — WIUX.

There was an internship with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Philadelphia’s Triple-A International League affiliate in Allentown, Pa. He soaked up knowledge from the broadcast team of Matt Robbins and Jon Schaeffer.

Cohen was with the Gateway Grizzlies (Sauget, Ill.) of the independent Frontier League in 2011 and mentored by Adam Young.

The first job in affiliated baseball came for Cohen with the Milwaukee Brewers organization and the Double-A Southern League’s Huntsville (Ala.) Stars in 2012 and 2013.

Former major leaguer Darnell Coles was a first-time professional manager in Huntsville. Cohen and Coles experienced highs and lows together.

“He’s probably the best guy I’ve ever met in professional baseball,” says Cohen of Coles.

One high moment came when Coles summoned Cohen to the locker room before a game in Jackson, Tenn.

Coles had acted mad on the phone, so Cohen thought he was in trouble.

Instead, Coles introduced Cohen to former Seattle Mariners teammate Ken Griffey Jr. The broadcaster — the one who had imitated a right-handed version of Junior during backyard wiffleball games — and the ballplayer talked for an hour.

Cohen also came to respect and gleaned adjectives and pace of play-by-play voices in the Southern League at the time — Birmingham’s Curt Bloom, Montgomery’s Joe Davis, Pensacola’s Tommy Thrall and Tennessee’s Mick Gillespie.

Bloom’s “approach to the life of working in baseball and embracing the grind” is what Cohen appreciates about the veteran broadcaster.

Davis is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Thrall the Cincinnati Reds.

Cohen says baseball play-by-play requires proper pace and tempo.

“Basketball and football are melodically so quick,” says Cohen. “You’re just following the action.

“Baseball is more of an art form. In a three-hour game, maybe 30 to 40 percent is action.

“You’re filling in all the background between pitches.”

Cohen was not behind the mike in 2014, but was learning as a media relations and broadcast assistant for the Oakland Athletics. He was exposed daily to the on-air styles of Vince Cotroneo and Ken Korach.

The 2015 season saw Cohen back in the booth with the Idaho Falls Chukars, a Kansas City Royals farms club in the short-season Pioneer League.

In 2016 and 2017, Cohen was in the Low Class-A Midwest League as play-by-play man for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods, a member of the Tampa Bay Rays system.

Working in Bowling Green, Cohen learned to see the game from a unique perspective.

“It’s a really different angle when you’re calling from (the) third base (press box),” says Cohen. “Your depth perception is a little off on balls hit to the outfield (You learn to watch the umpire or look at the monitor).

“It’s fun with your strike zone because you can tell pitches up and down a little bit better. In and out is a little more difficult.”

The radio booth at Tacoma of the PCL is also on the third base side.

Cohen encountered communicators like Chris Vosters in Great Lakes, Ball State University graduate Tom Nichols in Dayton and Jesse Goldberg-Strassler in Lansing.

“The world’s most-interesting broadcaster,” says Cohen of Goldberg-Strassler. “He’s focused on finding that small detail.”

Along the way, Cohen’s baseball fandom has become tied to his employer.

“As a broadcaster in Minor League Baseball you are a fan of the organization you work for and the affiliate they are with,” says Cohen. “You see these guys work so hard to get to the big leagues.

“You root for them to do well and by proxy you root for the big league team to do well.”

While he tends to work solo on the road, Cohen has a color commentator for home games. Deene Ehlis has been a I-Cubs broadcaster in some capacity for three decades and can tap into that treasure trove of memories.

Ehlis, who for years was paired with Randy Wehofer (who is now Iowa’s assistant general manager), does play-by-play in the middle innings and Cohen moves over to color.

Cohen and Ehlis have developed a rhythm over more than 150 games together.

“It’s more a conversation with baseball intertwined,” says Cohen. “That’s our main job is to paint the picture for the fans.”

Legendary Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas will always have a warm spot in Cohen’s heart.

His current favorite is the Cubs’ Pat Hughes. With Chicago playing so many day games and Iowa so many night contests, Cohen gets to listen to Hughes while prepping for his game.

“The reason Pat is so good on radio is balance,” says Cohen. “Pat paints the picture. It makes sure the fan doesn’t get distracted from the game, but they also get background information.

“He’s just so even-keeled. There’s no bad games. He goes 2-for-4 or 3-for-4 every game as a broadcaster.”

In the PCL, Cohen is in the company of mike men like Nashville’s Jeff Hem, Las Vegas’ Russ Langer, Reno’s Ryan Radtke, Salt Lake’s Steve Klauke, Memphis’ Steve Selby and Oklahoma City’s Alex Freedman.

“They are tremendous guys,” says Cohen.

All have learned about the grind in a 16-team league that is so geographically spread out that it leads to lots to commercial air travel.

“From a travel standpoint, there’s no other minor league league like the PCL,” says Cohen, who notes that getting to airports in the wee hours, arriving in the next city at mid-day and then being ready for a night game is common.

“I’ve been through a lot,” says Cohen. “I’ve lived in a lot of different time zones. I’ve gone paycheck-to-paycheck up until Iowa job.

‘It’s both rewarding and time-consuming. We spend a lot of time away from your family and friends. This is the industry we chose. I don’t view it as paying your dues.”

During the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic that has live baseball on hold, Cohen stays sharp by contributing to Iowa Cubs social media and calling simulated games for MLB The Show.

“It scratches that itch,” says Cohen, who was supposed to go out to spring training in Arizona March 20 (pandemic hit March 13). “I definitely have fun with that.”

He’s also been doing media interviews and online chat sessions such as the one he did with the Society for American Baseball Research’s Chicago chapter on Sunday, April 26 as part of the #StayHomeWithSABR initiative.

Asked about his home run call, Cohen told the virtual gathering about his rule.

“My rule when I got into broadcasting was I don’t want to have a home run call until I make it to the big leagues,” says Cohen. “If I make it to the big leagues then I’ll have my own home run call.”

Cohen, who has also called baseball games for the Australian Baseball League as well as in Taiwan, Japan and Colombia and the World Baseball Softball Confederation, has visited or worked at three Indiana ballparks — Victory Field in Indianapolis, Parkview Field in Fort Wayne and Four Winds Field in South Bend.

“I love it,” says Cohen of Victory Field, the home of the Indianapolis Indians and a place about 45 minutes from the IU campus. “I love urban ballparks.”

For this reason, he counts parks in Nashville, Charlotte, Baltimore, Denver and — of course — Chicago among his favorites.

“I really like Wrigley Field because even though it’s not in ‘The Loop’ or anything, you can still see what Wrigleyville has to offer,” says Cohen. “(The Fort Wayne TinCaps‘ Parkview Field is) probably one of my top five parks I’ve ever been to in Minor League Baseball. They just did it right. They have enough berm area. They have enough suite level. It’s so open. You have a panoramic view of the city.”

Cohen says he was unimpressed on his first visit to South Bend in 2011 then he came back after owner Andrew Berlin made many upgrades to the place.

“That ballpark has taken on a life of its own,” says Cohen of the South Bend Cubs‘ stadium. “It’s Wrigleyville Jr. It’s so cool.”

Combining the park, fans, proximity to Notre Dame and downtown amenities, Cohen says, “I’m not sure if there’s any better full scene in the Midwest League.”

Cohen was there the day Eloy Jimenez socked a home run against Bowling Green’s Diego Castillo (who is now with the Rays).

“It was a cold winter night in April,” says Cohen. “It was a 96 mph fastball running up and in.

“I’m not sure that ball has landed yet.”

Count Cohen a fan of Howard Kellman, who has been calling Indianapolis Indians games for more than four decades.

“Howard’s one of those classic voices,” says Cohen. “He’s so steady. You just know that he knows what he’s talking about. You know he’s done his research.

“In terms of pacing and verbiage and pausing, I really do try to emulate Howard.”

As a young broadcaster, Cohen does use advanced stats into his call. But he doesn’t force them.

“I’m not just reading them off a sheet for no reason,” says Cohen. “If Donnie Dewees is batting at the top of the order, you want to talk about his OBP (On-Base Percentage), OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play).

“That’s important to a 1- or a 2-hole hitter or someone who needs to get on-base. I don’t want to randomly read out sabermetrics.”

Any advice for anyone thinking of baseball broadcasting as a profession?

“With the contraction of Minor League Baseball, it’s tough,” says Cohen. “You don’t know how many gigs are going to be available at any given time.”

To hone their craft, Cohen prescribes repetition.

“Try to broadcast college or high school games,” says Cohen. “If you can’t, take tape recorder to a professional game.

“Email every single major league media relations director and director of broadcasting and say, ‘Hey, I have my own equipment. I want to get into broadcasting. Can I take one of your empty booths at a random game in May?’”

That gives the aspiring play-by-play man the chance to record a demo that can be sent to other broadcasters and directors for critiques.

“That’s how I got my experience early on,” says Cohen, who says he is open to the idea of being shadowed and then providing access to an open booth at Principal Park.

“You go through that process over and over and over again until you see jobs you want to apply for,” says Cohen.

JOEBIDENALEXCOHENAlex Cohen (right), the play-by-play voice of the Iowa Cubs, gets a visit in the booth on July 4, 2019 from Joe Biden. Cohen is a Philadelphia area native and graduate of Indiana University. (Iowa Cubs Photo)

Andrean, Oakland U. grad Brosseau contributes in Rays organization and beyond

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Mike Brosseau was not drafted at the end of his college baseball career.

But the graduate of Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind., and Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich., has proven impactful in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

Undrafted after four seasons at Oakland (2013-16), Brosseau made it to the Double-A level in his third professional season in 2018.

Playing mostly third base, the righty swinger hit .262 with 13 home runs, three triples, 24 doubles and 61 runs batted in over 104 games for the Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits. Montgomery went 79-61 and made the Southern League playoffs.

Using advice from former Oakland head coach John Musachio, Brosseau did his best to “slow the game down” while doing what he could to contribute.

“(Musachio) talked about playing the specific game you have and getting in the lineup and helping the team out,” says Brosseau, 24. “People let the moment and pressure get to them too much. I want to just be able to stay within my game and not let the outside factors effect it.

“It’s about letting my abilities do the best for me. I’m a guy that’s going compete for you. I’m going to find a way to do what I can to help the team win.”

Brosseau (pronounced BRAW-SO) earned his degree in Health Sciences then made his pro debut in 2016 with the Gulf Coast League Rays (hitting .319 in six games). He played most of the 2017 season with the Low Class-A Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods (batting .318 in 80 contests) and also appeared with the High Class-A Charlotte (Fla.) Stone Crabs (hitting .333 in 19 games).

The next step up the Rays minor league ladder is the Triple-A Durham (N.C.) Bulls.

Showing his versatility, Brosseau has also been used at second base, first base, shortstop and even at catcher and pitcher.

Last winter, Brosseau got to experience life and baseball Down Under.

After hinting at it during the 2017 regular season, the Rays approached him about playing in the Australian Baseball League at the end of fall instructional league.

“I jumped on the opportunity,” says Brosseau. “I got my passport the next day and headed out two weeks later.”

He played in 25 games with the Perth Heat and hit .427 with six homers, two triples and 32 RBIs.

“The thing that grabbed me wasn’t the baseball, it was the people,” says Brosseau. “They were some of the most welcoming, genuine, caring people I’ve ever met.

“They treated us like family.”

Perth also offered a connection to the Region as former Gary SouthShore RailCats play-by-play announcer Dan Vaughan served as an announcer for the Heat.

A shortstop for Musachio at Oakland, where he made 183 starts, Brosseau hit .308 with 19 homers, three triples, 39 doubles and 104 RBIs for his Golden Grizzlies days. He was a first-team all-Horizon League selection in 2014 and 2016.

“I got close to him really fast in my career,” says Brosseau of Musachio. “He’s a genuine, good human being. He cares for his family, team and university.

“It was a blessing to play for him for four years.”

At Andrean, Brosseau was a contributor for 59er teams coached by Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Dave Pishkur.

“Coach Pishkur is one of those guys who connects to his players,” says Brosseau. “He was instrumental in my development process — both in baseball and as a human.”

Brosseau was the starting shortstop in the 2010 IHSAA Class 3A state championship game as Andrean topped Jasper 6-1. Among his teammates on that squad were future pros Sean Manaea (who has pitched in the big leagues for the Oakland Athletics) and Zac Ryan (who pitches in the Los Angeles Angels system).

“We’re all going down a pretty good path,” says Brosseau. “You love to see northwest Indiana guys do well in pro ball and baseball in general.”

Brosseau still keeps in-touch with former 59ers mates Mark Pishkur (Dave’s son), Cody Haver and Nick Tobye.

Born in Munster, Ind., Brosseau grew up in nearby Portage and played at Portage Little League until age 12 before helping out the traveling Duneland Flyers then Dave Sutkowski-coached Hammond (Ind.) Chiefs. The latter organization competed in tournaments all over the country.

“You got to see where you stand,” says Brosseau of playing for the Chiefs. “It was a fun experience.”

He committed to Oakland as an Andrean junior then played in the summer for Valparaiso American Legion Post 94.

Mike is the son of Mike and Bonnie Brosseau. His parents both work in the steel industry.

“I had an amazing childhood,” says the younger Mike Brosseau. “I can’t say enough about how my parents raised me. I had a lot of friends because I played a lot of sports.”

He was a soccer player in his younger days and played basketball until his sophomore year of high school.

Brosseau attended St. Bridget Catholic School in Hobart prior to going to Andrean.

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Mike Brosseau, a graduate of Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind., and Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich., played for the Double-A Montgomery (Ala.) Biscuits in the Tampa Bay Rays organization in 2018. (Montgomery Biscuits Photo)

MIKEBROSSEAUDONTENPHOTOGRAPHYMike Brosseau, who graduated from Andrean High School and Oakland University, is an infielder in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Donten Photography)

Fort Wayne native Reith sharing knowledge as pitching coach in Rays system

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Brian Reith played professional baseball for 13 seasons with parts of three in the majors (2001, 2003 and 2004 Cincinnati Reds).

Reith, a 1996 Fort Wayne Concordia Lutheran High School graduate, has plenty to impart to young players as pitching coach for the Low Class-A Midwest League’s Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods.

But it’s not just about what goes on between the white lines.

“This is about more than just baseball for me,” says Reith. “It’s about young men. The game’s going to be over at some point and, hopefully, they can have a sound future somewhere else.”

Reith, 40, encourages players to approach him about anything.

“They can come to about off-the-field stuff and on-the-field stuff,” says Reith. “I try to be stern, but I try to be a friend to them as well.”

With his young pitchers on the mound, he emphasizes something that helped him during his pro playing career.

“What I focus on mostly is fastball command and getting them to understand the four quadrants of the (strike) zone, how effective that can be and how it sets up their other pitches,” says Reith. “By doing this, starters can also help relievers later in the game.”

Reith says it’s a matter of mechanics for some pitchers and — for others — confidence in their fastball.

“Fastball command was extremely important for me,” says Reith, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who graduated from Concordia in 1996 and was selected in the sixth round of that years’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the New York Yankees. “I first learned that in the (High Class-A) Florida State League. In Double-A, I had catchers who forced me to use my fastball. It really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

In the majors, his first manager was former big league catcher Bob Boone. Former MLB pitcher Don Gullett was the pitching coach.

“I had a lot of conversations with Bob Boone about pitch selection and different hitters and what to look for,” says Reith. “(Don Gullett) taught me a lot about work ethic.”

Dave Miley later took over as Reds manager. He ended up as head coach at Franklin County High School in Brockville, Ind.

Reith pitched for the Indianapolis Indians in 2005. Trent Jewett was the manager and Darold Knowles, who won 66 games and save 143 in 765 big league appearances, the pitching coach.

From 2007 to 2009, he played independent ball — first with the Somerset (Mass.) Patriots and then the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks and Joliet (Ill.) Jackhammers.

Sparky Lyle, who pitched in 899 big league games with 99 wins and 238 saves, was the manager and Brett Jodie, who made eight MLB appearances in 2001 with the Yankees and San Diego Padres, the pitching coach his first season in Somerset.

“(Sparky Lyle) stayed back and let us do our thing,” says Reith. “I was pitching pretty well while I was there.

“Brett Jodie helped me out quite a bit. I played with Jodie in the Yankees organization.”

The 2018 season marks Reith’s fourth in the Tampa Bay Rays system. He spent the past three years as pitching coaches with the Short Season Class-A New York-Penn League’s Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades.

There are many former Hudson Valley pitchers on the current Bowling Green staff and Reith sees the value in the continuity.

“It’s always good to have a base and knowledge of how they learn and what they’re working on to start a season off,” says Reith. “It’s definitely helped.”

Reith recalls his time in the Midwest League with Dayton in 2000 and relates those experiences to his Hot Rods.

“It wasn’t that long ago I was in their same shoes,” says Reith. “I try to remember what I was going through and what my mind was like.”

Everyone shares in the grind.

“Travel is pretty brutal for us,” says Reith. “But the guys deal well with it.”

According to Google Maps, the distance between the stadium in Bowling Green and MWL sites are as follows: Beloit (Wis.) Snappers 510; Burlington (Iowa) Bees 494; Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Kernels 561; Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings 530; Dayton (Ohio) Dragons 279; Fort Wayne (Ind.) TinCaps 389; Great Lakes Loons (Midland, Mich.) 616; Kane County Cougars (Geneva, Ill.) 479; Lake County Captains (Eastlake, Ohio) 477; Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts 524; Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs 436; Quad Cities River Bandits (Davenport, Iowa) 512; South Bend (Ind.) Cubs 392; West Michigan Whitecaps (Comstock Park, Mich.) 493; Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Appleton, Wis.) 621.

Toward the end of his playing career, Reith earned on online degree in business management from the University of Phoenix. When he retired as a player, he went to work in the corporate world and landed with Champs Sports in Bradenton, Fla.

At the same time, Reith was coaching 14- to 18-year-olds in Sam Marsonek’s SCORE International program — combination travel baseball organization and ministry.

“I really enjoyed teaching the young kids,” says Reith. “That really sparked my interest in what I could do at a different level.”

When the Rays came calling, he started coaching professionals.

Reith’s early diamond days were spent at Wallen Baseball League in Fort Wayne, where teams played by American Amateur Baseball Congress rules and runners could lead off at a younger age the Little League. The league turned 50 in 2008.

He played travel ball for the Fort Wayne Seminoles and Fort Wayne Warriors and four years as a pitcher and outfielder at Concordia for Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Jack Massucci.

“He’s an extremely hard worker and a very knowledgeable guy,” says Reith of Massucci. “I didn’t know too much about situational baseball and he taught me a lot.”

Massucci is well-known around Fort Wayne for his long-time association with the Wildcat Baseball League.

Brian is the son of Steve and Nancy Reith, who live in the Fort Wayne area along with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Brian’s sister, Stacey, resides in Fishers, Ind.

Bowling Green has made two visits to Fort Wayne this season and is due for another July 6-9.

Brian, wife Kellie and their children reside in the Bradenton/Sarasota area in Florida. The family — parents, son Dixon (7) and daughter Kinsie (6) — have been together most of the season in Bowling Green. Recently, Kellie went back to Florida to ready to give birth to a second daughter in about two weeks.

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Brian Reith makes a mound visit as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. The Fort Wayne native is in his fourth season of coaching in the Tampa Bay Rays system. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

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Brian Reith signals his approval as pitching coach for the Bowling Green (Ky.) Hot Rods. He is a 1996 graduate of Fort Wayne (Ind.) Concordia Lutheran High School and played 13 professional baseball seasons, including parts of three in the majors. (Bowling Green Hot Rods Photo)

 

Former Indiana Mr. Baseball, MLB first-rounder O’Conner lands with independent St. Paul Saints

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Justin O’Conner was a highly-touted professional baseball prospect when he wore the uniform of Cowan Junior/Senior High School.

As a sophmore at the Muncie, Ind., school, he helped the Camden Pankhurst-coached Blackhawks earn an IHSAA Class 2A state runners-up finish in 2008.

In 2009, O’Conner put up head-turning numbers as a shortstop and pitcher: .521 average, 19 home runs, 61 runs batted in, 7-0 record, 0.30 earned run average, 101 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.

That summer, he won the Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game National Showcase at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and was invited to the Perfect Game Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic at PETCO Park in San Diego.

In 2010, he was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball and selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays right out of Cowan.

As a pro, O’Conner became a catcher. He played 48 games with the Gulf Coast Rays in 2010.

In 2011, he played at rookie-level Princeton threw out 16 of 45 base stealers.

He helped Hudson Valley win the New York-Penn League championship in 2012.

O’Conner played at Low Class-A Bowling Green of the Midwest League in 2013.

That winter, he played for the Brisbane Bandits of the Australian Baseball League.

“It was awesome,” says O’Conner of his time Down Under. “It was a chance to go to another country, live there for three months and get to see their culture and also get to play baseball.”

In 2014, O’Conner played at Charlotte and was an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star and Florida State League All-Star, FSL Post-Season and Baseball America High Class-A All-Star.

He played in the Arizona Fall League and was placed on Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster in November.

O’Conner spent the entire 2015 season at Double-A Montgomery and led the Southern League in total chances (91) and threw out 29 of 60 base stealers.

“For me, it’s big part of the game,” says O’Conner. “Being able to control the running game can keep runners off of bases in scoring position and keep them from scoring runs. If the pitcher can give me a good time to the plate, mix his looks in.

“It’s really more on the pitcher and the infielder making a good tag along with me making a good throw. It’s just not me, it’s everybody involved.”

In 2016, he began the season in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League because of a back injury. He was promoted to Double-A in August.

It was discovered he had a herniated disk and he had two back surgeries in October and November and and was removed from the 40-man roster in December.

“I’m all good now,” says O’Conner of his procedures. “The back pain really wasn’t the issue, it was the sciatica down my leg. I needed to get it fixed.”

O’Conner started 2017 at Double-A and was promoted to Triple-A Durham in August. The Bulls won the Triple-A National Championship.

After the season, he was granted his free agency and signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants in November 2017. The Giants released him in April 2018 and he inked a deal with the St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association, a circuit which also features the Gary SouthShore RailCats.

The Saints got off to a 5-1 start and O’Conner is coming off a 3-for-3 game with two RBI and two runs scored Wednesday, May 23 at home against the Chicago Dogs.

He belted home runs May 18 at Gary and May 23 in St. Paul.

O’Conner quickly learned the difference between high school and professional baseball while with the Rays and Giants organizations and it holds true with St. Paul.

“It’s a grind,” says O’Conner, 26. “You’re playing baseball, but it’s also a job. You’ve got to come out and try to win everyday.

“You learn that right away. You’re playing every single day. It takes a toll on your body and it’s something you’ve got to get used to.”

O’Conner played for a number of travel baseball organizations growing up then spent two years while in high school with coaches Dan Held and Quinn Moore and the Indiana Bulls.

Justin is the son of Muncie’s Randy and Kim O’Conner and has an older brother and a younger sister.

Jacob O’Conner is in law school in Cincinnati. Kirsten O’Conner, a former Ball State University softball player, is a nutritionist in Illinois.

JUSTINOCONNERSTPAUL

Justin O’Conner, who was Indiana’s Mr. Baseball at Cowan Junior/Senior High School and a first-round draft selection of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, is now with the independent St. Paul Saints. Released by the San Francisco Giants organization, the catcher signed with the team shortly before the beginning of the 2018 season. (St. Paul Saints Photo)