Affiliated minor league baseball is full of high draft picks and guys just hanging on. Some are pretty well-known while others are total strangers.
In the 2014 New York-Penn League, perhaps the most famous baseball player is best known for playing with another ball.
Pat Connaughton has appeared in five games, starting four, for the Aberdeen Ironbirds, a Baltimore Orioles affiliate. Dan Duquette’s team picked him in the fourth round of June’s draft. But if you are a sports fan, you know him better as one of the top shooters in Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.
Connaughton is a two-sport standout from Notre Dame (he still has a year of eligibility remaining in basketball), who because of visibility of the sports at the college level, is known more for playing for Mike Brey than for playing baseball. In that regard, he is cut from the same cloth as current Oakland Athletics pitcher and former Irish wide receiver Jeff Samardzija.
At Notre Dame, Connaughton was 15th in the ACC in scoring and second (by a tenth of a point) on his team as a junior. The 6-foot-5 forward was eighth in rebounding in the ACC, fifth in three-point shooting and led the conference in defensive rebounding.
"Baseball is a very unique game. You learn to deal with failure, you learn to overcome it, you learn how to better yourself from it," the Arlington, Mass., native told me. "Being out there, especially as a pitcher, you’re out there by yourself on the mound. You have eight guys behind you, but at the end of the day it’s all under your control.
Connaughton’s baseball stats aren’t nearly as gaudy as his hoop stats were. He is 0-1 with a 3.60 earned-run average for the Ironbirds. He has yet to pitch more than four innings in his four starts.
Connaughton started his college basketball and baseball careers playing in the Big East Conference. Then Notre Dame moved into the ACC, where baseball is played at a higher level than it was in the Big East.
"Basketball wasn’t as big [a difference], competitively speaking," Connaughton said. "The Big East was arguably as good, if not better, than the ACC in basketball,"
Sometimes in minor league baseball, Connaughton might see 4,000 fans in a jam-packed stadium, as he did the night I saw him in Troy, N.Y. He said that playing at Joe Bruno Stadium was a walk in the park compared to Cameron Indoor or the Dean Dome.
"Basketball probably got me prepared for playing in front of these kinds of people far more than baseball ever has," he said. "There’s nothing like being in a basketball building, shooting free throws, when no one in that arena likes you.
"It’s an experience that you take with you from sport to sport."
The question is, will Connaughton become another Samardzija and pick baseball? Will he choose hoops like Danny Ainge eventually did with the Celtics? Or will he mimic Ainge, Dave DeBusschere and TV’s Rifleman, Chuck Connors, and play both?
"I love both sports. I really couldn’t answer that question," he said. "I want to play one of them or both of them professionally.
"My quote has always been, and my feeling has always been, I want to play both sports for as long as I can. I’ve managed to keep both options open pretty decently up to this point."
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