COTUIT, Mass.—Jeff Conine shared a locker room with some of baseball's biggest names: Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips. But his 10-year-old son seemed rather unfazed by the All-Star talent he saw firsthand on an everyday basis.
As Griffin Conine described it, he was just "going through the motions," in regards to baseball, and hardly saw himself having a future in it. Jeff, a longtime big leaguer, was content with that—he didn't want to push Griffin into anything he didn't want to do.
"He played it, and he had a good time, but there were a couple of years that he was
more interested in skateboarding than baseball," Jeff Conine said. "And that was great, and we encouraged anything that (he was) interested in."
But as Griffin entered middle school and was faced with travel ball—the opportunity to play baseball almost year-round—Jeff explained to his son that things were about to change.
"Listen, I don't care if you ever pick up a bat ever again," Jeff said to Griffin. "I really don't care, because I want you to do what you want to do."
"No, I want to play," Griffin said.
By his sophomore year at Pine Crest High School (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), Griffin Conine started to find success—and then came the passion for baseball. The following summer, he began weight training. He grew three inches, and jumped from 160 to 190 pounds. Singles and doubles became home runs as Conine paired his quick lefty swing with newfound strength.
Given his father's career in the majors, people have always wanted to compare Jeff and Griffin. But Griffin has been quick to deflect comparisons—he bats lefty while his father was a righthanded hitter, and Griffin tends to focus his game more around power.
"I'm trying to forge my own path," Griffin Conine said. "And to try and be my own name, and not just his shadow."
Jeff always did his best to leave Griffin on his own when it came to baseball. But it was always little things that Jeff would work on. Once toward the end of his freshman season at Duke, Jeff noticed Griffin's hands creeping too far above his head when he was holding the bat. He sent Griffin a text, and just like that, he moved his hands down.
"My hands are still there where he told me to put them," Griffin said with a laugh.
It's not just the on-field side of the game that Conine consults his dad about, but it's the mental aspect of the game as well. Whether it's the grind of 72 games in 75 days as he dealt with in the Northwoods League last summer, or playing in front of scouts, Conine isn't afraid to use his dad as a resource.
"(My dad) always said, 'Play like you're being watched all the time.' Practice, when we're out here early working when the ballpark is empty, play just as hard as you would if there's 50 scouts in the stands," Conine said. "So obviously, you don't have to imagine that much because there sometimes are 50 scouts in the stands."
Having that mental edge is what separates the good players from the great players, according to Jeff Conine. The biggest thing he's preached to his son is coping with struggles.
"Some kids have never dealt with failure their whole life—they've always hit .500, they're the stars, you get onto a playing field in the ACC or Cape League, those kids are also the best on every team they've ever played on," He said. "Some guys can't deal with hitting .250. I just really preach to him about the mental side of the game and to handle the diversity. If you can't deal with it, you're not going to very far in this game."
Conine came to the Cape Cod League this summer with a firm understanding of what failure looks like. Although he batted .298 with 13 home runs at Duke this spring, he ended his sophomore season on a 4-for-40 slump—arguably the worst stretch in his career. But he didn't let those struggles infiltrate his mentality too much. Rather, he fought past them.
"So when I came up here I was super humble coming off the worst slump of my life, into the best league of my life," Griffin Conine said. "I was really humbled. I started off hot because I was worried about being able to make contact."
Conine has put together one of the best offensive seasons of any batter on the Cape. His eight home runs and 27 RBIs lead the league, while his .317 average has him in the top 10 in that category.
He's done so all in an unfamiliar spot in the lineup, too. Cotuit coach Mike Roberts has a history of using his best batter at leadoff, regardless of where they play back at school. He did so with Quinn Brodey (Stanford) and Bradley Zimmer (San Francisco) who were middle-of-the-lineup hitters their entire college careers.
Now Roberts has Conine in that role, and he's been pleased with the results.
"I think he has a very professional approach at an amateur age,” Roberts said. “To me, his at-bats . . . are extremely consistent for a 20-year amateur player, and I think that's the key to success. You don't see a lot of drop off from when he sees left handed pitching, and that's also unusual."
Jeff has had an up-close view of his son's development—from an uninterested child surrounded by pros, to a college athlete spending hours on the phone just for a tip here and there. He still thinks the best is yet to come and his son is one of the players to watch for the 2018 MLB Draft.
"I think in the very near future, it's going to be 'Hey, isn't Jeff his dad?' not 'Hey is that Jeff's son?'" Jeff Conine said. "Because I think he has the chance to be special in this game."