Gillaspie brings drive to Shockers' lineup
When it comes to being tough, Chuck Norris has nothing on Conor Gillaspie, the reigning Cape Cod League MVP, preseason All-American and Wichita State's top player.
As Gillaspie is quick to point out, growing up in the upper Midwest isn't like growing up in a warm-weather baseball hotbed down South or on one of the coasts. Before he became a standout third baseman for Wichita State, Gillaspie starred for Omaha's Millard North High, which went 35-0 his senior year and won the Nebraska state championship.
"Nebraska baseball is not that great high school-wise, but we had some tough kids on our team," Gillaspie said. "If you wear batting gloves on our team, you were made fun of. People ask me, 'How come you don't wear gloves?' Well, I would get made fun of if I wore gloves. You were tough at Millard North. If you didn't play hard all the time, you were an outcast, you got benched, and it didn't matter if you were the best player in the world."
Forget batting gloves—Gillaspie's toughness goes way beyond that.
In Gillaspie's room, he has a huge calendar on the wall, and he crosses off every day until the start of pheasant hunting season in late autumn. For three months, he hunts every single day, no matter how "flat-out ridiculous cold" it gets in his northwest Iowa hunting grounds. He recalls getting up real early on New Year's Day this year and lifting weights, then heading out to hunt. The temperature was 19 degrees below zero.
"That was the temperature, not the wind chill," Gillaspie said. "If I can hunt, that's what I want to do. If it's 100 below, I want to be out there hunting. There were days where there were bruises on my arm from shooting so many birds. That's what drives me. I play baseball all year so I can hunt for four months. I still work hard in baseball, that always comes first, but after that I go out and hunt. You can't stop me to eat, can't stop me to go to the bathroom, but that's what I do, it's a passion for me. It probably sounds completely dumb to someone on the coasts or down South. If you live in the Midwest, if you don't hunt, you're kind of an oddball."
Baseball's a little different in the Midwest, too. In Omaha, playing outside year around is an absurd notion—outdoor baseball ends in September. After that, Gillaspie would take ground balls on gym floors, and he would hit in a warehouse near a space heater while temperatures inside hovered around 10 degrees. Once the season starts, the bad weather lingers and wreaks havoc on the playing surfaces, sometimes creating trenches in the infield halfway between home plate and third base that would turn routine ground balls into adventures.
"It's hard playing in Nebraska, Kansas—it flat-out sucks sometimes," Gillaspie said. "But that's something you've got to overcome. Growing up trying to get a scholarship, it was the hardest thing in the world to get somebody to notice me."
It was obvious Gillaspie could hit in high school—he batted above .500 in his junior and senior seasons and hit a home run at Rosenblatt Stadium during the state championship game his senior year. But local powers like Nebraska and Creighton showed minimal interest in Gillaspie because of his defensive shortcomings, fearing that he lacked a position.
But Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson saw Gillaspie play at a tournament the summer after his senior year and was quickly sold. Stephenson said Gillaspie's intensity and mental drive gave him confidence that Gillaspie could develop into a sound defender.
Coming from Nebraska, Gillaspie had no problem handling Wichita's punishing winters and its inhospitable conditions during the early weeks of the baseball season, when Shocker home games are routinely played in sub-40-degree weather. He stepped immediately into the starting lineup as a freshman, batting .352 with seven homers and 67 RBIs, then batted .325 with six homers and 63 RBIs as a sophomore. But it wasn't until last summer in the Cape that Gillaspie truly emerged on the national prospect landscape, leading the league in batting (.345) and slugging (.673) while winning MVP honors.
"To go to a place like the Cape where it's 75, there's hardly any wind, everybody throws about the same speed, that was heaven to me, because I had never seen anything like that," Gillaspie said. "The one chance I had for people to see me was this summer, because nobody's going to come up in Kansas."
If Gillaspie seems to have a chip on his shoulder about the lack of exposure he gets in the Missouri Valley Conference and the power-suppressing nature of Eck Stadium (which he calls a "graveyard"), that only makes him want to succeed even more. That's why making noise in the Cape was so meaningful for him. But last spring, he often wanted to succeed so badly that it had a negative impact on his performance.
"Sometimes he'll get on himself so hard that it'll affect his play," Stephenson said. "He wants perfection. And he's human, so he can't get perfection. But he strives for it every day, and that's what you like to see. I think he's matured enough now that he doesn't ride himself to the point he can't perform anymore.
"He's a very intense player, but we finally got him to smile sometimes this year, and that's good. I wouldn't say it's anything more than his maturity. He matures as a person. He has a little levity now and then, and you must have that in this game, or it will drive you crazy."
Gillaspie's fierce inner drive comes from his father, Mark, who was an all-American at Mississippi State and played professional ball. But Gillaspie said his father never pushed him to be great on the baseball field—just to "do the right thing all the time," a phrase that Gillaspie invokes again and again. That means being a good teammate, a good citizen, being respectful to his elders, and yes, working hard at baseball.
Of course, good bloodlines don't hurt from an athletic standpoint, and Gillaspie is a naturally gifted hitter who makes hard, consistent contact and can square balls up to all fields and hit for some power. He also has a very mature approach, and he's been able to hit .393/.482/.661 with six homers and 55 RBIs this spring despite being regularly pitched around.
The rest of the game doesn't come as naturally to Gillaspie, but he has worked extremely hard to improve his agility and athleticism, which has translated into better range at third base to go along with his solid-average arm strength and good instincts. He spent the summer experimenting on the basepaths, learning to read pitchers and steal more bases, as well as to take the extra base whenever possible. The results show up in his numbers this spring: he has eight triples and 13 stolen bases in 15 attempts.
Gillaspie might think people aren't taking notice, but he figures to go in the top two rounds in June's draft. He's proven to the baseball world that a hard-nosed kid from the Midwest can more than hold his own with the showcase crowd of the Sun Belt.
"I can play with any of those other guys. You read about the draft, I'm just as good as any of those other guys at Florida or South Carolina," Gillaspie said. "Those guys play all year round, I don't even get outside for four months unless it's to hunt. I play in the Midwest, but I went up to the Cape and took it to all those guys. I'm just as good as any of those guys."