Mike Leake Made Quite The Leap

DENVER—-Mike Leake made headlines by jumping from Arizona State to Cincinnati’s rotation, bypassing the minor leagues completely.

Tim Conroy can relate. Just 81 days after his 18th birthday, a couple of weeks after his graduation from Gateway High in Monroeville, Pa., Conroy found himself standing on the mound at Royals Stadium, wearing an Athletics uniform, and facing the two-time defending American League West champion.

He was right where he thought he should be. “You always feel you are ready for the challenge,” Conroy said.

Now, he knows better. A first-round draft choice of the A’s in 1978, Conroy and Leake are among the 13 pitchers who went directly from high school or college to the big leagues since the advent of the draft in 1965. He was drafted 20th overall in ’78, 16 picks after the A’s took Mike Morgan, who also went directly from high school to the big leagues that year.

Now he is a special-assignment scout for the Braves, and his vision has changed.

“What you realize over time is this isn’t about the physical ability,” he said. “The challenge is much more a mental challenge than physical.”

What it all comes down to is that a young man who has been dominant as he has grown up is at a level where the talent is about equal.

“You come out of the draft and you are used to winning,” he said. “I think I lost two games from ninth grade until I was drafted.  You don’t know anything but success, and then . . .

“In high school I’d pitch once a week and always had my best stuff. Then you get in pro ball and you have to learn to pitch without you best stuff. Ray Miller once said if a pitcher gets 35 starts, he’ll have his best stuff seven times, and 11 times he will not have good stuff. The other 17 will determine what kind of year you have.

“To deal with those 17 games you have to have the scars of battle. When you go to the minor leagues is where you learn how to handle those scars. It’s tough to learn to deal with failure when you haven’t failed before.”

Meeting The Challenge

Conroy was hit with failure in a hurry in the big leagues. He survived 31â"3 innings in his debut and was charged with only one run despite walking five. Six days later he started against Texas in Oakland. That time he retired only four batters and gave up five runs.

He spent the next four seasons in the minor leagues and it was a challenge. He was a combined 18-37 from 1979-81, but went 15-4, 2.25 with Class A Modesto in 1982, and earned a return to the big leagues that September. He spent the bulk of the next five years in the big leagues, finishing with an 18-32, 4.69 mark in 135 big league games.

“I always thought it was easier for a hitter to make that jump if he is a patient hitter,” Conroy said. “As you move up in pro ball, the strike zone gets smaller and narrower. If you are a disciplined hitter you benefit from that.

“You look at a guy like Bob Horner or J.D. Drew and you are looking at pure hitters with short strokes, and the confidence they can hit anybody at any time. For a pitcher, when the strike zone gets smaller, the game gets more challenging.”

The lack of success of fast-rising pitchers would seem to underscore Conroy’s assessment. Burt Hooton, the first-round pick of the Cubs in the 1971 secondary draft, is the only one of the 13 who went directly to the big leagues to retire with a winning record (151-136), and his debut in the big leagues was more a promotional event than a gameplan. He was immediately farmed out after his debut.

Morgan spent all or parts of 23 seasons in the big leagues, and shares the major league record for playing with 12 teams. Morgan had a winning record in just five seasons.

“Mike had an amazing ability to shake things off,” Conroy said. “He’d get knocked around and it would bother him, but it didn’t get him down like it would the rest of us. He had that honest ability to shake things off and figure he would get them the next time.”

Conroy doesn’t focus on what his career would have been like had he taken a more conventional route to the big leagues. He focuses on his memories, which date back to that June afternoon in Kansas City.

“First hitter I faced was Freddie Patek, and I thought the first two pitches were pretty good pitches, but they were called balls,” he said. “And I remember the second-base umpire (Bill Haller) strolled in toward the mound and said, ‘Kid, those aren’t strikes here.’

“He took me to a 3-2 count and then hit a line drive back at me. I never saw it, but I heard it.”