Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Written by Don Allen
Garrett O’Connor turned his back on professional baseball, but he quickly found his niche — calling strikes at college games for more than two decades and pitching delectable poboys to this day.
Living the dream. It’s one of those overused phrases better suited as a line in a television commercial. Usually the person living the dream is a pro athlete or a rock star. Tiger Woods used to, but not anymore.
Twenty-five years ago, Garrett O’Connor wanted to be a professional baseball player and for a while, he was. It’s one thing to be fitted for a major league uniform, it’s another to survive, alone in a strange town, on $28 a day.
“It really stunned me,” says O’Connor, who today is general manager of Chris’ Poboys, a position he’s held since 1985. “When I showed up back in Lafayette, some of the comments were pretty brutal. People thought I was stupid and an idiot and I blew the dream by turning [baseball] down.
“I found out who my friends were, and they told me to never look back.”
In 1982, O’Connor was a talented, right-handed freshman pitcher at UL Lafayette, then USL. His fastball topped out at 90-91 mph, numbers that will always draw the attention of major league scouts. He pitched in only three games that first year, but by the time he was through, he’d appeared in 71 games — fifth most in school history — and led in innings pitched for three straight years. In 1984, the San Francisco Giants drafted O’Connor in the ninth round and offered him a $9,000 signing bonus. But the Cajuns had never competed in an NCAA Regional at the time and O’Connor thought it might happen.
“We had a good team, and I thought we had a good chance,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of that first regional, so I didn’t sign.” He didn’t sign with Minnesota in the 1984 winter draft either, even though the Twins chose him in the first round and offered a $17,000 signing bonus. By the time the ’85 college season was done, so was O’Connor. The Cajuns finished 35-23 and the NCAA bid would have to wait for another three years. Meanwhile, with no eligibility or bargaining power remaining, the New York Yankees drafted O’Connor that summer, offered him $2,000 and told him to take it or leave it.
“I was already having arm problems, and the opportunity for a career in baseball was probably already dwindling,” he recalls. “The injury was a rotator cuff, and my fastball was now down to 83-85 mph. I only really had two pitches, never really mastered a changeup, and when you get into the minor leagues you’re going to need maybe three or four pitches to get through three innings.”
O’Connor took the money. He was shipped to Oneanta, NY, and manager Buck Showalter, where the question of when does the dream die was answered quickly.
“By the time I got there, I knew what was probably going to happen. The Yankees filled their big league roster by buying players or trading for them; everybody else seemed to sit in the minors for years. So my option was whether to go through the rotator cuff surgery, which I needed, and back then it guaranteed you’d lose another four or five mph on your fastball. I missed the family life and the Cajun culture. I had graduated in five years with a marketing degree and talked to some guys from this area who played in the minors and didn’t make it and realized they were already behind the corporate ladder. They were struggling in life after baseball and trying to get a full-time job. I wasn’t spoiled growing up, but I was comfortable. You get used to a certain lifestyle, and $11 a day meal money is a wake-up call. The minors are culture shock.”
O’Connor talked with the Yankees’ head of player management, who said, sorry, the team wouldn’t give him any more money. O’Connor thanked them for the opportunity, bought an airline ticket, and got over leaving baseball the same day he packed his suitcase.
He was working for Chris’ Po Boys the next week.
“He pretty much just needed a job,” says Richard Rivet, the restaurant’s owner for 28 years. “After the Yankee thing, he started off as night manager on Pinhook, then took over Jefferson downtown. When we closed that location, he moved to Pinhook, and I’ll tell you, I can’t thank him enough. He’s become like a brother to me.”
O’Connor’s fastball might be gone, but the game casts a long shadow. He umpired college ball for almost 20 years and now coaches Little League and a weekend select team. “The game is my life,” he says. “It’s what makes me tick. I got into umpiring so I could give something back. Too many umps never played the game and just want to be a part of it. Besides, why travel four hours and spend money to do something you love like golf or fishing when you can get paid for it?”
Today O’Connor’s life revolves around his wife, Sheri, his children, and, of course, work.
“I don’t know when he sleeps,” says Rivet. “He’s so concerned about pleasing everybody all the time, and I can’t tell you how lucky I am to have him.”
O’Connor acknowledges that from time to time he imagines what might have been. Huge salaries and mediocre results at the professional level are so common these days, you have to wonder.
But he has no regrets. “I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. Friends, family, honor and trust are the important things to me. I’ve met people from all over the country, and there’s just nothing like home.
“It made my decision easy.”