Outfielder misses football's intensity, but stars in baseball

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon State left fielder Michael Conforto was a standout quarterback and safety on his Redmond (Wash.) High football team, but he gave that up to focus on baseball and go easier on his body.OMAHA — Michael Conforto has kicked some pretty good tail in the batter’s box for Oregon State the past two seasons. For a while, it appeared he might be doing his damage in another sport.

Conforto was a two-sport star at Redmond (Wash.) High, a shortstop on the baseball team, a quarterback/safety on the football team.

“Right up to his senior year, I thought he would play college football rather than baseball,” says Michael’s father, Mike Conforto, an inside linebacker at Penn State from 1976-78.

Michael started playing football when he was 7. He was a three-year starter in both sports in high school.

“I was more of a football player for a long time, but in the end, I chose the easier route on my body,” OSU’s sophomore left fielder says. “I miss it a ton.”

Both of his parents are glad Michael chose the smaller, round ball.

“He would have loved to play both football and baseball for Oregon State,” Tracie Conforto says. “As a mom, I’m glad he chose baseball. I was always so terrified he would get hurt. Like his dad, he plays with such a fierce, all-out abandon. That’s how his brain works.”

Mike Conforto, 56, coached his son in youth football through high school, when he served as a volunteer assistant, coaching the linebackers.

“He decided to go baseball, which I was happy about,” says the senior Conforto, who has undergone four knee reconstructions. “Football takes such a toll on your body. Michael was good enough in baseball, I felt like he could have a nice career either way. I told him, ‘While I sat on a bucket of ice after football practice (at Penn State), my friends on the baseball team went golfing. You have a choice; you might think about baseball.’ ”

Good thing for Oregon State Michael took his father’s advice.

A freshman All-American and the Pac-12 freshman of the year last season, Conforto took up where he left off, earning Pac-12 player of the year and Perfect Game first-team All-America honors while leading the Beavers to their first College World Series appearance since 2007.

In OSU’s first two CWS games, the 6-1, 215-pound Conforto went 6 for 8, gunned down a runner at home trying to score and caught the eye of all those in attendance at TD Ameritrade Park, including a plethora of major-league scouts.

“The bigger the stage, the big-time guys show up,” OSU assistant coach Pat Bailey says. “He is one of those guys.”

Like major leaguers Jacoby Ellsbury and Darwin Barney before him, Conforto carries an aura onto the field, and his teammates feed off of it.

“There are very few players who have the ‘it’ factor,” coach Pat Casey says. “Michael has it.”

• • •

CONFORTOConforto comes by athletic genes. His father played with such stalwarts as Matt Millen and Chuck Fusina for the Nittany Lions, who beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and went 11-0 his senior year.

Then there is Tracie Conforto, who as 21-year-old Tracie Ruiz won gold medals in solo and duet in synchronized swimming in the 1984 Olympic Games at Los Angeles. Four years later, she earned silver in solo competition at the Seoul Games.

“I’ve been told my whole life that I got set up for athletics,” Michael says with a smile.

The parents, now divorced and living in Woodinville, Wash., have been major influences in their son’s athletic career.

“Both his dad and I are very competitive,” says Tracie Conforto, 50. “His dad was an absolute monster on the football field. You can see that coming out in Michael. His dad had incredible drive. I give his dad a lot of credit for that. Plus, his dad has a confidence about him. I see that in Michael, too. He’s calm, but he hopefully terrorizes (opponents) with his will to be the best he can be.”

Tracie Conforto has made it to Corvallis often for baseball weekends the past two years. When she can’t make it, she delivers inspiration via cell phone.

“She’ll text me after every game and tell me all the things I did good, and all the things I should keep my head up about,” Michael says. “She knows about competing. That’s what she can really help me out with. She’s very uplifting. I’ve never heard a negative thing come out of her mouth.”

Tracie says she tried to work the psychological part of sports with both Michael, 20, and his sister Jacqueline, 22, who recently graduated after a soccer career at Azusa Pacific.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: KERRY EGGERS - Tracie Conforto texts her son, Oregon State star Michael Conforto, after every game with positive comments.“I’ve tried to keep the pressure off,” Tracie says. “When he was 9 and 10, I kept telling Michael, ‘Honey, this is just practice for the next level.’ It’s so simple, but sometimes if you can take the pressure off, it helps you focus more not on the result, but what you’re trying to do to get better. I’ve always tried to keep it positive, no matter what.”

• • •

Conforto had offers from Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington, Washington State and Stanford. It came down to the Beavers, Huskies and Cardinal.

“When I visited U-Dub, I didn’t get that feeling of being home, even though it was 20 minutes away from where I lived,” he says. “The coaching staff didn’t stand out, the campus wasn’t as cool, and I didn’t like the big-city feel. Stanford would have been really nice. But I didn’t have the grades, and I didn’t get that much interest from them, and the coaching staff didn’t give me a good feel.

“When I went to Corvallis, I felt at home. Coach Casey and the other coaches paid a lot of attention to me. I met and liked a bunch of the players. (Pitcher) Matt Boyd was a huge factor. He let me stay at his place, and it looked like a lot of fun. And face it, it’s an incredible program, with Pat Casey being the coach he is. It was by far the best option for me.”

Conforto bats third in the order, with high school teammate Dylan Davis fourth for the Beavers.

“We’re like brothers,” says Davis, a sophomore right fielder. “Still that close. We’ve been best friends since we were 10 or 11.”

What a recruiting coup for Casey. But it wasn’t a package deal.

“We didn’t have any plans,” Davis says. “It wasn’t like, ‘If I go here, you go here, too.’ It was like, ‘If we end up going to the same place, cool. But if not, I’ll see you over breaks.’

“I committed before Mike. I was just excited to get going. I felt I wanted to go here since 2007, when Mike and I were on a travel team in Omaha and saw Oregon State win the title. I thought it would be a dream come true going there. It ended up working for both of us.”

Conforto had an epic freshman season, batting a team-best .349, setting a school record with a Pac-12-best 76 RBIs and sharing the conference home-run lead with 13.

“That was quite a bit more than I would have expected,” his father says. “Part of it may have been it was his first time not playing football right before baseball season. He’d come into baseball season every year beat up. It took him a month or so to get recuperated. It probably helped that he was able to focus on baseball for the first time.”

The numbers haven’t been quite as startling this season — a .335 average, 11 homers, 47 RBIs going into Wednesday night’s CWS game against Indiana. But Conforto leads the Pac-12 in both walks (41) and on-base percentage (.456) and has been one of the premier defensive outfielders in the conference.

“Michael is a much more complete player than most people realize,” Casey says. “Defensively, he gets good jumps on balls, he’s fast when he wants to be, he has a great arm. And for the most part, he’s done a good job of being patient at the plate and doing what he can to help our team win, rather than worrying about his numbers.”

Conforto started hot this season and ripped two homers in Oregon State’s first Pac-12 series against Arizona. Then he went cold, going six weeks and 21 games without a home run and batting .229 over that stretch.

“He was coming off the baseball,” says Bailey, who has spent much time in the batting cage with Conforto over the past two years. “He wasn’t staying on line, was trying to pull everything. He was hitting a lot of topspin ground balls to second and first base. When he started staying inside and using the whole field ... when Michael hits best is when he’s using from right-center to left-center.

“I think he was feeling the pressure to hit home runs. I firmly believe hitters don’t hit home runs; pitchers throw them. They make mistakes, and you take advantage of it. My big deal with Michael was to quit worrying about hitting home runs. Hank Aaron said all of his home runs were accidents. He was just trying to put backspin on the ball and they happened to leave the yard.”

“It could have been me pressing a little bit,” Conforto says of his midseason slump. “We started playing the Pac-12 series. The pitchers get a little better, and some of those guys had a better scouting report on me. I guess I felt like I needed to put up numbers. It was the wrong mind-set to have. I got away from trying to win games and helping the team out.”

Conforto came out of it in the Oregon series in mid-May, hitting a home run in a 9-0 victory, then ripping three hits, including a grand-slam homer, in a six-RBI day as the Beavers trounced the Ducks 12-2.

“Since the Oregon series,” Bailey says, “he’s been there.”

Being there, Conforto says, means allowing the body to do its job.

“When you’re going good, there’s not much thinking involved,” he says.

• • •

The parents are grateful for the special relationship between their son and Casey, who considers Michael as one of the best talents he has had in his 19 years at Oregon State.

“Pat seems a pretty intense, tough, almost football-like coach,” Mike Conforto says. “That probably fits well for Michael. We’ve always stressed work ethic from the beginning. At some level, others are going to have your athleticism, but you can always be the one who works harder.”

“Michael loves Pat Casey,” Tracie Conforto says. “When I was competing, what helped me was finding the best coaches to pull out what God gave me in talent. That’s what he has found at Oregon State. He went there because he wanted to be coached by and surrounded by the absolute best.”

Conforto’s relationship with Casey, he says, “has grown since I got to Corvallis. Last year, he helped me mature as a player and a person. He has taught me so much about hitting. He has simplified my approach at the plate, taught me to trust my instincts, how to hit pitches where they’re located, and what to be looking for in certain counts and situations. He has been a mentor for me. I look up to coach Casey and really enjoy being one of his players.”

Conforto’s coaches are pleased he has maintained humility through his personal achievements.

“He’s a great player, mentally tougher than nails,” Bailey says. “But he’s also a nice young man, very humble. A hard worker who keeps his mouth shut and does what he is supposed to do. He has been a pleasure to coach.”

Conforto goes to great lengths to deflect praise and aim it at those around him.

“He’s sensitive to making sure he handles interviews appropriately,” his father says. “He doesn’t feel he is any more important than his teammates. He knows how to make everybody around him feel good.”

After the season, Conforto will join the U.S. national team for the second straight summer. He played in Cuba last season and will visit Japan this summer, while the Cuban squad will make a visit to play the national team in the States.

Then there will be a junior season at Oregon State and the likelihood he will be a first-round pick in the 2014 major-league draft. Casey thinks he’ll make it at the top level.

“I absolutely think he will,” the OSU skipper says. “He’s going to be a big-league player. I’m not always right about that, but I have a good feeling this guy has what it takes. Not only the tools, but the makeup. The guys who have both of them offer a pretty lethal combination.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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