Orioles pitching coach Mark Connor looks on during the team's… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
SARASOTA, FLA. — Mark Connor, a baseball lifer to his core, had managed to avoid the itch for two years.
As a special assistant in the player development department of the Texas Rangers, he was doing what he loved most: working with young pitchers, tutoring coaches and being around the game. A return to a big league dugout wasn't overly enticing -- until he found himself at Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Texas, late last October for Game 4 of the World Series.
"During the course of two years, that was the only time that I really thought about it and wished I was there," said Connor, who went to the game with his 25-year-old son, Ryan, who had never been to a World Series. "Sitting there and seeing that team in that dugout, that got your blood flowing a little bit."
When his old friend, Orioles manager Buck Showalter, came calling this offseason with an offer to reunite once again, Connor had to think long and hard about it. For a while, he avoided Showalter's calls. But the lure -- both of working again with Showalter and applying his influence to a young big league pitching staff -- proved too great.
Of all the new additions the Orioles made this offseason, the hiring of Connor to serve as the pitching coach could perhaps become one of the most important ones. The 61-year-old, who has worked with Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, has inherited the difficult task of trying to mold the Orioles' cadre of young pitchers, the backbone of the organization's rebuilding effort, into a championship-level staff.
Four games into the season, Orioles starters have allowed just two runs and 12 hits in 26 innings, the staff as a whole has set a team record and tied a major league mark by allowing one or zero runs in each of the first four games. Not one to get carried away with a small sample size, Connor has said all along that the development of the young starters remains a work in progress.
Showalter was pleased with the work of former Orioles pitching coach Rick Kranitz, whose staff last year was at the forefront of the team's late-season turnaround. However, his bond with Connor, who has been his pitching coach at all four of his major league managerial stops, is deep, and his trust in him is unshakeable.
"He's like the grandfather of time for pitching," said Showalter, who first met Connor when he was a player for the New York Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, and Connor was their pitching coach. "I loved Kranny. I would have brought him back. I just know where we are as an organization from a development standpoint. You look at that Texas staff, that's Mark. He just likes to impact young pitchers. He'll have a great relationship with these kids. He's just very calming, and he cares a lot."
About a month into spring training, Connor and bullpen coach Rick Adair summoned the Orioles' young starters into a conference room for a lengthy closed-door meeting in which back-and-forth dialogue was encouraged. He discussed the ups and downs of several of his high-profile former students, like Halladay, who was demoted from the majors to Single-A ball at one point under Connor's watch. He stressed accountability and urged the young starters to mature together and seize the opportunity at hand.
It's a message that the Brooklyn native, nicknamed "Goose" -- he got the moniker while throwing batting practice near Goose Creek when he was the pitching coach for the Yankees' Single-A affiliate in Greensboro, N.C. -- has delivered as an advocate for so many pitchers throughout baseball.
"I haven't met anybody that doesn't like Goose," said Rangers bullpen coach Andy Hawkins, who pitched for Connor with the Yankees and later replaced him as the Rangers' interim pitching coach. "As a coach, he's outstanding, and as a person, everybody holds him in high regard. Goose is a guy that needs to stay in the game as long as we can keep him."
A strong resume
The Orioles' new pitching coach's list of success stories includes Tommy John, who added about three years onto his career after Connor suggested a change in his delivery, and Halladay, who rebounded under Connor from a ghastly 2000 season in which he had a 10.64 ERA in 19 games. The Philadelphia Phillies ace has since won two Cy Young Awards, and he publicly thanked Connor, his former pitching coach in Toronto, after throwing a no-hitter in his playoff opener against the Cincinnati Reds last season.
It includes Randy Johnson, who won consecutive Cy Young Awards with Connor in Arizona; C.J. Wilson, the Rangers' top starter who still talks to Connor regularly; and lesser-known pitchers like Josh Rupe and Ryan Drese, who signed minor league deals with the Orioles this offseason to work again with Connor.