(This new series focuses on one season of a player’s career. Let us know if you like it or have any suggestions about another player and year to explore.)
It was the kind of moment you think up in your backyard as a kid.
Granted, in your fantasy, it’s Game 7 of the World Series and there are two outs, but this situation was just about as close to reality as that fantasy gets. Francisco Cordero was on the mound and the bases were loaded. The Braves were down by three and there was one out. Atlanta had already made a nice comeback with a two-run single from Nate McLouth and an error that led to another run, but their rally had brought in Cordero, the Reds’ closer. He would save 40 games that season, the third time he reached that milestone.
Stepping into the batter’s box was Brooks Conrad. He was hitting .222 over the first 25 games of the season largely used in this exact role – a pinch hitter. Waggling his bat back-and-forth with no batting gloves, Conrad looked like the Braves had used a time machine to grab a gritty utility player from the 20’s for this moment. The Thursday day game had an announced attendance of 21,621. Those that stayed for the ninth inning despite a 9-3 score when the frame began were making some noise.
Conrad took a first-pitch fastball low-and-outside. He immediately bent over to get some more dirt on his hands. Cordero doubled up with a fastball and Conrad fouled it off. Another fastball, another foul. It was 1-2 and Cordero had the utility player on his heels. Joe Simpson commented on the Braves’ telecast that Conrad would now have to cut down on his swing to avoid a costly strikeout.
The next pitch was a near disaster. A slider came in hard-and-in to Conrad, nearly hitting him. The catcher, Ramon Hernandez, made a tremendous stop to keep the ball from leading to a run. Conrad hacked at the next pitch, a cutter that missed the outside corner, and fouled it off. The count was 2-2 and the fans were cheering wildly for Conrad with most standing. Cordero fired another fastball toward the outside corner. Conrad swung. This time, it wasn’t foul.
The 97 mph heater soared the other way. The Reds’ left-fielder, Laynce Nix, backed up as far as he could and jumped, trying to keep the ball in the field of play. It touched the top of his glove and fell behind the wall. At first, Conrad believed Nyx had caught it and put his hands on his helmet in frustration, turning away from the ball. That’s when he saw his teammates rushing out the dugout in celebration. Turning, Conrad skipped and raised one finger in victory as the crowd roared. Sprinting around the bases, Conrad leaped and landed at home plate where he was mobbed by his teammates.
Conrad was a cult hero. Five months later, Braves fans were on pins-and-needles every time the ball came near him, fearful of what was to come. They booed him relentlessly as his mistakes added up. Conrad’s best season of his professional career ended in massive disappointment.
A few months before May 20, the day of his greatest day in the majors, Conrad was trying to just make the roster. He had appeared in 30 games the previous year, split between two 15-game runs in July and September. The first 15 were great – Conrad hit .344. The next 15 were horrendous. Over 24 PA, almost all as a pinch hitter, Conrad reached base just twice via a walk and an HBP. He was far from a sure thing to make the roster, but he was with the team when the season began on April 5 against the Cubs – a.k.a. Jason Heyward‘s debut. He was hitting a scant .133 before he filled in for Chipper Jones for a couple of games in Milwaukee in May. Conrad picked up four hits, including two homers, to help lead the Braves to a sweep. The Grand Slam occurred eight days later.
Conrad’s next big moment came in the first game of a doubleheader on June 12 against the Twins. Getting the start at third as Jones moved to DH, Conrad contributed two hits, including a go-ahead suicide squeeze in the ninth. He would smack another pinch-hit homer on June 25. Conrad’s first-half slash was a steady .250/.316/.514.
He would add his second pinch-hit Grand Slam on July 24. With the score tied at five, Conrad smacked a 3-1 grooved delivery from Burke Badenhop to give Atlanta its first lead since the third inning. It wasn’t quite as dramatic as his homer off Cordero, but still important.
Conrad remained in a backup role for Atlanta until things changed considerably on August 10. Chipper Jones fielded a grounder near the bag. He jumped and fired to first to throw out the runner, but his knee buckled as he landed. He had torn his ACL and his season was over. Conrad would start the next five games and hit a solo homer to lead the Braves to a 1-0 win in a brilliantly-pitched Hiroki Kuroda/Tim Hudson matchup. He also committed three errors during those five games. The next night, the Braves moved Omar Infante into the starting lineup at second, which pushed Martin Prado to third. The Braves loved Conrad’s contributions, but his glove was scaring them.
Back in his more usual supporting role, Conrad had another moment to remember. He walked to begin a three-run rally that led Atlanta to a 7-6 walk-off win over the Marlins. On September 28, he got a late rally going with an RBI Triple to tie up a 1-0 game. He would later score on a home run, providing the Braves the edge they needed in a 3-2 win. The next night, he smacked a three-run homer, leading Atlanta to a 5-1 victory. On the final day of the season, his two-RBI day helped the Braves win 8-7.
That was the fifth consecutive game that Conrad had started, by the way. Prado had suffered a hip pointer and torn oblique, forcing Conrad back into action. At the time, there was not a more important player on the team than Prado, leaving some big shoes for Conrad to fill. Atlanta was trying to hold onto a half-game lead in the Wild Card. Conrad re-entered the lineup and committed errors in three consecutive games. They ultimately didn’t decide a game, but Atlanta was done with Conrad at third base. On the season’s final day, they moved him to second with Infante moving to third. Conrad committed another error, but helped the Braves hold onto their Wild Card spot.
Atlanta was limping, but had returned to the playoffs in Bobby Cox‘s last year. No Chipper, no Prado, but anything can happen in a short series. Unfortunately for Conrad, what did happen was killer. In the first game, Conrad bobbled a ball in the third inning of the NLDS against the Giants, leading to a longer inning for Derek Lowe. He would surrender an RBI single the following inning, leading to the game’s only run. A day later, Conrad avoided a defensive blunder and his sacrifice bunt helped the Braves tie up the game in the 8th. They would later win on a Rick Ankiel homer to even the series.
The next game was at home. This is where the story gets…miserable. It started early. After Andres Torres singled, Conrad fielded a grounder and tried to shovel the ball to second, but couldn’t get the ball out of his glove at first. The problem was compounded when he flatout dropped the ball. He tried to salvage the play, but Freddy Sanchez beat the throw to first. Hudson would pitch around it, but the inning took 29 pitches. In the next inning, Mike Fontenot tripled to bring up Cody Ross.
Ross swung and popped it up. Jason Heyward, struggling with an assortment of injuries, was slow to get to the ball as it carried to short right field near the foul line. Conrad kept drifting and as the ball fell toward him, he reached up with his glove and other hand. He did everything right, but the ball hit the palm of the glove and fell right out. The runner may have scored regardless, but the error led to it being unearned. It should have been Heyward’s ball, but the rookie outfielder never called off Conrad and the Braves were in trouble.
In the ninth, things went from “pretty crappy” to “kill me now.” Another injury, this time to Billy Wagner, forced the Braves to rely on the rookie Craig Kimbrel. He retired a pair, but also gave up a walk and a single. Mike Dunn replaced Kimbrel, but allowed a single that blew a 2-1 lead. Needing one out, Bobby Cox went with Peter Moylan to face Buster Posey. Moylan fell behind 2-1, but fooled Posey with an offspeed pitch and Posey hit a grounder off the end of the bat. It bounced right toward Conrad, who shuffled a few steps to his right. He was there. He was ready. But the ball still found daylight, shooting right between his legs and into the outfield. The Giants pulled ahead 3-2 and would win by that score.
Conrad wouldn’t start the next night as the Braves tried to stave off elimination. Cox felt the Braves were better off with the broken body of Troy Glaus playing at third than Conrad. Glaus had pulled off an amazing double play in the Braves’ only win of the NLDS in Game 2 after being forced into action. Conrad would play in Game 4, leading off the ninth with a flyout as the Braves lost 3-2 to end the series.
2010 represented the best of Conrad’s career. He hit .250/.324/.487 over the season with eight of his career 19 homeruns. However, you have to wonder if Conrad looks at 2010 that fondly after the way it ended. While it seemed like that season was the end of his career, Conrad returned to the team in 2011. He wasn’t nearly as memorable and would be let go after the season. He’s played a little for the Brewers, Rays, and Padres – along with Hanshin Tigers and Sugar Land Skeeters – since. He did not play last year and his career probably is over.
A player’s career prospects can change as radically as the seasons. As summer began in 2010, Conrad was enjoying his greatest professional success. When fall began, though, his career took a hard right turn. Baseball can be cruel.