Wesleyan’s Kevin O’Leary, who is threatening to break the state’s record for home runs, crushes the baseball so hard that classmates sometimes have to duck while walking into the school gymnasium beyond the outfield fence.
O’Leary has 22 homers — three shy of the single-season record held by two former Georgia greats — heading into Friday’s Class A state championship at Aquinas. The best-of-three series will begin at 2 p.m.
Wesleyan’s slugger stands big and strong at 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, adding 15 pounds of muscle before his senior season. He looks nothing like the frail and sick kid who was confined to a wheelchair, slept 22-23 hours per day and was briefly thought to be on his deathbed by doctors only five years ago.
O’Leary’s mother still gets a little emotional when talking about the transformation. “We think about those days a lot,” Patti O’Leary said. “To us, it was a miracle. We thank God for it all the time.”
Ironically, it was a health scare that led to O’Leary’s baseball career.
In the summer after seventh grade, O’Leary began complaining about a sharp pain in his right knee. Within a few days, he was limping. Within a few weeks, he had already been rushed to the emergency room twice.
The news was grim. “His fever had been at 104 degrees for two weeks straight, he was sleeping almost the entire day, and he couldn’t walk,” his mother recalled.
“When the doctors read the MRI [on his knee], they thought it was cancer so much that they sent the oncology team over to talk with us right away. They thought it was bone cancer.”
O’Leary says he wasn’t quite sure what was going on, but he knew it wasn’t good by the look on the faces of his teary-eyed parents. Word spread quickly among the close-knit Wesleyan community, and everyone began to fear the worst. Wesleyan teachers joined together for prayers at the start of a summer faculty meeting.
A few days after the cancer diagnosis, O’Leary’s doctors were surprised after reviewing biopsy results: He didn’t have cancer, but an aggressive staph infection called osteomyelitis. It started around the kneecap area and was rapidly eating away at his femur.
“When the doctors told us it wasn’t cancer, everybody was cheering, even the hospital staff,” Patti said. “Then they had to tell us it was another very serious illness. They said it was going to be a long recovery, and they were right.”
O’Leary underwent surgery to remove all the bone marrow from his femur, and returned to school in time for the beginning of eighth grade. For the first couple of months, he attended classes in a wheelchair with an IV of antibiotics strapped to his arm. Doctors advised against playing contact sports for a year, which led to O’Leary’s dedication to baseball. He was cleared to play for the middle school’s baseball team in February.
O’Leary said the experience impacted his faith, explaining that the “the support from my friends and classmates was unbelievable. It made the recovery process so much faster … I learned that every day is a blessing, and you can’t take anything for granted.”
These days, O’Leary looks nothing like the kid who once was in a wheelchair. His leg is 100 percent, with the bone marrow growing back naturally. When O’Leary walks to the plate, everything in the ballpark seems to pause.
“Everybody stops what they are doing because they want to see what Kevin will do,” Wesleyan coach Michael Shaheen said.
“The ball just flies off his bat. When he hits a grounder, the infielder better be ready because it’s coming hard. He just crushes it. Even his pop fly outs are towering.”
But it’s the home runs that have earned the notoriety. O’Leary has shattered the Wesleyan record (15) and the Gwinnett County mark (20), formerly held by Parkview graduate Jeff Francoeur. The state record of 25 is co-owned by Cincinnati Reds pitcher Micah Owings of Gainesville and former Reds minor-leaguer Brodie Pullen of Calhoun.
“I definitely expected to hit some, considering I had 12 last year as a junior,” O’Leary said. “But hitting 22 wasn’t in the plans. It’s all great, but a little bit unexpected.”
Why the sudden power surge? “I really hit the weights hard in the offseason,” he said. “I’ve hit [baseballs] every night since November. I was ready for the season when it came around.”
Wesleyan has one of the smallest fields in the metro area. Center field is 340 feet from home plate, and it’s 310 down both lines. However, Shaheen said the right-handed hitter’s home runs are legit.
“I can honestly say out of his 22 home runs, about half were away on the road. The ones that were at home, they weren’t even close. They would’ve made it out of any high school ballpark. Kevin drops bombs.”
Wesleyan’s players still talk about O’Leary’s blast at Johns Creek, which sailed over the top of 30-foot pole attached to the outfield fence near the 400-foot sign in center. Then there were two home runs in a game at spacious South Gwinnett.
“I moved to Atlanta when Francoeur was doing his thing at Parkview, and people were making jokes because Parkview’s park is so tiny,” Shaheen said. “But I also saw highlights of Francoeur’s home runs on TV, and they weren’t even close. It’s the same deal with Kevin.
“We have several guys on our team that I joke with and tell them they wouldn’t have that many home runs if it wasn’t for our ballpark. But Kevin is not one of them, I promise that.”
UPDATE: O’Leary hit one homer vs. Aquinas to finish the year with 23.