Who is the best HR slugger from Georgia? FRANCOEUR or JASON HEYWARD? J.D. Drew? You vote!

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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.

Who was the most prolific Georgia HR slugger while still in school?

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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.

Wesleyan SS Kevin O'Leary signed with Furman (AJC)

Wesleyan SS Kevin O'Leary signed with Furman (AJC)

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.”

Jeff Francoeur was baseball/football legend at Parkview (AJC file from 2000 season)

Jeff Francoeur was baseball/football legend at Parkview (AJC file from 2000 season)

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.

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40 comments Add your comment

coachKR

May 28th, 2010
2:21 pm

Wasn’t there a kid from Calhoun who got a share of the record about 4 years ago? Brody Something?

Put an asterisk by that

May 28th, 2010
2:31 pm

In single A that is…

Read it...

May 28th, 2010
2:46 pm

coachKR, if you read the article, it says, “Brodie Pullen of Calhoun”

Razor Shines

May 28th, 2010
4:00 pm

Brandon Phillips and Corey Patterson hit some bombs in high school…I saw Brandon hit one against Corey’s Hoyas that went out at Ga tech very close to the lights…then the very next inning Corey came up and hit one over the green wall behind the right field fence against Brandon’s Raiders

tiger7_88

May 28th, 2010
7:36 pm

Michael, Michael, Michael… you must be very young. You left THE greatest Georgia high school slugger right off of your list.

FRANK THOMAS

Ergo, I had to vote “other”.

southernpride

May 28th, 2010
9:54 pm

Nobody hit em like JD Drew. He hit some that haven’t landed yet. Also, in high school, records aren’t always the same like say records in the big leagues. For example, not taking anything away from Brodie Pullen, but I can assure you O’Leary’s record is a little more legit b/c he played against some stiff competition this year. Pullen played about 20 something games vs one of the weakest regions in class AA against pitchers that couldn’t break a window. What has Pullen done since….NOTHING!!

dobearsbare

May 28th, 2010
10:01 pm

The poll doesn’t really say at what level. You really can’t have this discussion without having Frank Thomas. 521 big-league homers. And he wasn’t even my first thought. That was Johnny Mize (359).

Michael Carvell

May 28th, 2010
10:36 pm

@tiger7, Frank Thomas ADDED, along with one vote from you.

@dobearsbare, Mize ADDED, with one vote from you. What level? I just said “school,” really meaning high school. I left it as “school” because I didn’t know whether or not high schools had organized ball when Ty Cobb was crushing fastballs in 1901-02.

Thanks for posting comments. Interesting hearing these stories.

Wesleyan Alum

May 28th, 2010
10:36 pm

Cobb baseball KINGS, it says in the article that he played JOHN’S CREEK and SOUTH GWINNETT, Big schools. And wesleyan has always played with players of good quality. I recall they were in Buford and GACS’s region for years, who both send kids to the college level. And don’t forget that college baseball players, Grayson Garvin pitching for Vanderbilt, Michael Hutts who pitched for Georgia Tech, and many more (look it up yourself), have played for Wesleyan and are now not only playing but starting for legitimate college baseball programs. He has trained with the best and is playing with the “real teams”. Quit looking for an excuse for a loss a public school had to a private school, especially when it’s not like we recruited this kid who grew to become a great hitter. And for crying out loud, he just won a state championship, just congratulate him and be done with it.

Rusty

May 28th, 2010
11:45 pm

I should have been mentioned in this article. I almost hit several homeruns in highschool. I also gave up nearly 30 HR’s my junior year.

THEHILLISREAL

May 29th, 2010
1:37 am

What about Wally Joyner at Redan High in the early 80’s.

Meatlake

May 29th, 2010
3:20 am

Jackie Robinson?

CONFEDERATE DAWG

May 29th, 2010
8:02 am

JUST COOL TO THINK BOUT HOW MANY BALLERS GA HAS HAD. MUSTA BEEN GREAT SEEING JROB AND COBB PLAY BALL AS KIDS

manster

May 29th, 2010
9:20 am

Enter your comments hereJosh Johnson,don’t forget the old timers. He may have been one of best ever if had conme alond recently.

tampadawg86

May 29th, 2010
3:50 pm

in highschool? Frenchy is by far the best highschool athlete to every play in Georgia Sports. I’m lucky I got the chance to watch him. He was amazing. Now on the pro side of things is a little different but highschool alone hands down Frenchy was better than all of em.

Jonnie 5

May 29th, 2010
8:56 pm

Not even close Francine Francouer is a light weight. Heyward is da man!

Ga. Baseball

May 29th, 2010
9:28 pm

A kid by the name of Brandon Lowe played againt us in the State Championship in 03 and I believe he hit 21 or 22 that year. He hit a couple of bombs against us.

the real OLD GOLD

May 29th, 2010
10:15 pm

The Robbins brothers out of Calhoun (CHS) were both big hitters. Matt (UGA) and Whit (Tech) both still hold several records. Whit is in the Twins organizations currently. I think Brody Pullen plays for the Giants double A Greenville Grasshoppers.

bsbll fan

May 29th, 2010
10:17 pm

Corey Patterson had a heck of a year in 1998

CJDawg

May 29th, 2010
10:18 pm

Kinda interesting note here, but Herschel tried baseball and hit monstrous home runs with a terrbly short bat but couldn’t play because of track. Just think…at his size and playing against class A pitching how many he could have hit? For me, I think that the sum total of talent in Ga is terrific.

dawg149

May 30th, 2010
12:22 am

the A classification is insignificant. Hershel Walker also played in the A classification……cya

Smack

May 30th, 2010
12:32 am

Why wasn’t the last two state record holders on the list? Micah Owings out of Gainsville and Brad Wilson from the late 80’s from Towns County. Brad’s record stood till Micah broke it nearly 20 years later. Still the 2 best prep sluggers from Georgia, all-time

ldwj

May 30th, 2010
12:34 am

Unbelievable, UGA fans can’t even get through a high school baseball article blog without bringing up Herschel Freakin Walker….WHEN WILL IT END? WHEN WILL IT END?!!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!?!??!?!

The world doesnt revolve around Herschel Walker.

Neal

May 30th, 2010
12:57 am

Don’t know about the total amount he hit, but the first baseman from Coffee county 3 yrs back hit a BOMB during state playoffs at East Coweta. I’ve heard great stories of other kids but I got to see that shot. WOW…could have sold tickets on it. He then proceeded to go 1 for 9, so not much else. Awesome story glad to hear the kid doing well.

Slinger

May 30th, 2010
1:43 am

Herschel did not play baseball in high school. I played against JoCo for 3 years and he didn’t play, though he did play one summer when he was 15, but not as a Trojan in the spring.

The Dogfather

May 30th, 2010
7:56 am

After watching Kevin O’leary in the State finals,I came away very impressed by the young man – he has great potential.But the slugger was on the other team– The Kids name is BRENDAN DOUGLAS–and he is just a freshman-hit.585 and close to 20 hr,s this year.He had a couple of looong shots , Brendan Douglas put him on your radar Coach Perno

All-State Honorable Mention, Utility Football Player

May 30th, 2010
9:34 am

The world doesnt revolve around Herschel Walker.

It doesn’t ?? Awww crap.

All-State Honorable Mention, Utility Football Player

May 30th, 2010
9:39 am

I remember Brad Wilson from Towns County. He could launch them but people pointed out he benefited from the thin air of the mountains.

I am happy for Kevin O’Leary coming back from a potential life threating diease. I hope Coach Perno has him and Mr. Douglas on his radar.

David Granger

May 30th, 2010
2:04 pm

If we’re going just count “school” as the requirement, don’t forget Negro League legend Josh Gibson. He was a native Georgian, and lived here till he was 12…so I’m sure he probably bombed a few in elementary school.
Ron Blomberg was also a real boomer in high school, but in that category I have to vote for Frank Thomas.

Big Red

May 30th, 2010
2:26 pm

uuuuuh?! How bout the guy who holds the career homerun record. Micah Owings.

Big Red

May 30th, 2010
2:29 pm

Excuse me did hold the record. and was second all-time with intetional walks. You pitch to this guy and it was going yard 60% of the time.

Big Red

May 30th, 2010
2:30 pm

just a really crappy poll all around if you think about it. Frank Thomas?

Michael Moore

May 30th, 2010
2:55 pm

I have to say it’s a complete toss up. I played with Brandon Phillips, so i have to say B. Even though Corey Patterson, Frenchy, Micah Owings, and the list goes on and on when it comes to high school baseball in the state of Georgia. Atlanta period is a hot bed for baseball.

southernpride

May 30th, 2010
4:06 pm

KALEB COWART …Cook High School. Asked Blessed Trinity how far this kid can hit them. Cowart hit a homerun off of Brent Marks that landed in the trees in Adel. He’ll be a first rounder this year easily. However, JD Drew is still the best homerun hitter in ga high school and for those of you know are stuck on Francoeur, well, Drew was better.

MDG

May 30th, 2010
6:20 pm

I played against Rondell White in high school in a tourney and he hit two bombs in that game against us. He had a pretty good pro career too. But, my vote is for Frank Thomas.

Delbert D.

May 30th, 2010
6:45 pm

Don’t count aluminum bat HR production in this poll. I’ve got to pick The Big Hurt.

Richard Alpert

May 30th, 2010
10:17 pm

We were sitting on the hill in left field @ Sprayberry in 95 during the Sprayberry-Lassiter state championship series, and Marlon Byrd hit one over us pretty close to Sandy Plains Road. Also from that year, Scott Prather (Lassiter) hit a few big bombs himself to lead the Trojans.

DNice

May 31st, 2010
1:04 pm

The best HR hitter would be between Russell Branyan and Frank Thomas but to the person who said Frenchy was the best athlete ever in the state HAHAHAHAH. Hmmm I guess you dont remember Edwin Moses, Roger Kingdom, Jackie Robinson (4 sport letterman at UCLA), Patrick Pass, Ty Cobb, Teresa Edwards, etc.,… Need I say more.

ScoreKeeper

June 4th, 2010
10:32 am

DNice: The poster said Frenchy was the best high school athlete in Georgia. Among those you mentioned, Edwin Moses, Jackie Robinson and Ty Cobb weren’t Georgia high school athletes.

1-AAAAA (SEC REGION)

December 2nd, 2011
9:43 pm