This was a big moment for Brooks Conrad. Possibly even bigger than when he was MVP for Pittsfield in 2001. Bigger than when he rocked for Round Rock in 2004 (and was hit by a career-high 12 pitches). And Salem – dude, he owned Salem.
Could it be even bigger than in 2008 when Brooks Conrad, minor-league lifer, the closest thing on the Braves’ roster to Crash Davis, played for the Sacramento River Cats and was named the team’s “Best Teammate”? (Did that come with a participation trophy and a gift certificate to Pizza Hut?)
The Braves left for Pittsburgh Thursday night. Somebody will be buying Brooks Conrad dinner. Maybe a car.
Before this season, the 30-year-old had played 36 games in the major leagues and 1,103 in the minors, give or take a Motel 6. On Thursday, he exorcised every miserable night’s sleep, every seven-hour bus ride from his mind and body. Pinch-hitting in the ninth inning, Conrad hit a walk-off, grand slam homer to punctuate a seven-run ninth-inning and the biggest ninth-inning comeback in franchise history. The Braves stunned Cincinnati and probably themselves, 10-9.
“I’m on cloud nine,” Conrad said.
“There’s something you don’t normally see,” manager Bobby Cox said.
“We’re sitting there thinking, ‘Did we just win this game — did we just score enough runs to win this game?” Chipper Jones said.
We live for these moments in sports. Half of the announced crowd of 21,621 had left by the time Conrad stepped to the plate. Years from now, probably 121,621 will claim they were there to the end.
The Braves trailed 8-0. Starting pitcher Tommy Hanson felt blessed that he became an afterthought following an eight-run second-inning. He had to be rescued by Jesse Chavez (a string of words so seldom typed).
By the ninth inning, when the Reds led 9-3, Cox had pulled Jones and catcher Brian McCann out of the lineup and was in surrender mode.
Then Troy Glaus singled. Eric Hinske, who had struck out three times, singled. Yunel Escobar hit a potential double-play ball to deep short that Orlando Cabrera bobbled (it was ruled a hit). A two-run single by Nate McLouth followed. Then came a walk. Then another botched potential double-play, this time an error when third baseman Miguel Cairo couldn’t get the ground ball hit by Martin Prado out of his glove.
That made it 9-6. Bases loaded. The stage was set for a dramatic finish, but only because Jason Heyward was up. He struck out.
Conrad, a switch-hitter, left the on-deck circle. But after the Reds pulled left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes out of the game and put in righthander Francisco Cordero, Conrad, now planning to hit left-handed, forgot to switch his batting helmet (with the ear flap on the other side).
“When I got to the plate the umpire said something but I didn’t really hear him,” Conrad said. “Then [Reds catcher] Ramon [Hernandez] said, ‘Hey, you may want to switch your helmet.’ So I had to move that past embarrassment real quick.”
He did. Just looking to hit something in the air, Conrad slapped a 2-2 pitch to deep left. Laynce Nix leaped at the wall. But the ball went off his glove, then off the top of the wall and over.
Conrad? He thought it was an out.
“From my angle, I thought he had brought it back,” he said. “I had my hands on my helmet. I thought, ‘No way.’ Then fans started going crazy and [teammates] kept running around the bases.”
He was pounded by teammates in a celebration at home plate. He was joyously assaulted again in the clubhouse. This time players doused him with hand sanitizer.
These are the stories we don’t see coming. Conrad was signed as a minor-league free agent in 2008. He hit a game-winning, pinch-hit three run homer last season in Washington. But he spent most of the season in Gwinnett. This spring, he was the last player to make the roster. He barely beat out Joe Thurston.
“Tough decision,” Cox said.
He doesn’t wear batting gloves. “He just raw-dogs it,” Jones said.
“You have to have guys like him on a team. Just down and dirty, clay everywhere, from head to toe.”
Jones realized something from the dugout. Conrad was pinch-hitting in his No. 3 spot (which later became the pitcher’s spot after a double-switch). “Great decision by Bobby, getting me and B-Mac out of there,” Jones said, smiling.
Afterward, Conrad was asked the obvious: Had he ever experienced a moment like this?
“Having my first-born kid,” he said.
On the field?
“Nothing compares,” he said.