by Gene Marrano
On the cusp of a fifth minor league season after graduating from Hidden Valley High School, left-handed pitcher Mikey O’Brien is slowly but surely working his way up through the New York Yankees farm system. O’Brien, pegged as a starter by the Yankees at this point, spent the 2011 season in Class A ball, splitting his time between Charleston (SC) and Tampa. O’Brien has already played with a major leaguer- Yankees third baseman Eric Chavez, a multiple Gold Glove winner, had a rehabilitation start for the Tampa Yankees while O’Brien was on the mound.
“He was a down to earth guy,” recalls O’Brien, who has met many of the New York Yankees in spring training. “They’ve all been in our shoes, they know what its like to grind it out in minor league baseball.”
O’Brien is back in town during the off-season for a while, and, as he has done for the past three years, he and some baseball buddies helped ex-Cave Spring High School baseball head coach Randy Boone put on a youth baseball clinic last weekend at Hidden Valley.
The event raised money for the Juveniles Diabetes Foundation, a charity close to O’Brien’s heart: he was diagnosed with the disease as a high school senior and now wears an insulin pump after formerly having to undergo daily injections. O’Brien takes the snacks he needs on the road with him to help manage his diabetes and said the Yankees organization “has the best trainers in the world that are looking after me every day,” to make sure he stays on track. He hasn’t let diabetes sideline him: “you can’t use it as an excuse.” The annual clinic has raised about $3000 to date for the JDF.
Brothers Dale and Brett Mollenauer (Dale plays in the minor leagues with the Orioles, and Brett plays for Radford, Jared King (now playing baseball at UVA) and Cam Hodge (another Hidden Valley alum now playing at Radford) helped O’Brien tutor a small group of young baseball players at Hidden Valley. King also told the group about playing twice in the College World Series with the University of Virginia, saying it was “like Christmas morning,” for a week and a half.
“They know the importance of fundamentals,” said Boone, who has also scouted for major league teams. “This is an opportunity for them to come back and help the younger kids. They remember [how important] it was to them at this age.” Getting O’Brien to come in and lead the clinic hasn’t been difficult – in fact the young pitcher pushed Boone to set it up: “he wanted to do it.”
O’Brien used to hang out as a youngster at the Cave Spring baseball field, watching his older brother Eric – who used to play for Boone at Cave Spring. “He looked up to [older players].” Boone prefers that young athletes try their hand at a variety of sports. “Don’t specify [too early]. You’re not sure what your body’s going to do,” he warns. But spending some time on the fundamentals of baseball in the fall can’t hurt.
As for O’Brien’s march towards Yankee Stadium, he is “right on schedule. That’s what I’ve been told. The main thing is staying healthy.” O’Brien shut it down a bit early last season with tendon inflammation in his forearm but has escaped major injury problems to date. “Keep moving up,” vows O’Brien, who hopes to win a slot in Double-A Trenton next spring. Pitchers have been called up from Double-A to the majors before, but O’Brien is just trying to focus on his next start. “I’m sure if I got a start in Yankee Stadium in the next few years it would be a little different,” he concedes.
Still seen as a starter by the big club, O’Brien is okay if the Yankees decide they want him to be a relief pitcher: “as long as I get to go out on that mound. [My] goal is to be a major league pitcher. That’s all that matters.” O’Brien wants to sharpen his control next season, keep pitch counts down and throw more strikes.
Meanwhile he was happy to return to Hidden Valley, leading a youth clinic for players who later asked for his autograph. “We’ve all been sitting in those bleachers with other guys talking to us. We [remember] what it’s like. It’s definitely cool to come back.”