Each of the 16 times Brett Conine has marched out to the mound for the Sugar Land Skeeters this season, he’s stood no less than 782 miles away from his California hometown, Orange.
The solitude and spotlight of the pitcher’s mound could be intimidating for anyone, especially someone so far from home, but Conine says, with the help of loved ones, teammates and fans alike, Sugar Land has felt a little more like home this season.
“Having my parents and my girlfriend come out in support is really important to me,” he said Saturday, ahead of a Sunday start against the Oklahoma City Dodgers. It would be the Astros prospect’s 17th start of the season.
“It’s nice to have familiar faces in the stands when you’re away from home,” he said. “This is my first experience in Triple-A, and Sugar Land is my first Triple-A home. It’s really special to be a part of this team, and for the team to be a part of this community is really special.”
Conine turned onto baseball fairly quickly, after trying his hand at a few other sports.
Baseball’s competitive nature gelled with Conine’s own personal drive, he said.
“Even in little league, you’re just finding friends and finding your talents here and there,” he said. “It might not be the first thing that you start pursuing – but it finds you, and then you fall more in love with it every day from there on out. Not that there aren’t other sports out there where you don’t compete. But the way it made me feel and the friends that I had growing up, baseball was the way that we all got together.”
Conine’s love for the game deepened with each passing pitch, he said. And his natural talent didn’t hurt either. During his time at El Modena High School in Orange – which has also notably produced MLB superstar Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves – he was an all-state selection.
His journey then took him to Cal State Fullerton, where he was a reliever for three seasons before the Astros drafted him in the 11th round of the 2018 draft.
“It’s just about going out there and working on your goals and trying to get better every single day,” he said. “One goal leads to another, until you realize you could potentially go pro at this. For me it was just one goal at a time. I still enjoy it to this day – I just keep making those little goals and chasing them until I get to the big leagues.”
The road to Major League Baseball is one that takes both mental and physical fortitude for those undertaking it. Less than one percent of all youth baseball players wind up making it to the MLB level, while a 2019 report from Baseball America said just 17.6 percent of players drafted from 1981-2010 wound up making it.
But the 24-year-old Conine isn’t about to let that statistic define his dream.
“One of the first things I’ve noticed is that (the Astros are) a very player-development organization, which I thoroughly enjoy,” Conine said. “It means they have my best interests at their heart. That’s where we can work on those small goals together. Personally, that’s what I feel is going to help me get to the next level. …You try to not think too far in advance and focus on what’s at hand – and right now that’s Sugar Land. I’m just worrying about my next outing.”
With his fastball sitting 92-95 MPH, the 6-foot-3 right-hander has made a quick rise through the Astros’ system since being drafted. His minor league journey has taken him through North Carolina, New York, Iowa, Corpus Christi and, most recently, Sugar Land.
Through it all, the big hurler said support from those such as his parents Trisha and John, along with sisters Jenna and Sydney, have been one of the biggest factors in keeping his drive alive. All of them, he said, have come out to watch him pitch during his three seasons in the system – which he said he appreciates more they know.
“I do play for myself – because it’s something that I enjoy,” he said. “But having family and friends who support you, reach out to you and are there for you showed me that it is for more than just myself. You play for those back home when you’re away. You try to remember that they’re the ones holding you up.”