05/12/2004 9:00 AM ET
New position, new outlook
Mahoney's move to mound a huge success
By Chris Gigley / Special to MLB.com
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson reliever Colin Mahoney has the imposing mound presence and blazing fastball of a future big-league closer. But he believes he should've been a catcher.
|Colin Mahoney was goofing off when he realized that he could throw fastballs in the 90 mph range. (courtesy Clemson University)
At least that's what he thought before this season. Catching had been all Mahoney had known until now. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander was a high school standout as a catcher at Mount St. Michael's Academy in Patterson, N.Y. His grandfather caught for the New York Giants in the 1940s. His father was a catcher at St. Bonaventure. Even his younger brother, Ryan, is a freshman backstop at the University of South Carolina.
"It's almost instilled in us as a family to grow up to be catchers," Mahoney said.
But during a late-season practice last year, Mahoney and a teammate changed the family destiny. They picked up a radar gun and started goofing off with it. Mahoney, it turned out, could throw in the mid-90s with regularity.
"[Associate head coach Kevin] O'Sullivan saw us and we had to explain ourselves," Mahoney recalled. "He didn't believe me when I told him how fast I threw, so he had my teammate strap on the catching gear and put the gun on me himself. My first pitch was 94. The next one was 94. The one after that was 95."
And that was just messing around. When Mahoney got a taste of pitching live games in the Cape Cod League last summer, his adrenaline-fueled fastball nearly hit 100. With scouts looking on, Mahoney instantly went from being a lightly regarded college catcher to a tantalizing early-round pick as a power reliever.
The Clemson coaches had a similar change of heart. When Mahoney returned to Clemson last fall, they had penciled in junior Lou Santangelo at catcher and put Mahoney in the bullpen. The transition was tough to swallow.
"It was strange for me," Mahoney said. "My thought was I'd been working as hard as I could for my entire life to eventually become a big-league catcher."
As tough as it was for Mahoney, the switch was even harder on his father.
"My father wasn't too pleased at first," Mahoney said. "He's your typical stubborn Irishman and it took him a while to get used to it. But when he started seeing me hit 96 and 99 and getting guys out consistently, he understood that I'd catapulted myself into a different stratosphere."
Given the sudden interest from professional scouts, both father and son are now perfectly fine with the latter's new role. Mahoney has worked hard to reinvent himself. His signature pitch is his heater, but he's also developed a split-finger fastball and slider to use when he gets ahead in the count. O'Sullivan and Clemson head coach Jack Leggett have encouraged Mahoney to stick with pitches he's most comfortable throwing.
"He basically pitches to his strength," O'Sullivan said. "As far as trying to change speeds, we don't ask him to do lot of that. We want him to locate his fastball early and get ahead in the count, then worry about throwing the slider and the split. We try to keep it simple for him out there."
The approach has worked. Mahoney began May with two scoreless innings against Clemson archrival Florida State. He fanned two and surrendered a walk and a hit en route to his first win of the season. The outing reflected Mahoney's growing confidence on the mound.
"Every day, the plate seems to be getting a little bigger and I have a better idea of how I should approach hitters," said Mahoney. "When I first went out there, the mound was like a spotlight on Broadway."
He added that he understands he still has "a long way to go," and his work ethic proves it. The hardest part of being a reliever, he said, has been the lack of action he sees on the field. The former catcher is used to being involved with every play and has a hard time waiting for his opportunities on the mound.
"I'm not going to just sit around in the bullpen," he said. "We have some veteran pitchers, and I like to pick their brains about grips, game pressure and mechanics."
Mahoney has also sought the counsel of former big-league reliever Bryan Harvey, whose son Kris plays for the Tigers, and O'Sullivan. The Clemson coach would like to have another year with Mahoney, but realizes his time is almost up.
"I definitely think Colin is ready for professional baseball," O'Sullivan said. "He's ready for the challenge and he's mentally prepared for it. He just needs to get into a situation where he's going to pitch a lot."
Mahoney would like nothing more.
"Every kid's dream is to play professional baseball," said Mahoney. "A big part of why I came to Clemson is to become a better baseball player, and I think I've done that -- even if it is at a different position."
Chris Gigley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.