Thrill ride continues for father who caught son's homer
Marty and Conrad Gregor connect to recall a special family moment
It was all because of the new Ferris wheel in town.
The 110-foot tall amusement ride was installed behind left field at Modern Woodmen Park this season by a vote of city officials in Davenport, Iowa, and it opened to the public for the first rides on Saturday.
That first night, the local Quad Cities River Bandits, a Class A Astros affiliate, were playing Cedar Rapids. Right before the game, the River Bandits' first baseman and cleanup hitter, Conrad Gregor, came out of the dugout to sign autographs for fans, and it was then that he had a conversation with his father, Marty; his mother, Megan; and his girlfriend, Hana.
"Hana and a couple of other girlfriends of players on the team were together, and I bought them tickets to the Ferris wheel, which is out in kind of left field," Marty recalled Thursday during a visit to the MLB.com studios in New York, his son patched in on a phone line to reflect on an early Father's Day gift that will go down as one of the most unlikely and coolest in baseball history.
"We were able to spend that five minutes with Conrad before the players get prepared and the game begins. Conrad said to Hana, 'Why don't you guys go out and ride the Ferris wheel in the fifth inning?' I chimed in and said, 'Yeah, if you do that, Conrad maybe you can hit a home run out to them while they're riding on the Ferris wheel.' They sort of laughed at him."
So the fifth inning came, and the women were riding the new Ferris wheel. It was a new kind of family fun at a truly Americana ballpark in the Class A Midwest League. Then came the sixth, and in the bottom half Conrad stepped up to the left side of the plate.
Marty, a private wealth advisor for Bank of America's Merrill Lynch firm in Indianapolis, had driven five hours from their home in Carmel, Ind., to see their favorite Astros prospect that night. Almost everybody around baseball knows what happened next: a fairytale story with Ferris wheel magic.
Marty was nearby the players' girlfriends at that point, behind right-center on the Fan Deck, his wife not far away. Immediately behind Marty was a rail, the only thing between him and the Mighty Mississippi. Kernels righty Ethan Mildren threw a fastball, and Conrad crushed it to right, headed straight for the dirty drink.
Dad got under it, or the ball got over him. Somehow, with a fan reaching up in front of him and with that rail right behind, he turned at the last second and caught the ball over his left shoulder.
Conrad circled the bases, happy for his first homer of 2014, and a key one in that victory. Meanwhile, Marty thrust out his arms in triumphant glee, the rush of emotions you know if you ever coached your kid.
Thrill ride, indeed. It was news everywhere, even outside of baseball. And then as if that was not gift enough from son to father, Conrad was promoted Tuesday, on his father's birthday, to the Astros' Class A Advanced affiliate out in Lancaster of the California League, where he is now teammates with the last two overall No. 1 draft picks, shortstop Carlos Correia (2012) and pitcher Mark Appel (2013).
"The emotion was overwhelming," Marty said. "You spend so much time with your son, and every dad so much time with their son or daughter in any sport, but in this case baseball. And all the hard work, and the dust, and the heat, the rain, the mud. You always dream of these types of events happening, where it's the winning hit, the home run. But really when you hit a home run as the game's on the line, it's his first home run of the season, and then to be able to be out there to watch it, and then see it, and catch it. I mean, you couldn't ask for a better memory."
"I'm just thankful to have a dad like that," Conrad said as his father listened to his son speaking from a bus on the West Coast. "It was a surreal moment, almost like a movie script where you see all these events that take place and you ask, 'Did that really happen?' It's just really great he was able to catch the ball. ... It's been a great few days for me, and I know for myself and my family and especially for my dad, it's just been a lot of fun. Something we'll remember for the rest of their lives and it will definitely be up there in the top five memorable moments for myself and my baseball career."
Slow the video replay of a thrill-ride homer landing softly into the hands of someone who played defense in football as a youth because he supposedly had "bad hands" and remember all of those days, those trips to the cages, those pitches ... all of that love.
The Gregors have three children: Gretchen, 15, a rising junior in high school in Carmel; Hank, 20, a rising junior at Vanderbilt who just started an internship with an investment firm in Manhattan; and Conrad, who was selected out of Vanderbilt by the Astros with the first pick of the fourth round in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.
"It's a sport that we've been together with since he was in second grade. I was his coach from the beginning and coached him all the way through 15 or 16," Marty said.
"My dad and my grandfather were great baseball fans. My grandfather was a catcher, played in the Minors, way, way back when. My dad did not play pro ball or in college, but one of my most treasured possessions is his first baseman's glove. It's the old clam-shaped glove that first basemen used to wear, a Rawlings, and when Conrad started playing first base, I passed that gift onto him. So he now is in possession of that gift."
Dad gave the gift to his son, and the son has given the gift back to him.
"We've stayed pretty close through this whole process, me going to play college ball at Vanderbilt, and then beginning my professional career last summer," Conrad said. "My dad's been there every step of the way. It's just very important to me that I stay in the loop with him, very close, and he's able to help me every step of the way."
Right now there are thousands of Marty and Conrad Gregors across North America, waiting with a lifetime's worth of hope, support and perseverance as the names are called next week in the First-Year Player Draft. It is how their dream unfolded at this time last year.
"Conrad was playing for Vanderbilt, which was getting ready for the Super Regionals, playing at home," Marty remembered. "He was at practice while the Draft was going on. My wife and I were in the hotel room watching the Draft. I had my phone and I had Conrad's phone. Right before the Astros picked him, our phones rang with the word of what was going to happen. So we were overwhelmed and just very emotional and elated that he was drafted, because while you certainly hope and expect that he was going to be drafted, until it happens, you never know.
"It's my understanding that the director of baseball operations who was also keeping tabs on the Draft for the Vandy guys found out and kind of walked out onto the field and told Conrad and the news continued to spread and spread. The neat part of this story was, the Astros' next pick in the fifth round was a teammate of Conrad's in Tony Kemp. Tony and Conrad are great friends. When they both found out they were picked by the Astros, they had an opportunity to meet in the middle of the field and hug one another and congratulate one another. It was a special moment."
Tony is a second baseman, designated hitter and outfielder who is off to a hot start this season at Lancaster, having also come through Quad Cities. Now they are teammates in the California League. It all happened so quickly, the "whirlwind" call for Conrad to come out West after playing in two more River Bandits games. Tuesday was his travel day to meet up with his new club during a three-game trip at Lake Elsinore, and he went 2-for-4 in his debut at first for the JetHawks.
Appel and Gregor joined the JetHawks at the same time, the former in his return from an extended spring training in rehab. Marty calls it "rarified air," being teammates now with Correia and Appel.
"I think hitting the home run to him, him catching it, and me getting promoted, are separate entities," Conrad said, "but I'm working every day hard at reaching my dream of playing Major League Baseball, and this definitely was a step in the right direction, especially with hitting the home run, helping my team at a pivotal point in the game to win, and with it getting a promotion after the game to high-A Lancaster."
No matter what happens from here on out, the first chapter already has been written. Or was this the last chapter in a father-son success story, no matter what happens after this?
"I could tell by the sound that he really barreled it up."
Marty is remembering exactly how it felt to have his son hit the ball at him.
"I watched the trajectory of the ball coming off the bat," he recalled, "and I said, 'This thing's got a chance of going out.' Then I said, 'This thing is going out.' Then I said, 'This thing's coming right at me.' I said, 'Holy cow, I better catch this ball.'
"I thought if I miss it, I or my wife would just kill me. I don't know about Conrad. He's usually not that uptight about things."
Conrad says he had "no knowledge" that his father would be in that very spot. He did not mention the pregame conversation about the Ferris wheel, but nor has he had the luxury of time to reminisce.
"My dad somehow sees the water out there from time to time," he said. "But I did not have knowledge of this. I think the baseball might have picked up on this. . . . I know he likes to go out there sometimes to take a look at another angle of my swing. Maybe something told him to go out there. But I'm glad he did, and I'm glad he caught the ball.
"I've seen the video a couple times. He definitely made a top-10 catch from what I can see, maybe a webgem, with the difficulty of the catch. I've heard it compared to a Willie Mays over-the-shoulder. He made a pretty good catch. You never know, he might have used some sticky fingers, or a sticky glove that you couldn't see. But all in all, it was a great, great catch."
It remains "unbelievable" to Marty. He broke down the video at MLB.com, still taking it in. This is a man who is not here to trumpet what he did, but to revel in what his son is doing. It's what dads do. He agreed to the studio interview and especially with the chance to chat with his son.
"If you look at that railing, right on the other side of that railing is the Mississippi River," Marty said. "So if I don't catch it, it's in the water. It's gone, or I'm diving in after it. And the current's pretty strong in the Mississippi, so I probably wouldn't be sitting here if that happened."
Then his reaction tells the whole story.
It is every joy that can come out of a father after all of those grounders, all of those games.
"Everything you saw on the camera after I caught the ball was just pure emotion. Nothing planned, nothing thought of," Marty said. "It's just emotions overtaking your body, I guess. I know how hard Conrad has worked since he was young, how focused he was on becoming a Major League Baseball player. He's on that journey.
"To be part of that is just an incredible honor and privilege of mine. To be there when he hits his first home run of the season, at a point in the game where his team needed him to come up big -- they were down, a couple guys on base, those are pivotal RBIs. To get it done, under all of that buildup . . . and, by the way, I catch his home run ball."
So now there is an official Midwest League baseball, unsigned, and its value is priceless.
"It is no question a memory that will last a lifetime," Marty said. "I'm hopeful for Conrad and our entire family that this is just one of many great memories in a long career that he has in professional baseball, in Major League Baseball, with the Houston Astros, which is an organization that we are grateful to be part of, that there's a lot of those baseballs that will be sitting next to this one. But this one will be very special."
Who keeps the ball? It was Conrad's first and only homer in 44 games with Quad Cities, a game-winner at that. It was Marty's catch of a lifetime, one of the best material possessions a dad could want. The city of Davenport could make a pretty good claim for it, for it was the night they opened the new Ferris wheel after considerable discussion among townspeople -- and a night when the city made news.
"I might loan it to him, put it on loan sort of like they do in museums, for a small fee," Marty joked. "Honestly if he were fortunate enough to make it and have a long career in baseball, and build a trophy room, then it would be more appropriate for it to be in his trophy room. I would be happy with that."
Conrad inherited some of his dad's humor. He tells Marty: "Whenever the Astros call you to maybe catch some balls in batting practice or rob some home runs, just remember where your roots came from."
The first known father-son ballhawks tandem act had to say goodbye again. Conrad and his JetHawks teammates were at a mall, time to get some food in Class A ball.
It was a long way from the Ferris wheel, but the thrill ride goes on.
"You got it, buddy. I love you," Marty said. "Maybe you'll sign this ball sometime."
"Maybe we can trade the ball for something fair, or I can sign it for you or something," Conrad replied. "I love you, too."