Spotlight on Former Athlete: Garrett O'Connor - Baseball 1982-85
A lifetime in baseball:
O'Connor's seen both sides now
By Bruce Brown
The game of baseball took Garrett O'Connor almost from sea to shining sea.
The Lafayette product and 2003 UL Athletic Hall of Fame inductee grew up with the game, and it had a lifelong influence.
From 8-year-old youth league beginnings with the Beavers, to Lafayette High and the American Legion state title with Burger Chef, to a successful stint with USL's Ragin' Cajuns and a short stay in the minor leagues, O'Connor knew what success felt like on the diamond.
Then, once he finished his playing career, he constructed a second career as an umpire, withstanding taunts and challenges inherent in that thankless job.
Mention O'Connor, and baseball was sure to be the topic.
Now, though, that's changing.
O'Connor still has a high profile in his hometown, but in a different way as manager of Chris' Poboys on Pinhook Road. Instead of ERA and RBI, he's just as likely to discuss bottom line as restaurant fortunes ebb and flow with the local economy.
And when he's not at the restaurant, he's most likely to be fishing at his camp near Lake Fausse Point or elsewhere.
“I enjoy what I do,” said O'Connor, who sat for a chat before opening but is rarely idle once the customers arrive. He's always clearing tables, greeting old friends and others, and checking with staff.
“The owner has been good to me. He allows me to hire good people and run the place like I want. I never stand still.”
Married to second wife Sheri for 13 years, O'Connor has found active contentment at a perfect time.
“I was in the game for more than 40 years (as player, coach and umpire),” he said. “It was time for a change, time to have more time with my family.”
There are plenty of memories, though, and reunions with former teammates feature stories traded long into the night.
Always a pitcher
O'Connor was a pitcher and first baseman when he first began in the game, with pitcher the spotlight position he craved.
His father Jim played football at SLI 1952-55 and older brother Jay played baseball for the Cajuns (1976-79), but a major early assist came from elsewhere.
“(Sheriff) Carlo Listi sponsored our (youth) team, and he was a major influence on me,” O'Connor said. “He always made sure we had the right equipment and that we acted right. The chief of police lived across the street, so between the two of them we had to behave.
“Carlo's son, Corey, was my catcher. I wasn't overpowering, but I threw strikes. When we got to Colt League, I went 13-1 and had a perfect game.”
Then came the first signature chapter in his playing career – American Legion Baseball, coached by Brad Kelley as leader of the Burger Chef squad.
The Chefs went 49-5 and won the state crown at UNO's field. O'Connor was the winning pitcher, and also connected for a dramatic, game-winning, two-run home run.
“It was a bullet,” O'Connor recalled. “A line drive. Probably never got more than 6 feet off the ground. Just inside the foul pole. I just swung as hard as I could. That was fun.
“It was a good experience. I was 19-0, then 19-1 when we lost 4-2 at Legion Regionals in Tennessee. We had pro scouts looking at us.”
Playing for Kelley brought out the best in O'Connor.
“He was my best friend, brother and coach,” O'Connor said. “He was a players' coach, very knowledgeable, and he had connections with pro scouts.”
O'Connor found it tough to break into the lineup on loaded Lafayette High teams, especially when he missed his junior year with a broken kneecap, but he came through with a 7-2 record as a Mighty Lion senior. Coupled with his Legion heroics, he attracted attention.
“Mel Didier was the coach at USL, and he said they didn't have a scholarship for me, but if I would walk on, I would get one,” O'Connor said. “And I did. I was a hometown guy.
“I knew I needed to work on a third pitch. I had a fastball and slider. I believed in velocity, didn't really have a change-up. In the minors, you've got to have a third or fourth pitch to move up.”
O'Connor had 22 wins in a Cajun uniform, including a one-hitter on the road against the Texas Longhorns and a victory over LSU in Skip Bertman's first year leading the Tigers.
An All-Louisiana selection in 1984, O'Connor had 9 wins and a 1.79 earned run average in his top campaign.
“I think we took two of three from Texas,” he said. “We had played good teams like Florida and Florida State, but I think we surprised Texas. Against LSU, I think Xavier Hernandez came on in relief to end it.
“We played in a lot of nice places. To me, Texas A&M had the best college ballpark at the time. Coach Didier ran it like the minor leagues and we always played good teams. He and (UNO's) Ron Maestri used to have some classic duels.”
O'Connor was drafted by Minnesota and by the New York Yankees, but his zeal waned in the minors.
“It's a big cut throat business,” he said. “I found out real quick that it's an individual game, even though it's a team sport. Everyone out for himself. Only 1 in 3,000 make it to the big leagues.
“I did enjoy two years in the Alaska All-America League. Played with a lot of future Hall of Famers, guys like Randy Johnson and Bobby Thigpen.”
Arm issues hastened his departure from playing, but O'Connor coached youth teams for 10 years and quickly made a name for himself as an umpire who called games as far away as college regionals in California.
“The best ballpark I saw as an umpire was at Pepperdine, with the Pacific Ocean in the background,” he said. “That was my last NCAA regional. Spent 6 days there.
“I climbed the ladder with the NCAA. I'm a perfectionist. I wanted to keep a high standard. I became friends with Jim Gilligan at Lamar, who used to talk about keeping a level playing field, and that's what I tried to do.”
Not everyone liked O'Connor's even-handed approach.
“I heard some bad things from the stands, things that upset my kids,” he said. “I told them that those fans may get on you, but your true friends in life will support you.”
But umpiring 45-60 games a year for 25 years takes its toll, and after 44 years in the game, it was time for O'Connor to bid baseball adieu. He looks more relaxed now as a result.
He still works hard, but happily.
And the fish can't question his calls. * * * * * * Garrett and his 1985 Baseball teammates are pictured below. To view more Baseball photos from Garrett's years on the team, click on Photo Gallery on the left side of the home page at www.athleticnetwork.net , Baseball, the years you want to view. Eighty-six years of Baseball photos are posted in the Baseball photo gallery.
* * * * * * Click here for Garrett's Athletic Network profile.
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