Seeking interesting stories to write is really easy around the game of baseball. My love and passion for college baseball led me to seek out a former competitor that is a distant acquaintance, has ties to Division 1 baseball and is a former big league pitcher.
My interaction with Pat Combs was through watching our sons compete against one another in high school baseball. I coached several kids from Southlake Carroll, knew many of the parents, and that created a minor, casual relationship. The thought was to create a story of an All-Southwest Conference pitcher, his road to Major League Baseball and now a part-time broadcaster for Fox College Sports covering Big 12 baseball. As usual, my interest turned as Pat began to talk about the game and his family.
With his boys, the goal was to make the baseball experience as fun as possible.
“I wanted them to have perspective and learn the skill sets, outside of the tools of baseball, to use later in life,” Pat told me. “We rarely talked about winning and losing. It was more about the process that it takes to be successful.”
Pat and his wife have raised three boys engaged in athletics, two in baseball and the eldest in hockey. The story of their middle son Conner is worth the read.
Conner Combs just completed his junior season at East Texas Baptist. With Dad being a big leaguer and playing at Baylor, you would think that the focus would be on Division 1 or bust.
“I always asked my kids, and would ask any kid, do you love the game?”
Playing is playing regardless of what level of college baseball you are at. Interesting that the perspective of an ex-major leaguer can be so simple. Playing is playing.
“If you really love the game, I suggest that you seek feedback from scouts and coaches to really understand your talents. You have to be open to hear the truth and then apply that talent to the appropriate level of college baseball.”
Conner was a really good high school player. I watched him because they were in the district that competed with my son’s high school. When watching him play, you could instantly see a kid that loved the game. He might not have had the measurable tools that many college scouts look for, but always played hard, with a passion and with a purpose for Southlake Carroll.
“Conner didn’t have ‘big school’ opportunities, but wanted to continue to play the game.”
And play he has.
At East Texas Baptist University as a junior, this 160-pound kid that I saw three years ago has developed physically and getting an opportunity to take advantage of the hard work all those years.
He hit .399 with 15 home runs and 52 RBI. Enough to make a father proud, but there’s more.
“You know the thing I am most proud of is that he was selected as captain of the team as a Sophomore. To have the upper classmen honor you with that accomplishment, it makes a proud father.”
The character, passion and work ethic of Conner doesn’t end on the baseball field. Those traits carry over to the community where he has impacted lives in the East Texas town of Marshall.
“East Texas Baptist Head Coach Jared Hood challenged Conner and the team to complete 500 hours of community service in the fall.”
That is a lofty goal with the rigors of class, practice and the challenge of convincing 34 other 18-21 year olds to take away from the ever-important Xbox and social media. He corralled the group to go out and make an impact in the community. Giving back is talked about way more than it occurs; however, these 35 athletes find a way to change lives and do so with a selfless heart.
“Conner had to approach Coach Hood to tell him that they didn’t get to their goal of 500 hours. Coach Hood, was very understanding and stated that it was a difficult task with the work load that you guys carry.”
Conner was correct. The group didn’t get to 500 hours, the group completed 800 hours of community service while being full-time students and part-time athletes, led by a young man that didn’t care about the recognition of being a Division 1 athlete, but only cared about playing a game that he loved for as long as he could. Furthermore, his humility was exhibited further in reaction to the rough draft of this story.
“That's awesome!" Conner told me. "Only one thing, Coach Hood was more so the mastermind in the community service. He challenged me and a couple of the other leaders to really go out and make a difference in a community of Marshall that definitely needs some light to be shed. Don't want to take credit for that. Coach Hood is from Marshall and knows this community needs Jesus, so that's what we set out to do. Be a light.”
He was rewarded by being named the American Southwest Conference Player of the Year in 2016. Conner is the first male athlete from East Texas Baptist to be voted for this award. To cap that, he was an Academic All-American, graduated in three years with a 3.94 GPA and will begin his MBA during his senior campaign.
The pursuit of recognition often drives our lives and behavior. I often tell people that the recognition of being a “big time” athlete tends to be short lived. Many times young athletes make a decision about what is best for their baseball future based upon what will bring the most instant satisfaction, with little concern for the long term benefit of that decision.
The allure of Division 1 athletics is and will continue to be the goal of every young player that desires to play. Those fortunate to get the opportunity, have a long rigorous road to actually get to see the field. Everybody on that roster played short-stop and hit in the three-hole in high school. The opportunities outside of Division 1 are plentiful, if you’re willing to put recognition aside and seek what is best for your future.
Conner Combs is living proof of this philosophy. He has positioned himself to secure a successful future and impacted lives along the way. The measurable impact of his accomplishments and giving heart may not be seen, but they are felt and will impact others in a positive way for years to come.
This game has blessed me with the opportunity to meet and be associated with many great people through the years. I faced Pat Combs as an 18-year-old in summer baseball. He was dominant and we could all tell he was special. I saw him again three years later in Lubbock as he struck out 16 of us in setting the Southwest Conference and Baylor school record for strikeouts in a game. Again, we could all tell he was special.
Today I get to enjoy his color commentary for Fox Sports in the coverage of college baseball that is my addiction. I also got to hear the story of his greatest accomplishment. That story often brings much less recognition. But the story of a 25-year marriage, the raising of three quality young men and a legacy of one of those young men taking what the game has given him and applying it to impact others forever, well, that is special.
My apologies to Pat, but Conner’s story became more intriguing.