Playing baseball stopped being fun for Mike Conroy in 2007. Four years later, when it appeared Conroy could no longer dictate the end of his career, he was unable to give it up.
Conroy was in virtually no team's plans this offseason, and that's how he wanted it. He had a coaching job at the University of Massachusetts-Boston waiting for him, and he was ready to begin the next phase of his baseball life.
Then the Wingnuts, looking for an outfielder, called Conroy in May. He quickly realized that the next phase could wait. Essentially brought in as a stopgap, Conroy, a former first-round draft pick, has been one of the Wingnuts' most reliable players.
"What it came down to is you can coach the rest of your life," Conroy said. "You can only play for so long and I thought it was the right decision to make."
In six seasons in the Cleveland Indians organization after being drafted 43rd overall in 2001, Conroy didn't advance past Class A. As a first-round pick, Conroy was given every chance to move through the system, but after hitting .292 at Mahoning Valley in 2003, Conroy's career bottomed out.
With little chance of getting those opportunities in another organization, Conroy decided to use his college football eligibility to play at Connecticut. A heavily recruited wide receiver six years earlier, Conroy made the Huskies as a walk-on but received minimal playing time.
The experience was designed to allow Conroy to follow a dream. It ended up giving him a new outlook on the sport from which he walked away.
"I took the game away from myself in 2007," Conroy said. "I lost the passion to play. Going back to college and playing college football, I really realized what my true passion was, and that was playing baseball."
Conroy's burnout was understandable given his lack of production relative to the plans the Indians had for him.
Cleveland made the playoffs in 2001 but then began trading key players as part of a rebuilding effort the following season. Conroy was one of four Indians first-round picks in 2001, and none of them reached the majors with Cleveland.
If he had been drafted a few slots lower, Conroy's story might not be as notable. But being a first-round pick out of high school carries pressures for which the Conroy wasn't ready, even though the Indians allowed him to ease into the professional ranks and avoided putting him on the fast track.
"I do wish I got the opportunity to play college baseball," Conroy said. "(I needed time to) physically and mentally mature. Those are three or four years of a person's life that are huge in the developmental stages. I feel like I could have learned a lot and I suited the college game a lot better."
Conroy seems to have completed the maturation process and his love for baseball is apparent.
The Wingnuts picked up Conroy when outfielder Brent Clevlen was sold to the Cincinnati Reds just before the start of the season. Bench coach Brian Rose knew Conroy from their time in Grand Prairie in 2008.
When Clevlen returned in June, Conroy had made such a strong impression that his spot wasn't threatened. Wichita released Jorge Cortes instead.
The 28-year-old, left-handed-hitting Conroy is batting .307 with seven triples, 34 RBIs and 30 strikeouts in 244 at-bats.
"I wish a lot of guys had the road I took to get where I am in Wichita," Conroy said. "I felt like I dealt with a lot of adversity. Taking that year off really helped me appreciate the game of baseball."