As a 5-foot-11, 190-pound journeyman infielder who has spent most of the past nine years toiling in the Minor Leagues, Conrad has never proven to be a great offensive threat or an outstanding defensive asset. But with the blue-collar approach that he brings to the field on a daily basis, he has gained the admiration of fans, coaches and teammates.
“All of that gritty stuff is kind of cliché because I don’t wear batting gloves and all of that stuff,” Conrad said. “I don’t think I’m doing anything different or special. I just think that’s the way the game is supposed to be played.”
Unfortunately for Conrad, since being selected by the Astros in the eighth round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, he has become all too familiar with the way the game is played on the Minor League level. Before playing 30 games for Atlanta last year, his Major League experience was limited to the six games he’d played the previous year for Oakland.
“It was a great year,” Conrad said. “I went up there and did well. So I have the confidence that I can get up there, I can play and I can compete up at that level. I want to get back up there because it sure was a whole lot of fun.”
Bolstered by last year’s experience, Conrad has come to Spring Training for the first time in his career with a legitimate chance to exit camp as a member of the Opening Day roster. It appears that he and Joe Thurston are the front-runners in the battle for the last spot reserved for a position player.
“This year is exciting,” Conrad said. “It’s hopefully a Spring Training where I hopefully have a shot to make the team out of camp or try to impress somebody and come up later. You never know. I don’t know what they’re thinking. I just try to think that this is my shot to play well and see what happens at the end of camp.”
When the Braves promoted Conrad to the Majors last year, he took advantage of the chance to make an immediate impression. He homered in his first at-bat with the club to aid a July 3 win over the Nationals and batted .355 with five extra-base hits in his first 10 games with Atlanta.
When Kelly Johnson was brought back off the disabled list a week after the All-Star break, Conrad returned to Triple-A Gwinnett and didn’t encounter the same level of success when he returned to the big leagues as a September roster addition. The 30-year-old infielder went hitless in each of the final 23 at-bats he had after the All-Star break.
But while hitting .389 with three doubles and a homer through the first eight Grapefruit League games he has played this year, Conrad has at least provided a reminder of his offensive capabilities. During his 110 games with Gwinnett last year, he hit .269 with 12 homers and 64 RBIs.
More importantly, Conrad has made an impression on Cox by displaying his determined approach with a couple of highlight defensive plays. During Monday’s game against the Tigers, he ranged behind second base to second base to make a snag that surprised veteran pitcher Tim Hudson, who instinctively started running toward the plate to back up a throw from the outfield.
“He’s playing great,” Cox said. “He couldn’t have a better spring, hitting or fielding.”
When Conrad made a similar play that resulted in an out during Wednesday afternoon’s game against the Mets, he once again showed that win-at-all-costs attitude that can only help him as he attempts to finally realize the satisfaction of breaking camp on the big league roster.
“I think I just have to go out and do what I’ve been doing, because obviously I made some kind of impression last year,” Conrad said. “I’m just going to swing the bat and play hard. That’s really all that I know.”