May 7, 2013
The day after Connor Harrell was selected in the 31st round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the Detroit Tigers, his mind was already made up.
"Hey, in case you were wondering, I'm coming back," Harrell texted Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin.
The response he got back could have made others second guess themselves for a moment, but Harrell knew Corbin too well.
"Corbs texted back and joked, 'you didn't ask if I wanted you back,'" recalled Harrell. "I said, 'Corbs, do you want me back?' He said 'without a shadow of doubt.'"
Harrell's decision to come back for his senior season, along with teammate Mike Yastrzemski (who Harrell encouraged to return), helped set in motion what has been a memorable season for the Commodores in 2013.
The Houston, Texas, native was coming off an uncharacteristic junior season season in which he produced career low numbers in most offensive statistical categories. To add insult to injury, the Commodores sputtered out of the gate before recovering to make NCAA Regionals, where their season ended in heartbreaking fashion to NC State.
After playing a key role in Vanderbilt making the College World Series in 2011, Harrell seemed like a prime candidate to have a breakout season in 2012. In two seasons he was a career .295 batter, who had just slugged nine home runs as a sophomore and was playing his best baseball of his career when the season ended. He was named to the College World Series All-Tournament Team and participated in the College Home Run Derby after the season had ended.
Everything seemed to be in place for a massive junior year. But it never transpired. Instead, Harrell struggled to find his groove at the plate, finishing the season with a .241 average and a career-high 57 strikeouts.
"I figured my junior year would be that big year, but it just wasn't," Harrell said. "It was like a hiccup. You kind of bury your ego and get back to work."
To regain his old form, Harrell knew something needed to change so he got away from the game and did not play competitively during the summer for the first time since before he began playing the sport at a young age.
"It was good to put the bat down and I did that for about a month," Harrell said. "I stayed in Nashville and worked camp and then I went home."
Back in Houston, Harrell was urged by friends to connect with former Major League Baseball hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who lives in Dallas. During the month of July, Harrell made the trek to Dallas four times to work with Jaramillo.
Jaramillo, who has coached the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs, broke down Harrell's swing and built it back up, pinpointing areas that he believed needed to change.
"I kind of bought into his system," Harrell commented. "There were tweaks but it was according to what he wanted to do."
After each session with Jaramillo, Harrell would return to Houston and spend time in the cage, working on what he had been instructed. With time, Harrell became more comfortable with his swing and began to see results.
"I think it just gave me confidence," Harrell said of his time working with Jaramillo. "Being able to have confidence in what you are doing is really freeing. When you are unsure of your approach, it is really hard to hit a fastball."
Harrell's renewed sense of confidence is evident at the plate in 2013. With the schedule barreling toward the postseason, Harrell is on pace to obliterate career marks in nearly every offensive category.
Through the South Carolina series, Harrell leads the team in RBIs, total bases and home runs.
"It is a little bit of poetic justice I guess," reflected Harrell. "After the year I had last year, it was kind of a summer full of self doubt. 'Is this what I really am about? Am I going to be able to get back to who I am?' Being able to come out here and go (41-6) so far and hit some balls out of the park and just be a part of it has been really rewarding for me."
In addition to the changes Harrell made at the plate, Corbin has seen a dramatic change in his mental approach. The shift has allowed Harrell to quickly put mistakes behind him and helped him avoid longterm slumps.
"You can see where 12 months made a difference for him," Corbin said. "I think his ability to learn the mental part of the game ... and I know this is over said, but to be able to slow the game down enough to where he can see the baseball, he can feel his body, he can feel his swing and start to figure out some things that might not be so easy to figure out when you are a junior. It is just consistency. It is just a consistent mentality that has brought forward a consistent play on the field."
Even during the most lean of times on offense, one thing that never fluctuated was Harrell's play on defense. For four seasons, he has patrolled center field like a hawk hunting for its prey, swooping in to snag would be hits before they reach the turf.
"We feel like any ball hit in the air is going to get caught," sophomore relief pitcher Jared Miller said. "He knows all the tricks and the routes and he doesn't get tricked out there."
Equipped with cat-like reflexes, a lightning-quick first step, a rocket for an arm and an unyielding recklessness with his body, Harrell has made a career of making difficult catches look oh so routine and the seemingly impossible ones possible.
Because of how simplistic Harrell makes it look in center field, it can be easy to take his defensive prowess for granted. Batted balls that sound and look like base hits off the bat often end with Harrell camped out underneath waiting for the ball to smack in his leather mitt.
Ever since he first began playing baseball, Harrell gravitated toward center field. He liked the freedom it presented, the challenge of being the last line of defense and intrigue of tracking a ball off the bat.
"Even since when the worst players played outfield, I played center field," Harrell said. "I was the big, tall guy who was pretty fast and could play center field. It just kind of stuck and I never left."
In an era where many players would rather put up gaudy offensive numbers than flash the leather, Harrell is the antithesis. To Harrell, a diving catch is just as exhilarating as a home run, which is, in part, why he has placed such an importance on his ability to play center field.
"It is kind of a love affair with that position now," Harrell said. "Defense is one of those things where you get as much as you put into it. I always just love being out there. We call it swimming in the green ocean. As much as you can kind of romanticize and make it fun, it really is fun. I take pride in it. It is one of those things that can get you to the next level and it will get you on the field here so for that reason, I have really treated it that way."
Harrell honed his defensive ability as a youth, playing games such as jackpot and hotbox with friends, always trying to out due others with a diving catch or off-balance throw. "It was always who could make it look the best, who could do it better than the other guys out there," Harrell said.
As he grew older he began playing other sports, but baseball remained his top priority. He attended The Kinkaid School in Houston, where he ran the 100 and 200 meters in track and played wide receiver and safety in football. He had enough success on the gridiron to garner interest from a number of Ivy League schools as well as Rice. Stanford even offered him an opportunity to play baseball and football, but he ultimately chose to play baseball at Vanderbilt.
While at The Kinkaid School, Harrell not only made a mark on the playing field, but also in the classroom as well as socially among his peers.
"I think the first word that comes to mind when I think of Connor is character," said Don North, headmaster at The Kinkaid School and a former Vanderbilt football letterman in the late 60s. "When you think about his personality, he is just a friendly, personable guy. He had no enemies, everybody liked him. There is nothing egocentric about Connor. It's not about Connor. He is really very modest and humble which is quite remarkable for someone who has the talent that he has."
This week, Harrell graduates with a degree in financial studies. Last week, he completed his last final exam and spent his final day at Franklin Road Academy, where he has volunteered as a YoungLife leader for the past year and a half with teammate Keenan Kolinsky and recently with former Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers.
"It was one of my favorite things to do growing up and I wanted to be a part of it again," Harrell said. "It is just one of those ways for kids to be able to look at somebody as a mentor and come to us if they want to talk."
Just as area high school students have come to look up to Harrell, so have his teammates. Through the highs and lows during his career, Harrell remained the consummate teammate and leader.
Harrell's ability to lead was evident at a young age and has only gotten stronger with time. People are drawn in by Harrell's infectious personality and they respect him for who he is.
"As long as I've known him he has been a natural leader and that comes from his character and personality, and certainly his athletic ability," North said.
"Character I think is a central part of leadership because young people with character ... eventually they are going to draw people to them. When you are early on in middle school or younger, sometimes leadership is about ability. The older you grow, the more it is about character and that is certainly true about Connor."
Harrell's team-first approach and selflessness has rubbed off on his teammates throughout his time on West End. The way he carries himself and represents Vanderbilt's baseball program on a day-to-day basis sets the tone for the rest of the team and can be as valuable as what he does on the field.
"He kind of epitomizes everything Corbs says is as Vanderbilt baseball player," Miller said.
Even in 2012 when Harrell had hit rock bottom and the team struggled to gain traction for much of the year, he remained a calming influence in the locker room.
"The younger guys, even us sophomores, can look to him in how to take a loss," Miller added. "I know my class learned a lot from him when we were struggling last year. He was an upbeat guy. He comes in the ballpark the same everyday."
He has taken his last final, said his goodbyes to the local youth he mentored through YoungLife and soon will take the field one last time as a member of Vanderbilt's baseball team. The finality of it all has set in for Harrell as heads for the homestretch.
"I've come to appreciate my days a little more," Harrell remarked. "I think as a freshman, and after having a good freshman season, the middle of June we were still playing and I was tired and worn out. I didn't appreciate the last couple of weeks.
"Now, my best memories are in May and in June and being in Nebraska. I think you just appreciate it and because of that you kind of get to play a little better. There is freedom knowing that you have your degree."
A year ago at this time, Harrell was lost at the plate. He questioned what he was doing wrong and wondered why every change he tried to make did not work. With every base hit, Harrell's disappointing 2012 fades further into the past.
"I'm happy for him because there were times last year where he and I would talk and I felt like he was broken down because he was hard on himself," Corbin said. "There were a couple of times I took him off the field just to let him watch and he rebounded so well. He is just a great leader and a great kid."
After Harrell was drafted last summer, he knew where he wanted to play in 2013. He was a model of consistency his first two seasons and he didn't want to leave Vanderbilt with the 2012 season as his lasting memory. As a senior, Harrell has buried the struggles of his junior season by putting together his best all-around season in the final chapter of his Vanderbilt career that is still being written.