Daily Egyptian

Thrower turned pitcher: Coonrod’s road to the show

By Aaron Graff, @Graffintosh

Sam Coonrod’s first backup plan in life was to be a bug exterminator, but now he finds himself focused on “exterminating” opposing batters.

Coonrod, a former right-handed pitcher at SIU who was drafted after his junior season, reported to his first Major League Baseball Spring Training with the San Francisco Giants on Feb. 17 in Scottsdale, Ariz. — the biggest stage he has ever been on.

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The team’s first game is Wednesday against the Los Angeles Angels, and he may have an opportunity of pitching to a player he has always wanted to oppose.

“I’ve thought about it. I’d say [now Angel and former St. Louis Cardinal] Albert Pujols would be pretty neat to face because I was a Cardinals fan growing up,” Coonrod said.

He said he imagines himself in the big leagues every day, multiple times a day, in every situation. He pictures himself being successful and thinks about what he would do to excel in a tight situation to come out on top. Then when he gets there, he said it will feel like it has happened already.

Coonrod’s locker is two spots from outfielder Hunter Pence’s, four from starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner’s and six from catcher Buster Posey’s.

The three of them have a combined eight World Series Championships (all with the Giants.)

Coonrod, whose speed has peaked a 99 miles per hour, could move back to where he finished last season in San Jose, Calif., or he could move to the opposite side of the country in Richmond, Va., depending on how he does — the life of a Minor Leaguer.

“Even if he gets no further than where he is now, he will have no regrets because of his work ethic,” said Tim Coonrod, Sam’s father.

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Sam’s mother, Karen Coonrod, remembers when he was about 6 years old. He always said he wanted to be a professional baseball player, but she made sure he had a backup plan.

She says a bug exterminator was his choice if baseball did not work out.

“Bug exterminator? Yeah I remember saying that when I was in sixth grade I think haha. I got it from the movie ‘Arachnophobia,'” Sam texted before remembering his mother was right.

Minor League Baseball is like a report card, the more A’s you have, the more success you are likely to have.

Most players start with a Rookie Affiliate after they are drafted and then move up through Class A Short Season, Class A, Class A Advanced, Double-A and Triple-A based on talent. Some skip steps if they are good enough. Some take steps backward. But all want to go one step above Triple-A to Major League Baseball.

“The game is a lot faster,” Sam said. “Things happen a lot quicker. You can either fail really quickly and get taken out early or you can have your success. You have a lot less room for error. Also, the hitters are way more aggressive in pro ball. They don’t wait around.”

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Last year, Coonrod finished his first full season in the Minor Leagues with the Class A Advanced San Jose Giants in California. He pitched 9 2/3 innings in two postseason games, one of which was a start. He surrendered three earned runs on five hits, three walks and nine strikeouts.

He spent most of the season a step below with the Class A Augusta Green Jackets in Georgia. There he posted a 7-5 record, 3.14 ERA, 114 strikeouts and 34 walks in 23 games, 22 of which were starts. He was fourth in the South Atlantic League in strikeouts.

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“The beginning [of the season] I struggled a little bit,” Sam said. “I caught on to a few things they were telling me finally and had some success. I grew as a pitcher as the year progressed.”

Now, he would like to move up to the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the Giants’ Double-A affiliate, but he will have to prove himself in spring. BaseballAmerica, a leading media service that focuses on up and coming players, projects him to start the year at San Jose.

Coonrod, who was rated the Giants’ sixth-best prospect this year, did not crack the top 10 last year.

“If he stays healthy, I’m convinced he’s going to be our next big leaguer,” SIU coach Ken Henderson said in 2014.

That was following his first half-season with the Rookie Level AZL Giants, where he posted a 1-0 record, 3.90 ERA, 25 strikeouts, six walks in 15 games, five of which were starts.  

“Honestly, what really matters is what the Giants’ front office thinks,” Sam said. “I just try to be my best.”

Coonrod is currently working with both Major League and Minor League coaches in the organization.

In baseball, there is a difference between a thrower and a pitcher. While both can have success, a thrower is known to use hard fastballs regularly, whereas a pitcher can place the ball with movement.

Coonrod was a thrower.

“The biggest thing [at SIU] was trying to get Sam to repeat his mechanics to allow him to do the same thing over and over and over so he could throw strikes,” said SIU pitching coach PJ Finigan. “I use his video all the time of where he started and where he left to show the guys to say, ‘Don’t get discouraged by what’s going on early in your career.’ The Giants have done a great job of simplifying him even more.”

According to a July 23, 2015, MiLB article, professional teams did not doubt his arm speed, but his collegiate numbers were modest at best.

He finished 8-17 with a 3.86 ERA and 199 strikeouts in three seasons at SIU.

“I had no clue where [the ball] was going haha,” Coonrod texted on Nov. 11, 2014, in reference his high school days. “I was 100 percent a thrower, not a pitcher in high school. I was a refined version of a thrower in college. I am now a pitcher.”

But Sam was lucky to get the chance of becoming a pitcher.

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Carrollton, a small town roughly 60 miles northwest of St. Louis, is not known as a garden for future professional athletes.

“Around here, it’s tough to get recognized,” Joey Coonrod, Sam’s younger brother, said after the 2014 Draft. 

Sam and Joey — who are one year apart — played together through high school. Tim, who played primarily as a right fielder at McKendree University and Lewis and Clark Community College, was their coach at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School in Carrollton.

“I would say some things to [Sam] that I probably shouldn’t have,” Tim said. “[Karen] would just say I was way too hard on him. And I was harder on mine more than any of them. It’s just the way you are as a parent.”

But Karen denied Tim’s presumption, saying he was only making sure they gave 100 percent because he could see the potential in them. The couple sees that in their two other children as well. Patsy, 20, plays basketball at Lewis and Clark, and Gus, 12, plays middle school sports.

Sam only played two years with his middle school because the team did not have enough players after his sixth grade season. After that, Sam and Joey played in a summer travel league together.

“He’s a throwback,” Finigan said. “He’s a kid who played summer ball with his brother. They played legion ball. They didn’t really travel around. They didn’t do showcases or anything like that.”

In high school, Sam and Joey played all sports together. The Carrollton Hawks (33-1-1) won the 2011 Baseball IHSA 1A State Championship. Joey earned a win against Eastland to clinch the title.

Sam earned the win against Tremont to get them there. He gave up four earned runs in 6 2/3 innings. Joey recorded the final out, a strikeout.  

Before that season Sam played in an All-Star game in Springfield after his junior year, where he met former Saluki head coach and Springfield-native Dan Callahan. SIU was the only Division I school to make him an offer. Coonrod was one of Callahan’s last recruits before his untimely death from neurotropic melanoma in 2010.

“[Coach Cal] would always stay until the last pitch was thrown,” said Henderson, a longtime assistant of Callahan. “Coonrod was the last guy to throw. Coach Cal happened to stay around to see him. I remember him coming back and saying, ‘Hey, this guy is going to throw so hard some day.'”

That was when Tim let go of critiquing Sam.

“As soon as he went to college, I thought, ‘He’s on his own now. He has got to grow up. He’s got to mature,'” Tim said. “Those first two weeks when we dropped him off in Carbondale, they were the hardest I ever had. It really was. But it was the best thing we ever did, because looking back on it, it forced him to get involved with other people where he could get himself helped out to get by in life. With coach Henderson, I always made sure I never did interfere because … well, he was a man now. Sam was a man and it was time for him to figure it out on his own. Those guys did a great job with him.”

Sam instantly started making a name for himself at SIU in 2012. He earned his first victory in his first relief appearance against North Florida, and worked his way into the starting rotation permanently later that year.

He earned the victory that advanced SIU to the Missouri Valley Conference Championship game that year against Creighton, which the Salukis lost.

“At the time, I didn’t realize how big of a deal that was,” Sam said. “I was a freshman. As I furthered my career here I realized how big of a deal that actually was. We were so close. It just didn’t happen.”

In his sophomore year MVC Tournament start, he allowed one earned run in 6 innings against Indiana State, but received no run support and the Dawgs were eliminated the following day.

The following year, the cards were stacked against him. SIU was the eighth seed of the tournament and had to face the top-seeded Evansville Purple Aces and Kyle Freeland, who was drafted eighth overall by the Colorado Rockies in the 2014 MLB Draft.

Coonrod threw 7 2/3 innings that day, allowing one earned run on four hits, seven walks and five strikeouts.

Freeland lasted 5 innings, surrendering four earned runs on five hits, three walks and six strikeouts. The Salukis won 9-1.

Many professional scouts attended the game in Terre Haute, Ind., and had their radar guns pointed at every pitch from both starters.

“It means I’m doing something right,” Sam said after the game. “I wanted to win this game so bad. I’m so happy.”

That was the end of the Coonrod era at SIU. Everyone knew he would get drafted and likely sign. The Salukis lost the next two games to Illinois State and Wichita State before he got a chance to pitch again for the Dawgs.

“You don’t just run out and replace a guy with his ability and talent,” Henderson said after the 2014 draft. “It’s not like those kind of guys are just running around everywhere.”

Carrollton, a town of 2,442, had a different atmosphere in the days leading up to the 2014 MLB Draft.

“People from my town have never seen this,” Sam said in a text message on June 5 that year, a day before that draft began. “There’s too much talk going around for me, so I’m ready for it to be done. Plus I’m ready to play ball.”

On June 6, 2014, the San Francisco Giants announced him as their fifth round pick.

“The fact they got him in the fifth round is a steal,” Finigan said. “Somebody should get a prize for that one. He’s got a chance to be in the big leagues for a long time.”

Coonrod was in for a bigger surprise from the citizens of Carrollton. He said the town hype “multiplied by 100 at least, maybe 1,000.”

Now, when he ventures back to his hometown, nearly two years after, he still gets attention.

“Whenever I do go out, I would say 95 to 99 percent of the time, I’ll see someone I know and we’ll end up talking about baseball,” he said. “It’s pretty neat to meet the people that follow me that much.”

Karen said a lot of people do not know Sam has a big heart and still tries to follow people in town as much as they follow him.

Patsy agreed, saying Sam is a great brother and is always available for all of his siblings.

He has gotten some hints of home while he has continued to follow his dream. His family and friends have visited him on different stages of his career to see him pitch.

Roughly 10 friends, most of which played on the state championship team in 2011, drove the 750 miles from Carrollton to Augusta to see him pitch on June 21 against the Savannah Sand Gnats.

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He lasted only 1 1/3 innings and surrendered three earned runs. But his friends still had fun with it as they pulled out smart phones to get more information on opposing players while sipping beers.

“My teammates loved seeing all those guys there,” Sam said. “They got to see what it’s like where I’m from. [My friends] talked a little smack to the other team … well probably a lot of smack to the other team. They loved that.”

Coonrod gave specific instructions to his friends beforehand.

“I told them, they can say whatever they want, they just need to watch the F-words,” he said. “Other teams have done it to me before. They don’t say the F-word, but they’ll say about everything else.”

They obeyed the instructions, but still irritated the opposing starting pitcher, Casey Meisner’s mother, who was in attendance. She chastised the men, which they laughed about and used as more fuel.

“Meisner, I made your mom mad,” yelled a friend of Sam.

The Augusta players looked up at the friend for a split second and laughed with approval.

“Whenever we get together, we get pretty rowdy I guess,” Joey said. “Especially if alcohol is involved. We were just trying to get under their skin a little bit and maybe help Sam out.”

After the game, the reunion came and Coonrod apologized to everyone supporting him for his struggle that day. They said were just glad to be there and experience Sam’s home at the time with him.

Joey also had a chance of getting drafted the same year as Sam, but did not — likely because he used a medical redshirt at Kaskaskia College, Sam said in a previous interview.

Sam said after he got drafted he would love to play with his brother because Joey is the better athlete of the two. But Joey thought differently about both statements.

“If I was to get drafted, I’d like to go against him,” Joey said in 2014. “I know he’s better than I am. Just to see where I stood … just to see what I could do.”

Joey planned on transferring to Lincoln Land Community College to play, but changed his mind.

“I don’t think I had it in me anymore at that point,” Joey said. “My shoulder surgeries I had kind of didn’t go very well. I couldn’t even really throw a baseball there for a while.”

He has since worked in construction on roofs and is joining the Air Force.

After initially failing a pull-up test, Joey is leaving for basic training in San Antonio, Texas, on May 10.

That does not mean Sam may never again pitch with or against a sibling — he helps Gus with pitching. Gus said it would be cool to follow his brother’s footsteps.

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Professional baseball is not all glamor for Coonrod. Most Minor League players earn $1,100 to $2,150 a month before taxes depending on the level of play and experience, according to the Wall Street Journal.

That may seem like more than most entry-level positions, but the season only lasts five months.

Coonrod earned a $330,000 signing bonus when he was drafted and made roughly $750 a month last season.

“You pay your rent with that money they give you,” Sam said. “You buy as much food as you can with it. You don’t really gain any money from what they pay you. You’re trying to stay even with it, but I love it so I’m happy to do it.” 

He once had a game on the road go into extra innings followed by a nine-hour bus ride. The team got back to Augusta at 7 a.m. and he had to pitch at 6 p.m. that same day. Teams also do not have many options for food in those scenarios, so the consumption of unhealthy, fast foods is hard on a player’s body.

“I’ve been coaching for 32 years and he’s one of the top five or 10 guys all time,” Henderson said. “That guy is wired differently. He’s one of the most dedicated, driven players I have ever coached.”

In Augusta the community cared about all the players, Coonrod said. They would buy pots and pans for them to have at their apartments and would prepare team meals.

Coonrod recently signed a two-year deal with New Balance that grants him $1,500 to $2,000 worth of off-field equipment and unlimited on-field equipment. He also gets paid bonuses for career achievements such as reaching the Majors and winning awards.

Off the field, he is still chipping away at his undergraduate degree in management and has 21 credit hours left before he completes it. He previously said he will finish his degree because baseball is not forever in life.

“I know it’s a long road [to the majors], but he’s worked hard at every level,” Karen said.

Aaron Graff can be reached at [email protected] or 618-536-3304.

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