Michael Conforto might have been in kindergarten when he contributed to show-and-tell day by bringing a gold medal won by his mother, still-revered synchronized swimmer Tracie Ruiz, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Or he might have been in first grade when she allowed him to display the medal with his classmates. He’s not sure.
Although the precise details have become fuzzy, that day made a deep impression on the New York Mets left fielder, setting him on a path toward becoming one of baseball’s most gifted young sluggers.
“That’s when I really realized how cool it was,” Conforto said. “From there you kind of feel like you’re meant to do something in sports.”
Now 23, Conforto is starting to explore what he’s capable of doing. He’s off to an enormously promising start.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound left-handed hitter is only the third player to compete in the Little League World Series (representing Redmond, Wash.), College World Series (with Oregon State in 2013) and the major league World Series, joining retired pitcher Ed Vosberg and retired catcher Jason Varitek. After starting last season in Class A Advanced, he was called up on July 24 and sparked the Mets’ second-half surge. At 22, he was the youngest player to start in the Mets’ five-game World Series loss to the Kansas City Royals, and he became the third-youngest major leaguer to hit two home runs in a World Series game when he tagged Chris Young and left-hander Danny Duffy in Game 4.
But Manager Terry Collins, who tried to ease the pressure on Conforto by dropping him to sixth in the batting order Tuesday and restored him to the No. 3 spot Wednesday, has faith Conforto will continue to learn and grow.
“The sky’s the limit with this guy,” Collins said. “He’s going to be an outstanding offensive player. He’s going to be a run producer. He’s going to hit homers. He’s going to hit for average. We got lucky on this one. This guy’s going to be real good.”
Some credit goes to the genetic contributions of Conforto’s parents. His mother, who brought athleticism and style to a sport that’s often ridiculed because of synchronized swimmers’ glitzy costumes and gelatin-slicked hair, won Olympic gold in the 1984 solo competition and teamed with Candy Costie to win the duet event. She also won a silver medal in the solo event at the 1988 Games. Conforto’s father, also named Michael, was a linebacker at Penn State. The younger Conforto played quarterback and safety in high school.
“I wasn’t anything special. I think I was kind of undersized and not fast enough to play the positions I really wanted to play,” he said. “The longevity of your career in that sport is very, very short, and with head injuries, with everything coming out now, I think it just made more sense to go with baseball. Once I started to just stick to baseball, that’s when my career started to take off.”
He deserves credit for absorbing his parents’ wisdom. “They’ll always be Mom and Dad, but they do have a lot of great things to tell me about big games or big situations,” he said. “They know what it takes to be at the top of your game. Especially my mom. She knows what it’s like to be the best in the world at what she does and she always told me you need to obsess over your sport or craft or whatever it is.
“I really took that to heart. It just means the focus you put in and the reps. Maybe not the number of reps, but the quality of your reps. Just really make it something that’s very, very important to you.”
He has two main goals now: to be on the winning side in a World Series, and to overcome his woes against lefties.
“Obviously, it’s up to me. I’ve got to work hard and be focused out there,” he said. “At the end of the day I have to produce. That’s the name of the game and that’s just how things are in the big leagues. So I’m excited for the opportunity.”
That is, after all, what he learned long ago he was meant to do.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter: @helenenothelen