Adversity Helped Mold Pitt's Perry as Person, Player

Panthers’ OF, once cut from DII school, making most of opportunity

Josh Rowntree
April 22, 2019 - 3:07 pm
Pitt baseball CF Connor Perry with Keagan Dowd in 2019

Pitt Athletics

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Earlier Monday, Pitt baseball centerfielder Connor Perry received a special tweet from his biggest fan. 

“Happy birthday Connor, do not feel bad about getting old that is when the big dreams come true,” typed Keagan Dowd. “I hope I can be just like you when I get old. I am happy that you’re my friend and I love watching Pitt Baseball.”

With that tweet, Dowd, a 9-year-old battling a brain tumor, shed some light on Perry’s journey. 

A now 22-year-old senior, Perry is with his third college since graduating from Norwin High School in 2015. 

Originally a recruit of Division II’s Lock Haven, Perry was cut from the team after his first semester on campus. 

Having been cut from his eight grade baseball team just five years earlier, he contemplated quitting the game altogether. 

“Any time someone tells you that you’re not good enough for anything, it’s always a shot in the heart,” said Perry. “Especially with something you’ve worked for your whole life.”

Perry had friends playing Division III baseball who told him that he should consider that route, but ultimately decided to look elsewhere.

Enter Bruce Thompson, the former coach at Lackawanna College, a school with a reputation for turning around careers of collegiate athletes and pushing them either into, or back into, Division I athletics. 

Thompson called Perry, after hearing that he was no longer with Lock Haven and invited him to come check out the school, located in the Scranton area. 

“I was just doing it to do it, just to play baseball,” said Perry. “I had no intentions of anything. When I got up there, those guys saw something inside of me that I truly never saw.

“And you always have that chip on your shoulder. I had always been told ‘no’ my whole life. When that stuff happens, it gives you that extra boost, every single day, to wake up and prove everyone wrong.”

Thompson pushed Perry, too. 

“I never had a coach that believed in me that much,” Perry said. “When we were training, he was so hard on me. He was harder on me than anyone else. The other guys were like, ‘he hates you.’ But my dad always told me, if he’s hard on you, it’s a good thing. He brought something out of me that I never thought I had.”

While at Lackawanna, Perry often found himself taking in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRaiders games. The RailRaiders are the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees. He quickly developed a relationship with former first-round Yankees draft pick Slade Heathcott. 

He got to spend time around the likes of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and other future stars coming up through the Yankees’ system.

“Being around those guys 24/7, that makes you a better player,” said Perry, who claims he never missed a RailRaiders home game while at Lackawanna. “Being around that atmosphere and seeing what they live like, it was just something I’d love to do one day.”

And that eye-opening experience, as he describes it, helped him find his way home, to Pittsburgh, before last season. 

But his first season with the Panthers was a rough one. Perry hit .191 with no home runs and only drove in nine runs, despite starting 43 games. Another setback.

“The ACC is so highly talented,” he said. “There were times I’d be on the field and look around and see these guys playing against me, and it being the first time, I didn’t have that confidence.”

Things have changed. Following Sunday’s action against Notre Dame, Perry is hitting .298, with a team-leading ten home runs and 23 RBI. The ten long balls are sixth-most in the conference. 

“Before the season even started, I was trying to work as hard as I possibly can. When I got on the field, I did feel confidence. I knew I could be just as good as I wanted to be. That was a game changer.”

And Perry went on a tear. From March 22-30, he went 13-of-23, with six home runs and ten RBI. 

“It’s just a really cool story,” said Pitt relief pitcher and sophomore Chase Smith. “It’s really encouraging to see how hard he worked, to get from somewhere where he was at an all-time low and go through a route where not everyone can get through it. He really proved everybody wrong.”

But, immediately after the hot burst, he found himself in an 0-for-23 stretch at the plate. Yet another trial.

That’s when first-year Pitt coach Mike Bell took Perry aside. Perry asked Bell, previously with Florida State as the associate head coach, if he could recall the longest stretch of futility at the plate he had seen as a coach. Bell, jokingly, told Perry that he was it, with this being his first year as a head coach.

The mood was intentionally kept light by Bell and Perry, who smacked a home run in Pitt’s series-opening win over Wake Forest last weekend, snapping the cold streak. 

“The game of baseball is humbling and cerebral,” Perry said. “No matter how good you think you are at one point, it’ll bring you down quickly. I was trying to do too much. Coach Bell told me, ‘Be who you are. The moment you try to be Superman, it’s going to hurt you.’

“The approach and the development they gave me here is amazing. Coach Bell holds me to such a high standard. Without him, I’m not sure where I’d be. There’s so many practices I left frustrated, but you have that desire to keep getting after it.”

“I’m very tough on him,” Bell said. “But I’m very tough on him because I can see the potential that’s there. You understand how bad he wants it and how bad he works, but also what he can handle. He can handle a lot because of the adversity he’s been through.”

And tough coaching is something that Perry clearly understands and accepts. For a player to be cut, so early, in his collegiate career, he has put things into a remarkable perspective.

“I wasn’t good,” he said. “He was right, the coach at Lock Haven. I wasn’t good at that time and wasn’t going to be an impact guy there. Everyone asks me how I feel about that coach but, honestly, I give a lot of credit to him. Without him, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in now.”

That position is one of a leader, both on and off the field, helping guide a primarily young group of teammates. 

“They were those guys who were the best their whole lives, but when you come to this conference, you’re going to experience failure, I don’t care how good you are. Being that I went through failure in my life, I have to tell them that’s it’s not going to be the first time.”

“It’s a testament to his strength and who he is,” Bell added. “It’s molded him into the player he is, and that goes with the game of baseball. You’ve got to learn to handle failure. He’s somebody that’s trying to enjoy and take advantage of every pitch and every inning he gets to play. Because he’s had it taken away from him.”

His outreach has extended into the community, as well.

When Perry learned about Dowd, part of the Vs. Cancer Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, he knew he needed to be involved. 

“When I met Slade Heathcott, I was that little guy trying to learn as much as I possibly can from him. I would ask him what I can do to repay him and he would say ‘just pay it back, one day there’s going to be little kid, in your life, asking you for help.’”

“When I met (Dowd), you could tell he was so excited. So many people have done me favors in my life, so the least I can do is take this kid around and have catch with him, play baseball with him and make his day. And we got each other better. 

“It puts life into perspective. We get down because we strike out. But there’s kids in situations that are honestly unbearable. It takes the pressure off and helps me help him.”

Perry’s life in and away from baseball has been one lesson after another. Following this season, the next step for him is professional ball, in which Perry should have a shot at playing, according to Bell. But there will, undoubtedly, be more adversity with that. 

He will be ready. But, until then, Perry is not worried about the future. 

“I have to get better every single day,” he said, adding that he’s focusing on his first at-bat against Presbyterian, Pitt’s opponent Friday. “I never want to feel comfortable, I never want to feel satisfied.”

When Dowd was interviewed during Pitt’s ACC Network Extra broadcast against Miami, he was asked why he gravitated toward Perry.

“I liked how nice he was,” Dowd said.

And those words, from the mouth of a 9-year-old, say it all.