WCSU baseball star Bierfeldt takes first step toward big leagues
Baltimore Orioles draft pick anchors lineup for Ripkens’ Aberdeen franchise
DANBURY, CONN. — Western Connecticut State University Colonials star Conor Bierfeldt has wasted no time since his May graduation embarking on his pursuit of a career in professional baseball, landing an assignment to play this summer for a minor league franchise in Maryland after his selection by the Baltimore Orioles in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft held in June.
Tapped in the 29th round of the 2013 MLB draft, Bierfeldt signed with the Orioles organization on June 14 and immediately joined the Single-A Aberdeen (Md.) IronBirds franchise, owned by legendary Orioles shortstop and Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Billy, also a former Orioles infielder. In the first seven weeks of the season through July 30, Bierfeldt has proven a mainstay in the outfield and reliable power hitter batting in the cleanup position, leading the team in home runs and ranking third in runs batted in and runs scored.
His solid start with the IronBirds follows an unparalleled four-year record of success with the Western Colonials that shattered school records for offensive production, achieving a remarkable batting average of .412 and 148 RBIs over four seasons from 2010 through 2013. As the recipient of the Little East Conference (LEC) Baseball Player of the Year award in both 2012 and 2013, he became the first athlete in conference history ever to earn the honor twice in his college career. His extraordinary achievements also garnered recognition with his selection as a first-team outfielder on 2013 all-conference squads named by the LEC and the Eastern College Athletic Conference. He was named American Baseball Coaches Association New England Player of the Year and a first-team All-American in 2012, and was named this year to the All-America third team.
“The biggest difference between college and pro ball has been getting used to the grind of playing every day,” Bierfeldt observed. “Pro ball is all baseball, all the time.” While he said he has come to appreciate the opportunities to unwind from competition and focus on class work and other off-the-field activities during his college years, he stressed that the demanding travel and full game schedule with only a rare day off “really isn’t that bad at all. I wouldn’t choose it any differently.”
In his more than 30 years in baseball coaching and 14 years as head coach of the Colonials, John Susi had not experienced the thrill of having one of his players chosen in the MLB draft prior to Bierfeldt’s selection in June. Susi and his assistant coaches had recognized Bierfeldt’s promise when they recruited him in 2009 as a standout player at Torrington High School, but it was not until his emergence as an offensive force and all-conference outfielder in his sophomore year that they sensed his potential to make the leap to professional baseball.
“We call some of our best players ‘jumpers,’ kids whose skills jump from one level to the next, and that’s what Conor was,” Susi said. “He made it very easy to be his coach; he just worked harder and harder, step by step each year. When he came back for his junior year, we were expecting good things, and his skills just went through the roof.”
Bierfeldt noted he has remained in touch with Susi on a daily basis, “and it is incredible to have that support even after I finished my time at school. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without the tutelage and experience I received at Western. I grew to a different level from high school to now, and the constants through those four years were coach Susi and (assistant Colonials) coaches Bill Walton and Matt Perper.”
Susi learned another lesson about his star player when — realizing that Bierfeldt’s performance in his junior year had made him a legitimate prospect for the 2012 MLB draft — he offered to begin contacting professional baseball organizations to gauge their interest. “Conor told me, ‘Wait until next year before you start contacting people — I’m going to graduate first,’” Susi recalled. This May he earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in the marketing program of the WCSU Ancell School of Business.
In the months leading up to the 2013 draft, Susi and Bierfeldt had discussions with representatives of the Orioles as well as several other organizations, including the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Mariners. The Colonials star joined other prospects at Camden Yards prior to the draft for a workout providing Orioles staff with an opportunity to make first-hand evaluations.
“We had a pretty good idea that he would be picked, but the draft days were still a nerve-wracking experience,” Susi said. “You wait and wait and wait, and when his name was called, it was amazing to hear! It is one of those moments I will remember forever.”
Within a week of his draft selection, Bierfeldt traveled to Sarasota to the Orioles minor league camp and shipped out the same day to Maryland to join the Aberdeen IronBirds. Susi noted the assignment to the Single-A franchise in the New York-Penn League allowed Bierfeldt to bypass the Rookie Leagues, an entry-level tier for many young players starting out in professional baseball.
Bierfeldt now plays for first-year Aberdeen manager Matt Merullo, a major league veteran and familiar figure in Connecticut sports. Formerly a resident of Ridgefield, Merullo played at the MLB level from 1989 through 1994 as a catcher for the Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians. Since his retirement, he has served as a regional scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks and has operated a baseball academy for youth in Madison, Conn., where he now resides.
When Susi recently visited Fishkill, N.Y., to see the IronBirds in action against the rival Hudson Valley Renegades, he had the opportunity to chat with his former player after the game and meet Merullo. The IronBirds manager observed that Bierfeldt was holding his own in competition with higher draft picks from larger colleges, Susi said. Merullo reaffirmed that positive impression when contacted in late July for his evaluation of Bierfeldt’s performance at mid-season.
“Conor has been a solid player so far this season for us,” Merullo said. “He has really adapted well to being placed in the cleanup hitter’s role. He stays even-keeled emotionally and has been a great addition for us in the outfield. He makes solid contact with the ball and has translated his success at the Division III level to minor league ball.”
Bierfeldt said his manager understands the move from college to professional baseball can be difficult, and has eased that transition with his positive mentoring to share his extensive experience in all aspects of the game.
“There’s no such thing as an easy day at the office because everyone you go up against is a professional just like you,” he remarked. “Matt and his coaching staff are helping all of us rookies get used to the professional mindset. The little things become that much more important — the way you prepare each day, the way you conduct yourself, the way you deal with failure, the way you deal with success.”
Susi observed that Bierfeldt’s personal story holds a wider message for current and future college baseball players. “It is good for these kids to know that, if they don’t want to pursue their education and their sports at a big university, they will still get noticed in their athletic and academic pursuits at a Division III college,” he said.
“For Conor, I hope that his career in baseball will be a long and successful story,” he added. “But I know he’ll be successful at whatever he does in the working world. That’s just the way he is.”
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