When the start of minor league spring training was pushed back to April, Baltimore Orioles farmhand Ryan Conroy got to do something he considered pretty special — he hung out in the Lemon Bay dugout as an assistant coach for the first month or so of the Manta Rays’ season.
“It was really fun,” Conroy said this weekend from Bowie, Maryland, where he is pitching for the Baysox, the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate. “It was good to go back and see those guys and see where I was, really, only six years ago.”
Conroy pitched for the Mantas from 2012-15, before heading to Elon College (North Carolina). From there, he was drafted by the Orioles in the 8th round of the 2018 Major League draft. He became just the second Lemon Bay player ever drafted, following Brian Almeida’s selection in the 7th round of the 2000 draft by the Atlanta Braves.
“It was great to be able to help those guys and pass on some knowledge that I’ve gained through my travels in my career, going to college and now pro ball,” he said. “Any amount of information I can pass on to those dudes to help them succeed, that’s a success to me.”
Conroy was promoted to Bowie on July 19 after earlier stops at Low-A Delmarva and High-A Aberdeen. He was reunited with former Elon teammate Kyle Brnovich, who also has a tie to Lemon Bay through his uncle, Manta’s assistant coach Mel Brnovich.
“Both Mel and my dad are very passionate about baseball, so at family dinners, it’s very hard to get off the topic,” Brnovich said. “It’s good. They both know a lot about it and they both have a huge influence not only on my career but with Ryan (Mel’s son) who played at St. Leo.”
Brnovich, who grew up in Ohio, arrived at Elon a year after Brnovich. Still, it didn’t take long for Conroy to divine the family line.
“How many Brnoviches could there be in this world?” Conroy said. “So I asked him if he knew Mel and Ryan and, yeah, that’s his uncle and cousin. So from then on, we spent quite a bit of time together. We had a lot of fun.”
Conroy and Brnovich each found themselves knocking around Southwest Florida a little longer than they anticipated when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down minor league baseball in 2020.
“It was definitely a crazy time, for sure. It was tough,” Conroy said. “A lot of guys were improvising and finding various ways to get their work done. Thankfully, I had a network of guys here in Southwest Florida and we were able to get our work done safely and effectively.”
Conroy said he used the time away from organized baseball to work on himself.
“We never get that much time to focus and lock in on ourselves without a season,” Conroy said. “I really took that time to hit the weight room hard and improve my physique and I also took that time to focus in on adding a new pitch, a curve ball, over quarantine. Having time to work on it was really good.”
Meanwhile Brnovich found himself in something akin to an alternate reality. He had been drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 8th round of the 2019 draft, but was shut down before throwing a pitch. Then, before ever getting a chance to play in the Angels’ system, he was traded to Baltimore in the deal that sent pitcher Dylan Bundy to L.A.
“So that was kind of a thing, for someone who had never played,” Brnovich said. “I didn’t have a feel for how it happens or anything like that. It was a shock, but it was awesome because I was back on the East Coast and got to be around college guys I played with, and spring training is in Sarasota, so how could I beat that?”
Brnovich said 2020 gave him a glimpse of a “normal life” that summer.
“It was really weird not playing and I think that was something I struggled with early this season, because I couldn’t get my mindset going,” he said. “My mindset in games is I’m here to compete and I’m here to strike you out. That’s all I want to do. Get outs and win. I struggled with that at the beginning of the season.”
It has worked out, since. Brnovich was promoted to Bowie in mid-June after dominating at Aberdeen. In five games (4 starts), he is sporting a 2.45 earned run average with 27 strikeouts and 2 walks in 22-plus innings pitched.
When Conroy joined the Baysox this past week, Brnovich said it was nice to see a friendly face.
“It’s fun having someone around that you know and are comfortable with,” he said. “It makes it all that much better. It’s pretty good that we get to share the minor league experience together, especially on the same team and travel around to all these different towns.”
In the offseason, it’s possible they’ll pair up again in Englewood with the Mantas.
“I talk to (Conroy) and Mel and Ryan, my cousin, and (Lemon Bay coach) Zach Gonzales. They’re the people I hang out with when I’m back down there,” Brnovich said. “I go watch their games. If they ever need help, I’m always happy to help. I don’t know the Lemon Bay community as well as those guys, but they’ve been very welcoming.”
Conroy routinely retweeted Manta Rays tweets as Lemon Bay made its postseason run this past spring and takes every opportunity to plug the current players in with their school’s history.
“We had some great teams over the years and one of the things I try to instill in the guys that are there now is you have to realize there are guys before you who work that number,” Conroy said. “Mason Boltinghouse was No. 16 this year at Lemon Bay. I was No. 16. On the coaching staff now are Jaryd Clary (No. 14) and Brendan Cutting (No. 8), their numbers were also on the team (Devin Clifford and Ryan Mickey).
“And before them, Brian Almeida wore that jersey,” Conroy continued. “Take some pride in who came before you because they’re watching. All these guys are watching. I get so pumped for those guys. I’m really excited for what they can do next year. We’re going to be pretty good and I’m going to work with them when I can.”