With his season for the Tennessee Smokies winding down, Connor Myers was preparing for his other job.
As he had done in each of the previous two Augusts, the Middletown High graduate touched base with the human resources department at UPS. A meeting, which essentially would start his offseason work as a delivery truck driver, was set: 8 a.m. on the Wednesday after Labor Day.
“I had to cancel it once I got the news,” Myers said.
Myers was on the verge of playing Triple-A baseball — the highest level of professional baseball any Middletown native has ever reached since Hal Keller played the final five games of his professional career with the Triple-A Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League in 1955. So Myers’ co-workers at UPS understood, and the meeting was pushed back.
Both Keller and his brother, Charlie, enjoyed Major League Baseball careers, playing their final games in 1952 with the Washington Senators and New York Yankees, respectively.
“It’s a really cool thing to learn of, and it makes me proud to think about it,” said Myers, who first learned of his place in Middletown history when his mother, Rita, brought up the subject.
Before Myers took the field for what he thought would be his second-to-last game of the season for Tennessee, the Chicago Cubs Double-A affiliate, Smokies manager Jimmy Gonzalez essentially told Myers his Double-A season would end that day. The Iowa Cubs, Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate, needed help for its Pacific Coast League playoff series against the Round Rock Express and wanted Myers to join the team.
“I was like, ‘What? No way. That’s awesome,’” Myers said.
With the best-of-five series beginning in Round Rock, Texas, just three days later, Gonzalez gave Myers the day off for the Smokies’ regular-season finale on Labor Day, giving him more time to prepare for his trip. Myers said a strong finish to his Double-A season — he hit .391 over his final 13 games — may have factored into his promotion.
“We knew we were already out of the playoffs, but we just were enjoying our time together because our time was going to end,” Myers said. “We were trying to ... go out there and be ourselves and just have fun. I was just trying to follow suit, and it ended up working out.”
After entering the first game of the series as a defensive substitution in the 11th inning — a 5-4 Iowa loss — Myers was in the starting lineup in Game 2, and he found himself with men on first and third with one out in his first at-bat. He bounced a 1-0 pitch from Brandon Bielak up the middle for an RBI single.
“It felt good to get that out of the way,” Myers said. “My first at-bat, having an opportunity to score a run, and I ended up getting the job done. It felt good to get that one.”
Myers’ hit gave Iowa a 3-0 lead, but the Express — the Houston Astros’ Triple-A affiliate — rallied for a 4-3 victory to deal Iowa its second straight extra-inning loss. Iowa then won the next two games of the series in Des Moines, Iowa, before Round Rock rallied from a three-run deficit to win the decisive fifth game.
Myers went 1-for-6 in the series, getting the chance to play with a handful of teammates who had spent time in Major League Baseball, including Kendall Graveman, who was the Oakland A’s Opening Day starting pitcher last year before suffering an elbow injury. Graveman pitched 3 1-3 shutout innings in Game 3, striking out five batters.
“It’s a great learning atmosphere because you have all this talent that you’re playing with that’s in the locker room,” Myers said. “You can talk to them, learn from them. It’s just a super cool feeling being around that stuff.”
Heading into the offseason, Myers expressed some satisfaction over having posted the highest batting average of his four-year minor league career with the Smokies (.263). He also set career highs in doubles (21), triples (six) and RBIs while stealing 16 bases.
For the 2020 season, Myers wants to utilize his speed more on the bases, and his coaches have told him he can do so by trying to get more bunts down. He was told he went 6-for-10 at the plate when he tried to bunt for base hits last season.
“If I make the sample size a little bit higher, I can end up bumping my average up 25 points,” Myers said.
Myers doesn’t know where the Cubs will place him in the organization next year, and he’ll need to wait until the end of spring training before he does. But getting a taste of Triple-A baseball has made his dream of playing in the major leagues that much more realistic.
“It’s literally only one call away,” Myers said. “If the cards fall where they may, hopefully I get the opportunity next time for next year.”
One of Myers’ teammates with the Smokies, Nico Hoerner, received such an opportunity this season after the Cubs’ top two options at shortstop, Javier Baez and Addison Russell, went down with injuries. Hoerner, the Cubs first-round draft pick in 2018, has hit .417 with two home runs and 11 RBIs over his first six games.
“It’s the stuff that fans don’t see,” Myers said when asked what makes Hoerner a special talent. “It’s the pregame work he goes into, mentally preparing for the game, watching pitchers, watching what their tendencies are.
“Just his [batting] cage work, his workouts in the gym, it’s something else to see, just knowing that this kid’s 22 years old and just coming out of college, and he’s ready for the big leagues already.”
While Connor has reached all the rungs of the Cubs minor league system, his ability to connect with fans stands out just as much for Rita. Through the online application, Live Source, the Smokies regularly auction off jerseys. Rita said the opening bids for Smokies jerseys started out at around $125 and that Connor’s have fetched between $275 and $350.
“He’s a super fan favorite,” Rita said. “He’s great with kids, he’s great with the fans, and they just love him — and I’m not just saying it because he’s my son, I just really see it.”