Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson, who earned the “Mr. October” nickname as a clutch, five-time World Series champion in the 1970s, was in the dugout earlier this year when former University of Miami star Peter O’Brien hit a monster home run.
O’Brien, playing for the New York Yankees’ DoubleA team in Trenton, New Jersey, at the time, hit his shot well over the 407-foot sign in center field.
After O’Brien rounded the bases, Jackson, who was there in his role as a roving mentor to young hitters in the Yankees’ chain, shook the young slugger’s hand.
“He said: ‘I’ve been in baseball a long time, and that’s the longest ball I’ve ever seen hit in the minor leagues,’” said O’Brien, recalling his brief conversation with Jackson.
“Coming from him, that meant a lot.”
O’Brien’s majestic blast wasn’t a fluke. He hit 34 homers this past season, finishing fifth among minor-leaguers.
Counting the majors, there were only 11 players who hit more homers than O’Brien last season, with Cubs minor-leaguer Kris Bryant leading the way with 43.
But of those 11, only Bryant (11.4) and Rangers prospect Joey Gallo (10.5) hit more homers per at-bat than O’Brien (11.7).
Bryant, 22, and Gallo, 20, are two of the elite prospects in the game. And O’Brien, 24, who played in the prestigious Futures Game this past summer, is not too far behind.
The Arizona Diamondbacks thought enough of O’Brien that they sent infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, 30, who was an MLB All-Star in 2010, to the Yankees in a July31 deadline deal.
“It was tough at first,” O’Brien said of being traded. “You get drafted by a team, and you envision being in the big leagues with that organization.
“On the other hand, Arizona made a big trade to get me. They see me as their future, so I’m going to give it my all.”
So far, O’Brien’s “all” has been impressive. After his high school career at Miami Braddock, he played three years at Bethune-Cookman before finishing at UM.
After the Yankees drafted him in the second round in 2012, he broke out the next year in his first full season as a pro. O’Brien hit .291 with 39 doubles, four triples, 22 homers and 96 RBI.
Last season, between SingleA and DoubleA, O’Brien was strong again, hitting .271 with 23 doubles, two triples, 34 homers and 74 RBI in about 100 fewer at-bats.
He likely would have hit even more homers had he not missed the final month due to a shin injury sustained when he fouled a pitch.
He has since recovered and homered Tuesday in his first game in the Arizona Fall League.
O’Brien figures to start 2015 in TripleA but could possibly make the leap to the majors — either out of spring training or later in the year.
The biggest question is where to put the 6-3, 215-pounder. His favorite position is catcher, and he takes pride in calling a game and working with pitchers.
But some baseball people, such as John Manuel of Baseball America, think O’Brien might fit best as a versatile player who could play catcher, first base and a corner outfield spot.
“I do not see him as a [full-time] catcher,” Manuel said. “He could wind up as a Jim Leyritz type.”
Leyritz played 11 years in the majors, hitting 90 homers and winning two World Series.
Jim Morris, who coached O’Brien at UM in 2012, knows the pop he can bring to a lineup.
“There are not many guys like him who can hit with power,” Morris said. “And if you can hit, they will find a position for you.”
O’Brien, who has made a quick adjustment from the aluminum bats of college to the wood he uses in pro ball, is focused on improving his pitch selection at the plate.
“I’m an aggressive hitter,” said O’Brien, who walked just 21 times last season, down from 41 in 2013. “But I’m learning to lay off pitchers’ pitches. That comes with maturity.
“But I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished so far.”