George Springer was teeing up a golf ball and smiling on Sunday, happy to be with old friends, old teammates on a gorgeous September day back home.
Yet it was still impossible not to wonder why Springer was in Connecticut — and not in Houston suiting up for the Astros.
"That's obviously something not in my control," said Springer, who hit 40 home runs and stole 47 bases in 140 Double and Triple A minor league baseball games this season. "The only thing I can control is how I play. I have the utmost respect for all those guys up there [in the major leagues]. This game isn't easy. I can take those things I was able to develop and learn, and now I can relax and go to spring training all happy."
Springer, Matt Barnes, LJ Mazzilli and other former Team Connecticut alums were at Tunxis Plantation, playing in the Michael Zabroski Memorial Tournament. Michael Zobroski was killed in a hit-and-run accident on his 21st birthday in 2004, and his father, Peter, runs the tournament each year to benefit scholarship funds for Team Connecticut Baseball and at Rocky Hill High School.
"Z has been extremely influential for me," Springer said, "and it's an honor for me to be here."
Said Barnes: "Peter's the best. I was fortunate enough to have him for two summers as my pitching coach. This is a special day, a tough day for him. But we all come out here for him."
Springer, 23, is the highest-drafted player ever from UConn, taken with the 11th pick in 2011, with Barnes going to the Red Sox eight picks later. Springer was with the Astros in big league camp as a non-roster invitee, and began the year at Double A Corpus Christi, where he hit .297 with 19 homers, 55 RBI and 23 steals before hitting two more homers in the Texas League All-Star Game and getting promoted to Triple A Oklahoma City in July. Remarkably, Springer was later named the Texas League MVP.
"I didn't know that was actually possible," he said, "but it was an honor they thought so highly of me."
At the highest level of the minors, Springer hit .311 with 18 homers, 53 RBI and 22 steals in 53 games. If you add his two homers and two steals in the All-Star Game, and his home run before Oklahoma City was eliminated in the first round of the Pacific Coast League playoffs, Springer reached the 40-40 club. In regular season games, he fell three homers short of becoming the first minor leaguer to do it since Len Tucker with Pampas of the Class B and long-defunct Southwestern League. The last player to do it in the high minors was Frank Demaree of Los Angeles of the PCL in 1934 — when the league played 186 games a season.
"Once I got to 30, it was one of those things where I said, 'That's a lot of home runs,'" Springer said. "I ended up falling three short, but it's not a big deal. I'm trying to help my team win and if I hit a home run, great. If not, there are a lot of other ways to do it."
It's so rare for a minor leaguer to get a 40-40 because normally when someone is putting up those numbers, there's a call to the big leagues. The Astros, who began the season 8-25 and are headed for a 100-loss season, could certainly have used a boost. But the organization has been wary of "starting the clock" toward salary arbitration, which comes after three years, or two years plus 86 days of major league service time. A late September call-up would not have made this season count, but in keeping Springer off the 40-man roster the Astros preserve their options going into 2014.
GM Jeff Luhnow has promised Springer will be part of the big league club in 2014, but he has received criticism in Houston and on the Internet where an ultimately futile "Free George Springer" movement began this summer.
None of it seems to faze Springer, who will go to big league camp in February, this time with external expectations of forcing the Astros to make him their starting center fielder.
"I just slow everything down," he said. "I just go out and let my instincts play and whatever happens, happens. Right now, it's just lift, eat and sleep, that's what my mind needs, what my body needs. It's already hard enough, this game. … I'll go to big league camp, play my game and whatever happens, happens."
While Springer was tearing up two leagues, Barnes had his ups and downs at Double A Portland, going 5-10 with a 4.33 ERA, but the Red Sox moved him to Triple A Pawtucket and he finished the season on a promising note, throwing 5 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out seven during the International League playoffs as he approached his 125th inning of the season.
"I learned a lot, you can't really just throw any more," Barnes said. "I learned how to use my secondary pitches more, how to pitch. I think I did a good job of withstanding a full year and feeling good through September."
For Barnes, 23, who figures to earn an invite to major league camp and start next season at Pawtucket, as well as Springer, the dream of the big leagues is close enough to reach out and touch.
"Double A, you feel it a little bit," Barnes said, "but Triple A, you see guys going up and down, you see your friends getting called up. It's close, and it makes you work just a little bit harder."
As Barnes and Springer, two of seven recent UConn players to finish the 2013 season in Double A or higher, teed up to start the tournament, it was with the knowledge that this could be their last time here together. A year from now, both will likely be sending their best wishes from afar, and Peter Zabroski would like nothing more than for them to miss the tournament for that reason.
"They're great athletes," Zabroski said, "and they're even better people."