Pat Connaughton wants to be like Bo Jackson.
The short-season Single-A Aberdeen right-handed pitcher, who was the Orioles' fourth-round selection in this year's amateur draft, will leave the IronBirds on Wednesday. He will return to Notre Dame to play his senior season for the basketball team and earn his business management degree.
In Connaughton's perfect scenario, he'd be a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA draft and, like Jackson, split his time competing at the highest level in two professional sports.
"I would miss a little here and there, but I'm biased — Bo Jackson did football and baseball. That seems a little harder to do," Connaughton, 21, said Tuesday. "There's time. There's time to do it."
If that seems far-fetched, consider this: Some projections tabbed Connaughton (pronounced con-UH-tin) as a possible first-round pick in this year's baseball draft, and the pitcher thinks his commitment to basketball cost him a higher selection.
Although Connaughton has pitched only five games for the IronBirds, manager Matt Merullo already raves about his "extremely live" fastball, which touches the mid-90s. And on the basketball court, Connaughton averaged 13.8 points per game during his junior year, highlighted by a posterizing dunk over Duke's Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick in this year's NBA draft.
As Connaughton explained, his 6-foot-5, 215-pound size projects better on the diamond. But if he were to have a breakout winter with the Fighting Irish, he could foresee a situation in which he didn't return to the Orioles' organization next spring.
"You try to look into the future, but you can't," Connaughton said. "I guess when it comes down to it, you have to list the pros and cons. That's why I try to keep my options open for so long. I don't want to choose one and regret not going down another road."
Connaughton admits that it's very unlikely that he would decide not to return to the Orioles after he finishes his final basketball season, and he explained that he doesn't want to burn any bridges with the franchise that gambled on him.
But before the baseball draft, he warned interested clubs about his commitment to return to Notre Dame and his aspiration to pursue basketball — even if it conceivably comes at baseball's expense.
For that reason, Connaughton signed with Sam Samardzija and Frontline Athlete Management, an agency that has experience dealing with two-sport athletes. They represent current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Sam's brother, Jeff Samardzija, the right-handed pitcher for the Oakland Athletics.
Wilson played football and baseball at North Carolina State, while Jeff Samardzija starred in the same two sports at Notre Dame.
"This coming year, I'll talk to [Jeff] a lot more because I'll be at a bridge I'll have to cross, just like he crossed it," Connaughton said.
Connaughton also played football at St. John's Prep (Mass.), and he received significant college interest in that sport as well. But he challenged himself to focus primarily on basketball during the summer before his senior year of high school, and soon, the recruitment letters arrived by the dozens.
Out of high school, Connaughton was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 38th round in 2011. But he turned down the chance to sign in order to attend Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship. Three years later, he's facing a similar decision.
"I was very honest back then in high school [with pro teams] and said, 'Look, don't waste a pick on me. I'm going to go to college,' " Connaughton said. "I wanted to be honest with teams this year, too, telling them, 'Look, if you're not going to allow me to play basketball, then I'm not going to sign.' "
The stint with the IronBirds this summer is the only time Connaughton can remember dedicating himself fully to a single sport for an extended period, and Merullo likes what he has seen so far. Connaughton has allowed four earned runs in 10 innings while striking out eight batters and walking one.
Merullo, who previously served as a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said he believes a winter away from baseball won't hamper Connaughton's development on the mound.
"I always liked guys who were playing multiple sports in high school," Merullo said. "It's about being a teammate and being a competitor. A lot of times, being in training all the time and not competing isn't the same as being a key member of a team and getting out there when it counts, regardless of the sport."
Connaughton's next athletic challenge is to lead the Fighting Irish to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in the past six years. Then, he knows he might have to say goodbye to one of the two sports he loves equally.
"It's been the golden questions all my life," he said. "Out of respect for the Baltimore Orioles, it would have to be a crazy scenario for them to look differently on me and for me not to come back."
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