Hank Conger turned 22 in January. He's at an age when elite prospects begin to get their first nibbles of major-league life, but he's blocked at the moment by Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli on the Angels roster.
I caught up with Conger recently by telephone after a long day at the Angels' spring-training camp in Tempe, Ariz. He talked about how nice it is to be healthy at last and about his goals for the upcoming season and beyond. He also touched on the scarcity of Asian-American guys in major-league baseball and how he idolized a Dodgers pitcher as a youngster in Huntington Beach.
Q: This is your third big-league camp. Does this one feel any different?
HC: It felt a little different knowing this is the first spring training I’ve actually felt healthy and in really good shape. I’m ready to go right off the bat instead of worrying about a throwing program. Last year, I spent the whole off-season rehabbing in Arizona. I came into spring training and didn’t get to play in games.
Q: More than a year removed from your shoulder surgery, how far along is your throwing ability these days?
HC: It has felt stronger than it has at any time since I came out of the draft. I can remember when I first got back and I was at Rancho Cucamonga, it was back and forth. Right now, my arm feels really good.
Q: What can you pick up from watching Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli at camp?
HC: I look at those guys and just kind of watch how they go about their business. They’ve been under Mike (Scioscia) for a while now. The main thing is just seeing how they take leadership with the pitching staff, the way they block balls and receive. The coaching has been awesome and stuff, but for me to actually see players at the level I want to get to is great.
Q: Do you feel comfortable talking to those guys or are you bashful, because you’ve never spent time in the big leagues?
HC: The first year was kind of a little weird. I didn’t know what to expect. Now, I always try to ask questions and stuff. I know I’m kind of like the rookie and you don’t see me really hanging with them too much.
Q: Do you have to carry the veterans’ gear or anything? Any stuff the youngsters have to do in team meetings?
HC: The new guys in camp always have to do something. I got that out of the way a couple of years ago. This year, I helped out with Reggie Willits’ “Toys for Tots.” He put me in charge of going to Toys ‘R Us with a couple other guys. On their birthdays, kids get to go in a room and pick out a toy. We varied it a little bit. We got a couple baby toys, some Legos, mini-scooters and stuff. It was cool.
Q: What’s it like to work under Scioscia’s gaze? Apparently, he knows a little bit about catching.
HC: You just pay attention to what he says. He harps on the pitcher-catcher relationship every single day. He’s huge on not missing signs, making sure you take leadership and tell the infielders and pitchers what to do, whether it’s a groundball to first or whatever. He’s always on us about blocking, receiving. The main thing is he’s trying to make us leaders on the field.
Q: You seem like a quiet guy. Does that come naturally to you?
HC: Every team I’ve been on, I’ve been one of the younger ones on the team. It has been a little different for me, but I’ve learned to ease into it, I guess. I understand your main job is to handle a pitching staff, but in order to do that you need to be vocal. Coaches usually give me a tough time about that. I’m trying to work on that.
Q: Most people think your hitting stroke is a natural talent. Are you the finished product as a catcher or a work in progress?
HC: I always feel there’s a lot of work to do. For me, it’s just about trying to get better every day. I know it sounds like a cliché. I learned a lot from (minor-league catching instructor) Tom Gregorio. Everything from footwork to stance. I’ve been working, but I still feel there’s a lot more work to do.
Q: Are you hoping to start at Triple-A this year?
HC: I hope so, yeah. But as long as I’m on the field playing, anything will be fine. In spring training, you never know.
Q: You’re doing a blog on Angelswin.com. In one of your entries, you mentioned that, being half-Korean, you follow Asian players in baseball and were thrilled to meet Hideki Matsui. Can you elaborate on that?
HC: I was really close to writing about it on my blog, but I felt it was a little off topic. Chan Ho Park was really the main guy for me and my family when I was growing up. He was pretty much the first Korean big leaguer to have really good success in the big leagues. He was huge all over Korea, too. He’s the one who really opened the door for a lot of Korean players. I remember the drop-kick he pulled on the Angels.
Q: There are now lots of Asian players in baseball, but there haven’t been too many Asian-American players over the years. Why do you think that is?
HC: Me and my dad always talk about that and I’ve thought about it a lot. When I was playing traveling ball and in high school, I noticed there were a lot of younger kids than me in the area who were playing at a high level. It seems more and more Asian-American guys are playing. I think there’s a wave of younger guys. Only time will tell how far they get.