By Tyler Waldrep
The cheers were deafening.
Only moments before, Martin Methodist baseball coach Jody Evans had asked the kids at the baseball camp the school was hosting to make some noise for their favorite coach. As Evans worked his way down the line of coaches, he couldn’t help but grin. He knew all along the kids were going to pick Conner Rivers.
“People are drawn to him, and he’s kind of a reserved person, but, like, something about his personality draws people toward him,” Evans said.
Before the kids recognized him as the best coach, the former outfielder for Martin Methodist was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-America College Division Baseball Second Team, in large part because of his 3.81 GPA, which included a 4.0 showing in the spring during his final semester on the Redhawks’ team.
“To win something academically, it was really rewarding because sometimes athletes devote so much time to their craft, whatever sport they play, it’s hard to devote time to school and to do well in school,” Rivers said. “It was a big-time achievement for me. I’m really thankful for winning it.”
It wasn’t the first award the Homewood alum had received for his efforts this season. He also was honored as the Southern States Athletic Conference Scholar-Athlete Baseball Player of the Year, and he was named to the all-conference second team after he finished his senior season with a team-best .427 batting average in 24 conference games.
When the time came to nominate players for awards, Evans didn’t hesitate to nominate his best player and his best student for the CoSIDA award. The Redhawks coach had shown the same faith in his outfielder all season, and Rivers almost always seemed to deliver.
A back injury suffered in the first game of a doubleheader against No. 14 William Carey University on April 15 sent Rivers to the bench for the second game – until the ninth inning rolled around.
“Some parents looked at me and said, ‘I bet they’re going to try to get Conner to go in,” River’s mom, Cynthia Rivers, said.
The Redhawks had lost two games to the Crusaders earlier that weekend by a total of 19 runs, extending the losing streak in the series to eight games.
“I remember coach coming up (earlier) and telling me, ‘If there’s a big situation where we need you to come in and play or come in to pinch hit, I’m pinch hitting you no matter who’s up,’” Rivers said. “We had a guy at second base with two outs and he’s like, ‘Conner you’re pinch hitting.’”
His bat had been slow in the first game and his back was still aching, but the outfielder put all of that out of his mind when he stepped up to the plate. The Crusaders had gotten the best of him with some inside pitches in the first game, but he was ready when the fastball came screaming inside this time – contact.
Seconds later, the Redhawks were able to celebrate the run that ended up deciding the game.
“It was a no-brainer type of move, but it made me look like a genius when it came down to it,” Evans said. “But you would want nobody else up in that situation.”
The coach also is confident his star player’s numbers would have been even better this season if a freak accident in the batting cages had not temporarily blinded Rivers in one eye. He suffered a scratched retina that benched him for the first part of the season.
“I was blurry, bleeding and all I could think about was the worst-case scenario is I’m never going to be able to see again,” Rivers said. “Baseball wasn’t even in my mind at the moment. I was just hoping and praying I could see again.”
When he returned to the lineup, he struggled to hit anything because of the face mask he was required to wear for the remainder of his senior campaign.
“When I was younger and we had to use those for one year, that was my worst year of baseball,” Evans said.
But the mask didn’t stop Rivers from delivering the victory over William Carey, and it certainly wasn’t going to stop him from returning to the scene of the crime to coach his teammates on their swings.
“A lot of times a great player like he was, I mean he’s one of the better hitters I’ve had since I’ve been coaching at Martin, a lot of times they’ll do it themselves and they’ll work hard, but they’re really not willing or they don’t know how to teach it,” Evans said. “And he does, he can relay it to other players. And then when the other players listen to him … they want to model themselves after him and that’s just an attribute that I wanted to bring back to the program.”
So Evans did just that. Rivers’ time as a member of the team is over, but he will continue to help the Redhawks out as an assistant coach.
The adjustment probably won’t be a difficult one on his former teammates. They were used to listening to Rivers outside of the confines of the batting cages already when he tutored them and other students in math.
“I like working with people and getting (the) most out of them,” Rivers said. “I’m really excited to help as many kids out as I can. But in terms of the (coaching) career path, I think that would be awesome to do something like that. I’ve had a ton of great coaches. If I just potentially be like one of them one day that would be awesome.” ❖