SARASOTA, Fla. - The changes that Chance Sisco is making in the batting cage actually bring him back to his old form, the return ignited by his offseason work in California.
Sisco, who turns 25 next week, underwent intensive sessions with hitting instructor Craig Wallenbrock, with particular emphasis on his lower body.
“Just to put it in simple terms, I’m trying to load correctly, trying to stay more in my legs than I have been in the past couple years,” Sisco said after today’s second full-squad workout
“Kind of getting back to what I was doing in the minor leagues in ‘16 and ‘17, but better direction. Those years I was using my legs well, but my direction was a little off and it’s taken me a little while, a little too long, to figure out how to do it correctly. But I think I’m at that point right now.”
Sisco had another hot spring but still couldn’t carry it through a major league season. He’s a career .203/.319/.357 hitter in 404 plate appearances, and that includes his six hits in 18 at-bats - with two doubles and two home runs - in 2017.
Trying to break camp with the Orioles this spring and avoid the prolonged slumps, Sisco went to work by watching lots of video and taking instruction on areas that needed improvement.
Trying to get to that right spot as he initiated contact.
Wallenbrock is known as a hitting guru who’s regarded as a pioneer in some new-age hitting concepts. J.D. Martinez is counted among the pupils at his facility.
“They pointed out a couple things that I was doing improperly with the load,” Sisco said. “That’s where it started.”
Meanwhile, Jeff Conine finished up his second day as a week-long guest instructor, a role that came about after his meeting in September with executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias.
“I wanted to know if there were any opportunities with the Orioles,” said Conine, who spent six of his 17 major league seasons with the club over two iterations. “Looking to get back in the game of baseball. That’s what I know. I’m a baseball player. So they reached out to me early January and asked me if I wanted to come out here for a week in spring training and be involved with the team, the guys.
“Obviously, I have ties with Brandon Hyde from the Marlins days, so I was eager to do it and excited to come back out here.”
Conine endorsed the hiring of Hyde as manager last December.
“Obviously, I knew him really well with the Marlins and had seen him in action and talked to him a lot about the game,” Conine said. “I knew that in a rebuild situation with a lot of young players this would be a perfect fit for him, because he’s just that kind of guy. High energy. He gets it, especially in the clubhouse, as far as people ... a lot of times not subscribe to the chemistry in the clubhouse argument. I think it’s a huge thing and so does he, and I think he’ll build a nice culture here.”
Being back in an Orioles uniform, even the orange practice model, rekindles fond memories for Conine. He cherishes his years in the organization and doesn’t hide it.
“You know what? I loved Baltimore,” he said. “I remember every time we broke camp and we’d go up, right before opening day, we went to the ballpark and set up the lockers. I remember going out at night and looking at Camden Yards with my dress clothes that I had worn up from spring training, and just a happy place. I really enjoyed all my time in Baltimore.
“Those days, getting to play with Cal (Ripken) and Brady (Anderson) and Mike (Bordick) and B-Rob (Brian Roberts) and all those guys, it was a fun time for me and we had great teams and a great atmosphere at Camden Yards. When anybody ever asks me my favorite place I ever played, I always say that. I say Camden Yards is my favorite.”
Conine turns 54 later this year. He’s lived in the same house in Weston, Fla., for the last 25 years. He looks like he’s in playing shape, but jokes that it’s miles from the truth.
Seeing pitcher Hunter Harvey in camp is aging Conine, who remembers being Bryan Harvey’s teammate with the Marlins.
“Oh my God, yeah,” he said. “Obviously played with Bryan with the Marlins when we first had the team in 1993, and now his son’s here. I knew the family back then. They were toddlers. And now you see them here. I feel old, really old.
“And then yesterday Brian Roberts was like, ‘Come on, let’s play catch.’ And I’m like, ‘Um, all right, I haven’t thrown a ball in a while.’ I stopped pitching to my son (Griffin) because I started hitting him when I was throwing batting practice to him. I was done with that. And one game of catch, I woke up this morning and I’m like, ‘Why is my shoulder so sore? Oh my God, I played catch for five minutes and my arm’s killing me.’ It sucks getting old.”
Conine dropped off Griffin, a second round pick in 2018 out of Duke University, at the Blue Jays’ camp in Dunedin before arriving in Sarasota.
“It’s probably more nerve-racking for me than for him, watching him play, because I know exactly what he’s going through,” Conine said. “And when you see your son go through a slump or struggles, you know exactly what you want to tell him. I try to stay and let him figure his own way out, but he had a great year last year and he works really, really hard and he’s got a chance to be really good in this game.”
Conine left the Marlins organization in 2017 after refusing new owner Derek Jeter’s offer of a reduced role from special assistant. Being out of work came with a perk. More family time.
“I got a year and a half to be with my kids and I saw my daughter graduate and my son graduate and my son, followed him at Duke, got to go through the NCAA playoffs and all that exciting stuff,” Conine said. “If I was working then I probably wouldn’t be able to see all that, but then sitting at home, getting a little bored, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ And baseball’s what I know, so I wanted to get back in the game. It’s nice to be back in uniform.
“They basically said, ‘How long do you want to be here?’ I said, ‘A week is probably good to start off with,’ and we’ll see from there. I played, basically, almost half my career in the infield and half in the outfield, so baseball, it’s all about information and young guys, they need information to assess their game and to get better. And I’m here to lend whatever knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years.”
Conine said he hasn’t been offered a broadcasting role during the season but is interested in getting back behind the microphone. It was counted among his many duties in Miami’s organization.
“Yeah, I’m open to anything,” he said. “Like I said, baseball was my life forever and I’m glad to be here with the O’s. They gave me a little opportunity to get back in uniform. Still fit into one, which is good.”
Conine is still adapting to the way analytics are fitting into baseball.
“I worked with the Marlins for eight years and they weren’t very analytic-heavy,” he said. “They started getting into that more before I left, but I don’t know. I think it’s going to pull back a little bit. I think a lot of organizations went all-in in the analytics and that’s the only thing they relied on, but I still believe, and I’m an old-school guy, in the human elements in evaluating players, evaluating personalities, which a lot of analytics, they don’t tell you anything about the guy.
“They tell you what he’s good at on the field, but I think for me - and I think Brandon Hyde subscribes to this too - is that you want that human element, especially evaluating what’s going to be like in the clubhouse. And I think we’re going to have a nice blend of both, analytics and scouting, coming up soon that’s going to bring that chemistry and that character back into it a little bit more than analytics will show you.”
Conine is in the process of learning more about the Orioles. There’s been a significant detachment.
“You know, I didn’t know much about the organization because when I was out of it, I was out of it,” he said. “I didn’t really follow much of anything. But I went to a game up in September. Mancini’s a very exciting player. There are a lot of young guys here, and big arms.
“I think they’re on the right path and I’m sure you’ve all been through rebuilds before and you don’t know one way or the other, but I think they’ve got a good chance to do something big.”
In the meantime, Conine will do his part to assist them on the back practice fields and reconnect with the game he loves.
“Obviously, I miss in between the lines a lot, but the relationships that you made over the years in the clubhouse are probably what every retired player will say they miss the most,” Conine said. “So it’s just like, I want to get out here and be involved with the guys.”