May 22, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Before reaching the Majors, Garrett Atkins was ‘best hitter I ever saw,’ former Uni coach says

Garrett Atkins was joined by his former Coach Chris Conlin Saturday. (Photo: OC Sports Zone, Tim Burt).

Garrett Atkins was happy to be back at the University High School baseball field he starred in well before his memorable career in Major League baseball.

“Garrett was the best high school hitter I ever saw,” said former University Coach Chris Conlin. “He was destined to be in the big leagues.”

Atkins, who was honored along with Tim Wallach by the University High baseball boosters, went on to have a successful career at UCLA, then as a third baseman with the Colorado Rockies, before finishing up with the Baltimore Orioles. Atkins wound up with 99 career Major League home runs.

And it all started at Uni.

“It’s pretty cool, it’s fun to be back, it’s been a while,” Atkins said. “I didn’t even recognize some of those stats they were reading about my time here.”

Atkins family was on hand as well. Atkins wife Daniella and children Thomas (9), Graham (7) and Caroline (5) attended.

“They probably got a little different perspective of it,,” he said. “At least they realized I was a decent player at some point,” he said.

Atkins, 42, said there were many memories of his high school career.

“You remember winning the league, I forgot about 1995, I remember 1997, my senior year,” he said. “I still remember losing in my final game to Mater Dei (in the playoffs). I was the starting pitcher and lost my last game, but I guess most everybody does. Taking away from the good times and seeing Coach (Chris) Conlin was nice.”

Conlin recalled how Atkins started out on the JV team and was brought up to the varsity squad about one third into the season.

“We’re in a dogfight for the season and it’s Laguna Hills and ourselves and we’re struggling and we wanted to get to the playoffs and Ken Trater, the JV coach said, ‘Coach Conlin, I don’t want to say anything but did you realize Garrett Atkins is a pretty good player?” Conlin said.

“We brought him up to the varsity and he hit .600 and makes the difference for our program. We go to the playoffs and we win the league and go to the playoffs. We come back on the bus and people are jumping in the pool, that was the tradition.”

Conlin said Atkins set the tone for a successful run of playoff appearances by the Trojans and he was instrumental in helping fund-raising efforts to improve the baseball complex at University

He donated bats and baseballs for fund-raisers and offered free tickets to Rockies games when they were playing the Dodgers, Conlin said.

Atkins was always modest about his accomplishments, and Saturday he showed he hasn’t changed.

“Hearing good things about myself is not my favorite thing to do, but it was nice for a day. I’m ready to get back to normal,” he said.

“I had a couple good years and probably the World Series run and going through that and the experiences you gain and the fun you have from playing baseball is the main thing you take away from the whole day, just remembering that.

“There are tons of games you play, probably over a thousand, probably more than that if you count Little League. Last game of your high school career stands out, last game of your college career stands out when you realize you’re not going to do that again with those teammates is sad in a way, but you move on to the next thing and find new ways to have fun and get on with things.”

Atkins said his three children keep him busy and he’s been coaching his son’s Little League team. The family lives in Castle Pines, Colo.

“I”m kind of learning how to coach with the kids,” he said. “It will be an interesting first season coming up and playing a lot of golf in the summers. The family keeps me pretty busy. I need to get better at coaching for sure. I gave them too much to think about last year and help these kids get better each day.”

Atkins was able to share his advice with the Trojan players:

“You can’t do it in one day, you have to keep grinding along and keep trying to get better,” he said. If you’re good in high school and then hopefully you can play somewhere on the next level whether it’s JUCO ball (community college), a viable route for tons of people or if you go to college and go to a small college or whatever and try and get better,” he said. “They don’t take you from high school to the big leagues, you wouldn’t do too well, you kind of got to work your way up.

“It’s a grind all the way up. You’re going to have bad years and you have to try and get better. I think I did that pretty well.”

Atkins admits he doesn’t follow Major League baseball too much since retiring from the game.

“Not really, we will go to a couple of games a year, the boys enjoy watching the games,” he said. “They’re kind of on after their bed-time, so they will watch a couple innings. I will keep up through them. I can probably name 15 of the Rockies players but I probably couldn’t name two guys on each Major League roster. It’s probably a little different now when I was a kid when I could probably name each starting lineup that was out there.”

—Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone; timburt@ocsportszone.com