Answering the Call

The voice on the other end of the line promised the fulfillment of a dream and the well-deserved reward for a lifetime of hard work. It was early in day three of the 2017 Major League Baseball First-year Player Draft when Pablo O’Connor ’17 received a call from a Major League scout practically guaranteeing the All-American slugger a hefty five-figure signing bonus. All O’Connor had to do was agree to it, and the organization would select him as its next pick, realizing his childhood dream of playing professional baseball.

But O’Connor had a plan—and the resolve to stick to it. So, when the offer came in below his target number, he made what seemed to outsiders like a split-second, irrational decision. He took a deep breath, thanked the scout, and politely turned down what could have been his only chance to play in the Show. “When I got the call, my stomach dropped,” said O’Connor, who a month earlier graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “This was the moment. But then I realized that the signing bonus was nearly the same amount as my scholarship. All things being equal, I could get drafted, sign, and take the bonus and spend it, or I could come back, play my redshirt senior year, and graduate with an MBA. To me, the benefits of the latter far outweighed a few years of pro ball.

“Turning it down was not easy, and in the moment, there was immense pressure as the scout tried to change my mind for nearly 20 minutes. Despite the emotion involved, the solution came down to this for me: an MBA would bring me more value during my lifetime than a five-figure signing bonus would right now. Going through that process was a valuable learning experience and would make a great business case study about how to not get caught up in the money or emotion of a deal.”

That O’Connor had the wherewithal and foresight to delay instant gratification and view a decision of this magnitude as a business case study attests to his passion for academics and athletics and his ability to balance both as a student-athlete. His love for learning became part of his character at a young age and blossomed during his time at APU. “Growing up, my dad always told me As and Bs or I don’t play. He pushed the importance of academics and used baseball as a motivator. My dad laid the foundation, my professors at APU taught me how to think logically and base decisions on facts, and my coaches helped shape me into a man who can make those decisions on my own.”

And he had to make the toughest decision of his life without the aid of his closest ally, his dad, Thomas, who was home near San Diego. O’Connor, the youngest of four, has always been close to his dad, a Navy veteran. In January 2017, before the start of Pablo’s junior season and six months before the MLB draft, the O’Connors received news that Thomas had prostate and bladder cancer. The news rocked Pablo’s world. “I didn’t know what to do; I was mentally messed up,” said O’Connor. “I sat in Coach (Paul) Svagdis office in tears. I spent every day of the season waiting for a phone call that my dad had died. Would he ever get to hear my name called on draft day? I felt alone and didn’t know how to deal with it.”

But O’Connor was not alone. He had the full support of the university, the coaches, and his teammates giving him strength when he needed it. And it made a difference. O’Connor put together a remarkable season, earning two All-American honors, regional and conference Player of the Year recognition, and the honor of leading the Cougars to the Pacific West Conference championship and an appearance in the NCAA Divison II West Regional. “Last season was the toughest of my life, but ultimately it brought me back to my faith,” he said. “I leaned on my teammates and started going to church and working on my relationship with God, because I knew I couldn’t deal with everything on my own. Looking back, I know God was with me through the entire process.”

As his time at APU concludes, O’Connor leaves with a richer perspective. Grateful and relieved to know his dad is cancer free, he will graduate with an MBA and as one of the most decorated players in program history. There may be another chance at pro ball; there may not be. But that is no longer the priority, because O’Connor has discovered his purpose. “I used to put my identity in baseball, my degrees, and my future career, but now I find my identity in Christ, and that’s all that matters,” he said. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and there was a reason I came to APU. This place has changed the trajectory of my life.”

UPDATE: Pablo O'Connor was drafted June 6, 2018 by the Washington Nationals in the 27th round (pick #821 overall).

O'Connor, a first team All-American in 2017, was an All-PacWest first team outfielder in 2018 after batting .337 (61-for-181) with a team-high 17 home runs, 40 RBIs, 53 runs, 36 walks, and 7 stolen bases. He earned all-region second team honors on the ABCA, D2CCA, and NCBWA all-region teams.