Major League sons making names for themselves at state schools

Following in the footsteps of their famous fathers, Dukes Griffin Conine, Wake Forests Gavin Sheets, UNCs Bo Weiss and ECUs T.J. Riles are thriving on the diamond for their respective college teams

Duke athletics photo—Duke athletics photo
Duke's Griffin Conine takes a swing during a recent game at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Conine is one of four players at state colleges whose father played baseball in the Major Leagues

Griffin Conine knows as well as anyone that the most important name on his baseball jersey is the one printed on the front. That hasn’t always easy to remember, though, as much as he’s been reminded of the name he wears on his back.

It’s the same name his father Jeff made famous for eight seasons as perhaps the most popular player in Miami Marlins history.

“Playing baseball anywhere in Florida, people would see the name on my jersey and they’d be like ‘are you any relation?” the younger Conine said. “There was always talk. They’d always say ‘son of Jeff’ whenever I was mentioned in any kind of report or interview. I just try not to let it get to me.”

Conine is doing his best to escape his dad’s shadow and make a name for himself by putting together a breakout season as a hard-hitting right fielder for Duke. He is one of four in-state college players who grew up as the sons of Major Leaguers.

Like Conine, Wake Forest’s Gavin Sheets, North Carolina’s Bo Weiss and East Carolina’s T.J. Riles are well-acquainted with the frequent comparisons to their famous fathers and the higher expectations that go along with them.

But they’ve also benefitted from some of the unique advantages provided by their familial relationship with baseball, above and beyond the instruction they received from parents that played the game at its highest level.

As an eight-year-old Little Leaguer, Conine got to shag fly balls in the outfield while the Marlins took batting practice. As an up-and-coming high school player, Sheets got hitting tips from Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. while Weiss spent his formative years hanging around the clubhouse and taking road trips with the Colorado Rockies.

“There’s a give-and-take for what they’ve been able to experience,” said Walt Weiss, a former All-American at UNC who spent 14 seasons as a shortstop with four Major League teams — including one as Jeff Conine’s teammate in Miami.

“The expectations are sometimes not realistic and their failures are usually magnified. At the same time there’s opportunity that comes along with it, like being around the club and for Bo, throwing bullpen sessions with a Major League pitching coach. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the population doesn’t get to experience things like that.”

Those advantages were not without a cost.

It came in the form of the added scrutiny the four local legacies received as they began the process of following their father’s footsteps around the bases. The pressure was especially heavy on the shoulders of Conine, Weiss and Sheets because they grew up playing ball in the same cities that made their names famous.

Sheets, in particular, had a hard time escaping the connection to his dad in Baltimore. In addition to having knocked out 86 homers over six seasons for the Orioles, Larry Sheets was also Gavin’s high school coach at Gilman School.

The attention paid to their situation only increased when the elder Sheets hired his old Orioles teammate Ripken as his assistant.

“It was something I had to deal with in high school,” Gavin Sheets said. “I knew it was there, but it was never too much of a burden.”

Gavin’s laid back disposition had a lot to do with making the dynamic between father/coach and son work so well.

“The terrific thing about him and the reason he’s a psychology major is that he walks to the beat of his own drum,” Larry Sheets said.

It also didn’t hurt that Larry went out of his way to differentiate his dual roles at home and at the ballpark.

“It was a relationship of coach and father,” Larry Sheets said. “He would ask questions about the team and I told him that was off limits to him. We never really had any tough moments. He actually made it easy for me to keep him as a freshman because he stepped right in and started doing well.”

Gavin was good enough to be selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 37th round of the MLB draft following his senior season at Gilman. By that time, though, the decision had already been made that he would go to college before giving pro ball a try.

Conine was also drafted out of high school, in the 31st round by Miami. But he considered the pick to be nothing more than a courtesy to his father, who is known around the organization as “Mr. Marlin.”

So like Sheets he also decided to continue his career in college, one far enough far enough away from home that the name on the back of his jersey wouldn’t be as recognizable.

Weiss also packed his bags and went elsewhere.

But instead of distancing himself from his dad’s legacy in Denver — where in addition to playing for the Rockies, he also managed the team for four seasons — the youngster did the opposite by signing to play at Walt’s alma mater.

He’s reminded of his father’s success at UNC everytime he walks into the team lounge at Boshamer Stadium, where his father’s picture adorns the wall with the other former Tar Heel stars that made it to the Major Leagues.

“Maybe there’s a little pressure that comes along with that, but playing two different positions is pretty helpful,” said Bo, who became a pitcher during his sophomore season in high school, in part because his lateral movement on the infield was hampered by a club foot.

A hard-throwing right-hander, Weiss has made 11 relief appearances and one start for the third-ranked Tar Heels, striking out 11 with a 2.70 earned run average.

“I can’t really be compared to my dad because he was a shortstop and I’m a pitcher,” he said. “It’s actually kind of cool to go to the same college and have some of the same experiences he had.”

It’s something he’s wanted to do for as long as he can remember.

“We had all the Carolina stuff in our house and he’s grown up watching me watch Carolina basketball, so he really bleeds Carolina Blue,” Walt Weiss said of his son. “It’s always been his dream school, but we never thought it would happen. It was kind of a pipe dream until we got him on the mound and he really took off.”

Bo grew six inches to his current 6-foot-3 and in the words of his father “began to look and throw like a pitcher.” By the time he was a high school senior he was being recruited by major schools from coast to coast.

The final choice came down to UNC and Stanford.

“His mom is from the West Coast and her eyes lit up when Stanford came calling,” Walt said. “But going to Carolina was a dream come true. I didn’t nudge him either way, but I always figured this is where he’d end up.”

Riles’ path to ECU, by contrast, wasn’t nearly as preordained. Or direct.

Brought up in Atlanta after his father had retired following a nine-year career as an infielder with Milwaukee, San Francisco, Oakland and others, T.J. was able to pursue his own athletic pursuits in relative anonymity compared to his fellow Major League sons.

In fact, the only one of his current Pirate teammates who remembers anything about Ernest Riles as a player is Wisconsin native and lifelong Brewers fan Evan Kruczynski.

T.J., whose given name is Ernest Thomas Joseph Riles, was also a standout football and basketball player, which is probably why he was so lightly recruited out of high school for baseball. He went to two different junior colleges before landing at ECU this season.

Despite missing fall practice with an injury, he stepped right into the lineup as the Pirates’ starting right fielder. He’s hitting .259 with four homers and 20 RBI.

“I never pushed him into baseball because he played all sports, but I think he wanted to follow in my footsteps,” said Ernest Sr., who has travelled to Greenville several times to see his son play. “I’m very proud of him no matter how far he goes in the game. Every time I see him out on the field it puts a big smile on my face. He’s my favorite player to watch.”

The father’s joy is manifested in the passion with which his son plays.

“He’s both a father and a role model to me,” T.J. said. “He’s always told me not to worry about getting to the next level or what might happen in the future, but to just try to win a ballgame and have fun every time I go out on the field. That’s what it’s all about.

“My father isn’t just my father, he’s a role model which is pretty cool. Sometimes people expect me to live up to his name and it’s kind of hard sometimes and I’ve got the potential to do it. But right now I’m just playing the game, trying to help my team win.”

That’s a trait Riles shares with Conine, Sheets and Weiss. As motivated as they all are to become Major Leaguers in their own right, their coaches have described each of them as unselfish players that have put team success ahead of their individual goals.”

My theory has always been that if you bring a kid in under these circumstances, he better be a no-brainer — and by that I mean not only a good player, but also a very high-character kid who’s very selfless,” UNC coach Mike Fox said of players with Major League dads. “There can be positives and negatives because of the father’s big league history. You have to be careful more than anything else.”

While Riles is still adjusting to Division I pitching and Weiss’ college career is just starting, Sheets and Conine appear to be the best bets to follow their father’s path into professional baseball.

Sheets has taken advantage of his three years at Wake Forest to gain added weight and strength to his 6-foot-5 frame to become even more powerful a hitter than Larry was. His 18 homers and 73 RBI were the best in the ACC heading into the final weekend of the regular season, a performance that has established him as a potential first round pick in next month’s draft.

Conine, meanwhile, has made a quantum leap after spending a productive summer with La Crosse Loggers of the wood bat Northwoods League. Although he still has a year to go before becoming draft eligible, the son of Mr. Marlin has turned himself into more than just a courtesy pick by leading Duke in average (.320), homers (13), RBI (55) and slugging percentage (.598).

“The only way I can describe it with him is an it factor,” Blue Devils coach Chris Pollard said of Conine — and by extension the other Major League sons playing college ball in North Carolina. “There’s just that something you have to assume comes from being immersed in the game growing up.

“There’s kind of a pro ball mentality to playing the game when you’re a field rat. You have a consistent personality, you enjoy the competition and being at the field, the everyday grind of it. That’s something you see in guys at the professional level.”

And apparently, in their sons as well.