Brian O’Keefe had just finished his first varsity practice at Colonie High School’s field.
As his teammates packed up and made their way to their cars, O’Keefe stopped to talk to assistant coach Dave Fields beyond the left-field fence. The sophomore was already focused on his future and had a question for his coach.
Is it too early to start talking about the next level?
No, not at all, Fields told him.
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It was easy to see the potential in the driven young catcher, but the coach’s answer opened O’Keefe’s eyes to the possibilities and started a conversation both still remember vividly.
“Everything that we kind of predicted and agreed that would happen has come true so far,” Fields said. “That was kind of a big day that we both remember.”
O’Keefe went on to have a standout career at Colonie, setting the school record for batting average his senior season. He moved onto the next level as planned and developed into one of the nation’s top catchers at St. Joseph’s University. He climbed to the next level again in June when he was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the seventh round of the First-Year Player Draft.
Five years after his conversation with Fields, O’Keefe is living out a dream playing professional baseball for the State College Spikes. The Albany, N.Y., native returned home with the Spikes on Saturday to start a three-game series against the Tri-City ValleyCats at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy, giving him a chance to play in front of his family, friends and former coaches.
“There’s been a lot of people who’ve helped me along the way,” O’Keefe said. “And I’m looking forward to finally being out there and being able to put a smile on their face and have them enjoy my dream just as much as I am.”
His rise from high school standout to professional ballplayer can be attributed to his unrelenting intensity.
O’Keefe has always worn his emotions on his sleeve. He was loud and excitable on the field growing up, and some coaches tried to get him to dial it back at times.
But his fiery personality has never wavered, something on display with every fist pump after a big pitch at State College’s Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
“It’s not for show, it’s not just here and there, pick and choose,” O’Keefe said. “When there’s big moments and you win that battle within the game, it’s awesome. Whether it’s encouraging a guy or trying to fire a guy up to get him going because at the end of the day, no matter how I do, if our pitching staff does well and the team gets the ‘W,’ that’s a win for me and that’s a good game for me.”
His desire to win has driven everything he’s ever done.
It’s why Fields told O’Keefe he had a future in baseball just weeks into his high school varsity career.
The conversation his sophomore year was the first of many on the topic.
“He would always pick your brain,” said Fields, who is also a math teacher at Colonie. “He would come into my office at school during the day and put his feet up on the desk next to me and he wouldn’t let me rest. He would just talk baseball and future. It was just always on his mind, it was always a goal.”
The thirst for knowledge was matched by his work ethic on the field.
When practices ended, Colonie head coach Kevin Halburian said O’Keefe stayed after to take extra batting practice and to work on blocking balls in the dirt.
O’Keefe’s diligence produced a brilliant senior season in 2011 as he set a school record with a .561 batting average. And he did it against teams in the Suburban Council league loaded with future Division-I and professional talent.
Shaker’s Jeff Hoffman was taken ninth overall by the Toronto Blue Jays in June. Branden Cogswell of Shenendehowa was also drafted in the seventh round by the Oakland Athletics.
“I think he swung and missed three balls the whole year,” Halburian said. “It was unbelievable. He was in such a zone, so focused and it never went to his head.”
O’Keefe was still trying to find the right fit for college during his senior season.
Fields realized O’Keefe could be a perfect fit at St. Joseph’s under head coach Fritz Hamburg. Hamburg, who coached with Fields at Army, was a former professional catcher and shared the same intensity as O’Keefe.
“They’re like the same person,” Fields said.
Hamburg was set with catchers on his roster, but he did his homework and offered O’Keefe a scholarship.
The catcher took the same level of dedication to college, his sights still set on playing professional baseball.
South Troy Dodgers coach Kevin Rogers made the trip to St. Joseph’s to see O’Keefe play against the University of Buffalo as a freshman.
O’Keefe struck out in both at-bats that March 2012 day.
When the rest of his teammates left after the game, O’Keefe and Rogers spent an hour in the cage working on his swing. When Rogers left to drive home, O’Keefe was still in the cage.
“It’s like he can’t just turn the page,” Rogers said. “He needs to work at it right away, so it’s something he did at South Troy a lot too.”
The constant effort to get better turned him into a semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the country’s top catcher, this past spring at St. Joseph’s.
Fields and Hamburg also realized as the season progressed that he was ready for the next level.
Scouts flocked to his games.
O’Keefe knew he’d be drafted in June after his St. Joseph’s career ended on May 23.
“Once that season ended, it felt like forever until June 6 when we kind of knew that would be the day that it would happen,” Fields said. “So it just seemed like a long, long time waiting for that day, but we had planned this going back to high school because I kind of knew how good he was then, and I said I’ll be there that day with you when it happens.”
Fields was there at O’Keefe’s home, waiting anxiously with the catcher and his family. O’Keefe received a call from his agent, telling him he’d be taken by the Cardinals with the 225th pick.
Three or four minutes later, it was official. There were joyous screams and hugs.
Everyone then turned their attention to whether or not O’Keefe could be playing in the New-York Penn League this summer.
They scanned State College’s schedule for the Spikes’ series in Troy. Now, they get to share three days with O’Keefe at Bruno Stadium, brimming with pride to see him return home as a professional baseball player.