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10 P.M. Conversations | Brian O’Keefe

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I was having anxiety attacks. I couldn’t sleep. I kept everything bottled up. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. Then finally I just let it all out.  

2019 St. Louis Cardinals Photo Day

The whole purpose of this summer with VEB is an attempt to pop the hood of a baseball player—present and former.

We’ve named this segment 10 P.M. Conversations because that is usually the time a player’s day is over, they eat dinner, and step away from the game for the rest of the night.

It’s when the bus turns silent riding to the next nowhere town wondering what lies ahead. It’s the drive home feeling like a call to the big leagues is only a few hits away. And it’s the moment you take your jersey off, worried it might be your last.

Sometimes, 10 pm reveals more about ourselves as people than as players—these conversations are to do just that.

Our first guest is Brian O’Keefe.

Stats

  • Current Team: Springfield Cardinals
  • Current Level: AA

Background

  • Highest draft pick out of St. Joseph’s University since Jamie Moyer.
  • Drafted: 2014 7th round, Pick 225
  • Can house three glazed donuts faster than anyone in the Cardinal organization (unconfirmed, but you get the point)

But beyond the stat line, he’s got a larger-than-life personality, and I am incredibly grateful he felt comfortable enough to show it to VEB. We talk about life, growing up, romance, baseball, and what it all means.

We sat down for about two hours on one of his off-days. With his approval, we’ve chosen a few sections that cut to the heart of our conversation. There’s no analysis, no commentary, no bells or whistles. Like all 10 pm conversations, we’d talk until we’ve felt like we’ve revealed a bit too much, then sit on a bus and think about what it all meant before falling asleep to the roar of an engine.

The analysis and application of our conversations, as always, we’re completed alone

So, welcome to 10 P.M.


I think it’s a weird question.

What’s a weird question?

When people ask me what I do for work.

Really? You don’t just say you play baseball?

I hate saying it.

Why?

I think a lot of different reasons for me personally. It’s like all of a sudden people change. Like I don’t think they’re real anymore. All of a sudden, that conversation that was going to happen is now completely changed by the fact they see you as a baseball player and not a person—and most people don’t know that minor leaguers don’t make any money.

There’s so much more to me than just a baseball player.

That’s one of the things I struggled with as a younger player, in college, my first few years in the minor leagues—I saw myself only as a baseball player. You want to talk about ebbs and flows. The results (of the game) dictated my mood. It dictated everything to me.

Well of course, if you’re only a baseball player and you didn’t perform well at baseball, then what are you?

Exactly. So once I stopped seeing myself as a baseball player—I’m a brother, I’m a son, I’m a friend—there are so many other aspects to who I am, it then helped me deal with a bad game.

It’s why I hate that question.

Let’s say I meet three people at a restaurant — three random people. I say I’m Brian, we get talking, and they say what you do—let’s say one says they work in sales, the other is a manager, the other started a business—and as soon as you answer that question, I feel like everything changes because they see you as ‘the athlete’. That’s it. You’re just an athlete to them. And now there’s 0 chance you can enjoy your meal. It’s 21 questions about the season.

So is it harder to build genuine relationships with people?

I’ve always been a guarded person. Remember the first time we met? I looked at the lineup and said, “who is Gronsky and why is he hitting ahead of me?”

Yea, you make a terrible first impression.

100%. I think a professional can tell you better, but if I was to really do some self-digging, my first impression is a way of testing you out.

Interesting.

Again, I didn’t even graduate [from college], so I’m not qualified to be making that kind of diagnosis, but I think it’s a self-defense mechanism instead of letting people in. Then, if they can joke around, I can put my wall down.

So to answer your question, I think some of the relationships I’ve had—friends, family—have suffered.

How so?

Because it’s just like—it’s me more than anything. Perfect example: guys I’ve played in college with. What is there, 35 guys on the roster?

Correct.

I’m probably really close with 3 or 4. I live with two of them, but even the guys in my class, if we see each other grabbing a bite to eat, now all of a sudden those guys ask, “how’d the season go.”

I don’t want to talk about the season. I just played 140 games. This is my time. But it’s always, “How’d the season go?”

It’s almost one-dimensional.

And not even that, it’s just the worst question ever. Like in April, I was ***Explicit*** [in summary, Brian suggested that April was, in fact, not his best month] But in July, you would have thought the earth revolved around me—I was hotter than the sun!

I think what sums it up: Someone used to tell me every off-season, “you leave, and then you come back a completely different person. You grow up so much every season. What’s important to you changes. How you handle situations changes. Relationships change. How you talk changes. Your mannerisms change. Everything about you changes, and it’s almost weird being around you because you get done with the season and you’re so different.

Do you think you lose some relatability in the process?

Yes. And—I get it, phones work both ways—but I don’t do a good enough job maintaining my relationships. But, then again, you have to be so singularly focused during the season, you don’t have time to pick up the phone and be like, “my man, how’s everything been?”

Because when they’re working, you’re getting ready for your day. They get off and guess what, I’m in the clubhouse, headphones in, getting ready to go.

How can you maintain a romantic relationship like that?

*Heavy (H-E-A-V-Y) sigh* Yea, this is a terrible question to ask me. I think communication’s key.

Like you said, when they are getting off work, you are going to work, and when you are off work, they are asleep.

You’ve been around me, and I get that singular focus sometimes, and everything else goes black. I don’t pay attention to anything else, and it’s not purposefully, but I stop thinking about other people’s feelings or emotions. It becomes, ‘just leave me alone. I’m in my own world right now.’

And, yet, you need that focus to make it to the big leagues.

Right. So it becomes tough. And, listen, sometimes the hardest question to answer is, “why don’t you tell me anything?”

What am I supposed to say? I woke up, drove to Einstein Bagels, ordered two breakfast sandwiches and a large medium roast coffee, drove to the park, sat at a table, ate my lunch, sat in my locker, changed, stretched, hit, went to BP, back to my locker, headphones on, time to do the dance at 7pm. Everyday.

And, I don’t know about other guys, but I’m not going to say, ‘yea, I feel like my front side is flying open, can you take a look at film for me?’ No! We’re not talking about that stuff.

So, what can I talk about?

It’s also why when you’re with your teammates, they’re like family during the season. That’s why you fight with them sometimes, you don’t have to love everyone in the clubhouse, you don’t need to like everyone in the clubhouse, but you rely on them more than you realize. Without them, you’re by yourself.

I always hated when someone played on a team for two months and claimed they were all ‘brothers’. That’s not true. It just tells me you don’t know what it means to have a brother. But I think you put it perfectly. You rely on your teammates in a way no one else can understand.

Correct. It’s why sometimes, as you said, I used to be slightly happy if my girlfriend was asleep when I got off the field. Don’t get me wrong, It’s not that I didn’t want to talk to her, but there are some nights where I just got my teeth kicked in and did 0 to help the team win… I can’t talk to anybody.

Are You Happy?

Basketball is 82 games. Football is 16 games. Hockey I think plays like 80. Baseball plays two of their seasons. So I think that if you’re the same person you were when you started, you didn’t grow. You didn’t get better. You didn’t get to the next place.

So where’s the line? Minor league baseball is built on a ladder of making to the next rung, the next step, the next level. So where does it end? Can you ever be satisfied, and is that mentality sustainable? (Great interview skills, Jake…throw three questions at him at once….*explicit*)

No, because I was at the place. I think the only person that could be satisfied is Marino Rivera, the only person to be unanimously voted into the Hall of Fame.

You also don’t know him in a personal sense.

True. But I’ve heard this from our Farm Director, Dabo Sweeney, and I think we all say it in a different way, but if you’re constantly trying to get to the next thing, just to get to the next thing, no matter what—just like the real world, always thinking about the next promotion—then all of a sudden it’s never enough.

I don’t think you’ll ever be happy.

So I think if you can find a way to stay in the moment, and one of the things I’ve been saying to myself this season is “be where your feet are” What I mean by that is if I’m in the box and I think I’m 0-4, I’m actually (wrong) I’m not 0-4. I’m in that at-bat. If I’m 3-3, no, I’m in that at-bat.

You can’t just think of it as a ladder. And you know better than anyone else, minor league baseball is not a ladder. Minor league baseball is chaos. Complete, utter chaos. And if you start worrying about where you’re going next, thinking about what you did last year: “I felt so good hitting the slider last year” or “I was throwing 94-95 last year, and now I’m not” or anything like that—you’re not there. You’re being pulled in a million different directions rather than being where you are.’

And this might be a bit from Shawn Green (his book: Finding Stillness at 95. An excellent read for the intuitive readers) but if you’re always living in the future or past, you’ll never be happy with the present.

How long did it take you to get to that moment of understanding?

I think I’m still going through it. And it’s one of the coolest parts about being where your feet are. I don’t think you’re ever [done]. And it’s just not in baseball, but in life, too. You could be searching for the next job promotion, the next deal, the next bonus, but you’ll never actually be happy.

Now being on the other side, I see it every day—myself included—it’s the idea of wanting to make more money. The need to make more money will only bring a stronger desire to make more money. So let me ask you this, would you consider yourself happy?

Yea. Hell yea.

Have you always been?

No. There was a year in Peoria—when I was in a dark place. I was not happy. I didn’t like who I’d become. I never really told anyone this, but it was in Peoria.

When we lived together?

No after that.

The next year?

No, my third year.

Oh. That was tough.

Yea. But when they sent me there, I told myself I’ll be there for a month then be gone. I started the season, had a good first month but all of a sudden, I was still there. Then it became, “one more good month and I’ll be out of here.” That’s when it all started to hit the fan.

I started living and dying with every at-bat. I felt like I had to get out of there and get to the next level, but I was still in Peoria.

It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep.

I just could not turn my brain off. But I think it’s where I learned everything I believe now and I learned them at my worst point. I think it’s one of the cruelest things but one of the coolest things about minor league baseball: You have some incredible lows and some incredible highs, but those lows will define you more as a person than any of your highs. They sharpen you. They harden you. To make a diamond, you have to put it through fire.

At my lowest: I was having anxiety attacks. I couldn’t sleep. I kept everything bottled up. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. Then finally I just let it all out. I remember literally sitting in front of the mirror before a game shaving and told myself: you can either change this, or you can lay down and die and your career is over. But it’s up to you.

For the first time ever in my life, I fully took responsibility for everything.

If it wasn’t for the pain, I wish everyone could go into the minor leagues and experience one of those lows.

I completely agree with you. People see you at 7 o’clock. They see you run out of the dugout. They see you at the plate. But they don’t see the internal struggle that goes on. It [Peoria] was the lowest part of my life, and I had just hated who I’d become from it. I was so done with the game. I said I was done. I couldn’t do it. I’m ready to go coach.

But I learned so much about myself, and when people ask me about it, I say it was the best thing that’s happened to my career. It helped define who I am and introduced me to some of the most influential coaches of my career.

What’s one thing you hope people see in you as a person and player?

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized you have to have passion for what you do.

Maybe, but I’m on the side that you have to bring your passion to what you do. There’s a big difference.

Right. And I hope people see that. I [hope] everyone could see I have passion for what I do.

If you dropped someone—If you dropped me in another country that I didn’t speak the language, and [I] was trying to teach somebody about [baseball], you could see my passion. If you watch me give a lesson or play [baseball], I will hope, at least, you could feel my passion for the game.