Did you know: A football and college baseball star once played at Hooker Field in Martinsville
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Did you know: A football and college baseball star once played at Hooker Field in Martinsville

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A few weeks ago I did a series of stories looking at players from the Martinsville Phillies and Astros who went on to play Major League Baseball.

Both teams had some memorable names on the rosters, but it was pointed out to me that I missed two potentially bigger names. Two players who never reached MLB, but arguably had better careers in their own rights than just about anyone else who put on a Martinsville jersey.

The Martinsville Phillies were a rookie league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, and played at Hooker Field from 1988-1998. The 1993 team’s pitching staff sported one future MLB player, and one future NCAA College World Series champion. Right-handed starting pitcher Brian O’Connor started seven games for Martinsville and made eight appearances, going 3-2 with a 4.28 earned run average. In 40 innings pitched he allowed 19 earned runs and had 34 strikeouts to 11 walks.

O’Connor, who was 22 at the time and a graduate of Creighton University, only played that one season of professional ball. The following year he returned to Creighton as a pitching coach. After spending two seasons there, he moved on to become an assistant coach at Notre Dame. In 2004 he was named the head baseball coach at the University of Virginia.

Local fans may remember O’Connor for his time playing in Martinsville, but will likely remember his coaching days with the Cavaliers much more. In his first season he led UVa to its most successful season of ACC play to that point, and helped the team host an NCAA regional for the first time.

In the 16 years he’s been in Charlottesville, he’s led the team to 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances, a streak that ended in 2017, four College World Series appearances, two finals, and the 2015 National Championship, the first in program history.

O’Connor has been named National Coach of the Year and has more than 500 wins in his time with the Cavaliers. He’s had 84 players drafted into MLB, including two Washington Nationals, the most recent World Series champions – third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and reliever Sean Doolittle.

Two years after O’Connor suited up for the Phillies, there was another even bigger name in Martinsville. The 1995 Phillies had five position players go on to play in MLB, and another who was a future Heisman winner.

Martinsville outfielder Ricky Williams played 33 games with the team as an 18 year old after being drafted by the Phillies in the 8th round of the 1995 draft. Williams hit .239 that season with 27 hits and 11 RBIs. Unsurprisingly, Williams was second on the team in stolen bases with 13.

Why was that not surprising? Because in the winters when Williams wasn’t playing baseball he was arguably the fastest player in college football. With the University of Texas he held 20 NCAA records when he left the team in 1998, and at the time was the all-time career NCAA leader in rushing yards with 6,279.

Williams won the Heisman Trophy in 1998, which came just a few months after he took his final swing in professional baseball. The furthest he got in baseball was Low-A ball. For his career he hit .211 with 120 hits, 40 RBIs, and 46 stolen bases.

His NFL career was slightly more impressive. He was selected by the New Orleans Saints as the No. 5 pick in the 1999 Draft. He rushed for more than 10,000 yards and 66 touchdowns over his 10 year career.

Very little can be found about Williams’s time in Martinsville, and obviously his baseball career paled in comparison to his football one, but another former Martinsville Phillie, and future MLB All-Star, Jimmy Rollins did have one thing to say about his baseball teammate’s skills on the diamond.

“Fastest guy I’ve ever laid eyes on,” Rollins told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2009. “Fastest guy out of the chute. My God. Really? People are really that fast?”

Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at (276)638-8801 ext. 241.

Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at (276)638-8801 ext. 241.

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