IOWA CITY, Ia. — Connor McCaffery’s athletic future would seem to be set.
The 6-foot-6 point guard has been declared Iowa’s best basketball player in the Class of 2017, solidifying that standing when he scored 36 points to lead his Iowa City West team past West Des Moines Valley for the Urbandale Shootout championship on June 5.
This week, McCaffery is in Virginia participating in the prestigious NBA Top 100 camp, mingling with the best of the best.
He’s already committed to staying home and playing basketball for his father, Fran, with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
But there’s another sport that keeps tugging at McCaffery.
“I love to hit,” McCaffery said Monday between games of a baseball doubleheader. “I love getting my at-bats and playing out here on a nice day, a lot of people here. Getting those wins, those 3-2 wins, scoring 15 runs as a team, the brotherhood, the teammates — I love these guys.”
McCaffery’s story, still being written, is a tale of two passions. As good as he is at basketball, as determined as he is right now to make that his sport of choice in college, there’s a reluctance to leave baseball behind.
As a left-handed power hitter who’s just starting to fill out that 6-6 frame, there’s little doubt McCaffery could also make a big impact as a Division I baseball player.
He’s hitting .442 for Iowa City West through 17 games. He leads the team with five home runs and a .923 slugging percentage.
“He’s got pop, man. When he barrels it up, it goes. He’s got good leverage,” said Steve James, who coached McCaffery last fall on an all-star team put together by Cedar Rapids-based Perfect Game USA. “He’s a legitimate Division I player.”
Basketball or baseball? Or can McCaffery continue to play both, even in college?
“The seasons overlap,” Fran McCaffery pointed out. “You could still do it. And I would let him do it.”
Showing patience, and an arm
“My arm strength is something that I need to work on. I want to adjust my mechanics,” Connor McCaffery said after the first game against Cedar Rapids Prairie on a scorching Monday evening. “And I want to get better at pitch selection. I get myself in bad places sometimes because of pitches I swing at that maybe aren’t as good.
That self-assessment came shortly after a McCaffery line drive rocketed over Iowa City West’s 290-foot right-field fence to provide the Trojans with their only run in a 5-1 loss. Shortly after, McCaffery showed he was heeding his own words.
He drew two walks in the nightcap, giving him 11 on the season (he had 17 all of last year). In the third inning, the right fielder showed off his defense. With a Prairie runner on second base and nobody out, McCaffery loped to the foul line to snare a fly ball while the runner took third. The next batter hit a fly to medium-deep right. McCaffery settled under it and gunned out the runner at home, the ball thudding into the catcher’s mitt 18 inches off the ground in perfect position for a tag.
Prairie didn’t score that inning; West won the game 10-8 in the bottom of the ninth.
“Physically, he’s just grown into himself. He’s much more confident,” Iowa City West coach Charlie Stumpff said. “It’s a beautiful style to watch. Because it’s what you think a big power-hitting left-hander should look like.”
Last summer, McCaffery wore down during the baseball season. Combining that with high-level AAU basketball play proved challenging, and a simple virus prompted a 15-pound weight loss. McCaffery batted .289 with only nine extra-base hits in 41 games.
“I wasn’t managing my body well,” McCaffery said. “You can’t be out sitting in the sun in a pool all day. It’s summer, but you’ve got to be able to come out here and play and you’ve got to be able to hit the gym after that. I’m handling myself in the right way this year.”
The basketball trip to Virginia marks the first three baseball games McCaffery has missed this summer. He expressed regret about that. But he’s also cutting back on his hoops commitments, an easier decision since his college future is secure. He doesn’t need to showcase his talents to scouts.
McCaffery, who has been playing on the wing some for his AAU team, said his shooting has improved. So has his ball-handling. He feels quicker on the court as well. There’s no hint that baseball is hampering his basketball development.
“I’m a bigger guy. I haven’t always been the quickest,” McCaffery said. “I’ve always been able to use my body well, but I’ve been getting by more people this summer. And I’ve always been pretty strong, so I can handle hits.
“I’ve always been a pretty unselfish player. That’s a blessing, and sometimes it’s a bad thing. This upcoming year I’m going to have to be more of a scorer and that mindset, it’s something you have to work on. Because you’re thinking pass-first, but sometimes you need to take the shot.”
A dual-sport Hawkeye?
McCaffery plans to play high school baseball next summer as well, when freshmen basketball players will be reporting to their new colleges. He said he’s thought about a time when he’ll need to concentrate on one sport, but he’s not in a hurry to make that decision.
He took up baseball at age 6 in North Carolina, and was playing 60-plus games on a traveling team by age 10 in upstate New York. He was a member of two state champion baseball teams after moving to Iowa, playing alongside several of his current Trojan teammates.
Baseball is in McCaffery's blood, just as basketball is in his bloodline.
He would like to play both sports at Iowa, knowing that he would miss at least the first quarter of the baseball season, depending on how deep into March his basketball season runs. McCaffery would also need the blessing of Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller, who has seen him play on numerous occasions.
James, McCaffery’s baseball coach in the fall, doesn’t anticipate that will be a problem. He spoke of “when” McCaffery plays baseball for the Hawkeyes, not “if.”
“Once basketball season is over, he’ll play for Rick in April and May,” James said.
“He’s athletic enough. He showed some tools where he’s going to end up being a pretty physical player. His play at the next level is going to really dictate if he does play pro in one or the other.”
McCaffery said he still considers basketball his primary sport. With a caveat.
“If I get really good at baseball, and I have more options there, then I’ll have to take that into account,” he said.
According to Baseball Almanac, only 12 people have been able to play both baseball and basketball at the highest level, something Connor McCaffery is contemplating doing at Iowa. The list:
Name MLB seasons NBA seasons
Danny Ainge 1979-81 1981-95
Frank Baumholtz 1947-49, 1951-57 1946
Gene Conley 1952, 1954-63 1952-64
Chuck Connors 1949, 1951 1946-48
Dave DeBusschere 1962-63 1962-73
Dick Groat 1952, 1955-67 1952-53
Steve Hamilton 1961-72 1958-60
Mark Hendrickson 2002-11 1996-99
Cotton Nash 1967, 1969-70 1964-65
Ron Reed 1966-84 1965-66
Dick Ricketts 1959 1955-57
Howie Schultz 1943-48 1949-52