Members of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies weren't the only major league ballplayers competing for a championship last Saturday evening. As the World Series was unfolding at the SkyDome, Jeff Conine, a leftfielder who has just completed his rookie season with the Florida Marlins, and his wife, Cindy, were in the midst of a semifinal mixed-doubles match at the U.S. Racquetball Doubles Championships in Phoenix.
The Conines, unseeded in the tournament, had advanced to the semis on Friday with a 15-11, 14-15, 11-4 upset of the No. 2 seeds, Michelle Gould, the woman's world singles champion, and Jeff Evans, the nation's top-ranked amateur in the men's 19-and-over division. What made the Conines' court appearance even more notable was that they were on their honeymoon. "We were going to go to Jamaica and practice for the tournament on the racquetball courts there," says Cindy, who married Jeff on Oct. 9 in her hometown of Buffalo. "But then we figured, why not just go straight to Phoenix?"
All in all, 1993 has been an extraordinary year for the 27-year-old groom. He batted .292, second on the Marlins to Gary Sheffield (.294) and second among National League rookies to the Los Angeles Dodgers' Mike Piazza (.318). He also had 12 home runs and 79 RBIs and became the first expansion player ever to play in all 162 games of his team's inaugural season. Not bad for a guy who was a 58th-round draft pick out of UCLA six years ago as a pitcher. Indeed, Conine didn't have a single at bat in three years of college ball, but his ascent is all the more remarkable because he grew up in Rialto, Calif., with a passion for racquetball, not baseball. "I played baseball, but I didn't follow it or collect cards and stuff like that," he says. "I figured I'd play on the racquetball tour someday. I didn't have baseball players on my wall, but I had a Marty Hogan poster in my bedroom. Smokin' Hogan, right up there next to Farrah Fawcett."
While at UCLA, Conine won the 1985 national junior championship racquetball title, but his three-year ERA was 6.06. "He had limited potential," says Guy Hansen, who was the Bruins' pitching coach in 1985 before joining the Kansas City Royals. "In fact, he probably had the straightest fastball I've ever seen."
But Hansen remembered Conine as being a terrific athlete who excelled at beach volleyball and whacked line drives out of the school's Jackie Robinson Stadium in the rare times he was permitted to take batting practice. So Hansen persuaded the Royals to draft Conine in 1987. "Guy's phone call came on a Thursday," says Conine, "but I knew the draft had started on Tuesday. Guy said, 'Uh, well, that's because we got you in the 58th round, Jeff.' I hadn't even known that the draft could go that far."
Six months later Conine qualified for a pro racquetball tournament in New York City, and whom should he draw in the first round but Hogan. "There I was playing Marty Hogan," Conine says. "I could hardly breathe, never mind play." Hogan quickly seized the first two games, but Conine, once he got his windpipe clear, rallied to win the next two. Hogan narrowly prevailed in the tiebreaker 11-9.
It was at that tournament that Conine met Cindy Doyle, who was also competing. A two-time national junior doubles champion, she has since won numerous other titles, and this summer she was a silver medalist in women's doubles at the Olympic Festival in San Antonio.
She and Jeff wound up losing their semifinal match in Phoenix. At about the same time Joe Carter was putting his finishing touch on the World Series, the newlyweds succumbed 15-14, 15-5 to Lynn Adams Clay, once the No. 1-ranked woman pro in the world, and Jim Carson, also a former pro player as well as Clay's former coach. The Conines returned to the court on Sunday morning to win the match for third place and, later on, Cindy also took a third in the women's doubles.
Jeff plans to enter one or two more tournaments during the off-season, not the six to eight events a year he played during his minor league days. "If I played the tour enough, I'd definitely be ranked in the top five in the world," says Jeff, whose chief weapon is a 170-mph serve. "But racquetball's been a great training tool for baseball. It's terrific for hand-eye coordination, quickness and foot speed."
Not to mention matchmaking.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH