During Christmas break last year, Tim Corbin sent a text message to sophomore Conrad Gregor.
It wasn’t to wish the sophomore a Happy Holidays. No, Vanderbilt’s veteran baseball coach was motivating.
“I basically challenged him a little bit,” Corbin said on Thursday. “I said I wasn’t really ready to play him at first base now. The only way he was going to be able to play first base was if he made me put him there.”
Nearly a year later, Gregor doesn’t really remember what the return message consisted of. It didn’t matter. The point was made.
“I responded in actions,” Gregor said. “I let my play show on the field. ... I let my actions speak louder than words.”
Three weeks into fall practice, he’s solidified his role at first, guarding the right-field line and scooping up low throws off the new artificial turf at Hawkins Field. Gregor, now a junior, expects to be a catalyst for the Commodores’ quest for their second trip to the College World Series in three years.
With first baseman Aaron Westlake gone after the 2011 season, Corbin was looking for a capable replacement.
Gregor had the bat. As a freshman, he started 49 games as the designated hitter and led the team with a .353 batting average and earned Freshman All-America honors.
But could he help protect the right side of the infield on a regular basis? First base wasn’t foreign to Gregor, who was a high school All-American at the position in Carmel, Ind.
“I felt comfortable as the season went on,” he said. “In the beginning it was getting your feet wet and getting used to it again. I think I got all the worries and the rust out of it.”
Gregor settled in just fine in 2012. He started 59 games and committed only six errors at first base and finished second with a .328 batting average.
The production carried over into the summer and onto the Cape Cod Baseball League. When Corbin went out to east watch a couple of Gregor’s games this year, Gregor’s coaches were just as impressed with his glove and footwork as they were with his bat.
“He’s one of those guys if he doesn’t do something at a championship level, he’s going to find his way there at some point,” Corbin said. “He’s going to make himself do it. He went home and when his dad was at work he had his grandmother feeding this [baseball] machine to work on his hands. He pulls out all stops.”
Now, for act three, the left-handed hitter could be primed for power surge.
Over the summer, he blasted eight home runs in the Cape Cod Baseball League. He hit just three in each of his first two college seasons.
“Swinging the wood bats [in the summer league] has always been better versus aluminum. I feel more comfortable with it,” Gregor said. “My swing got better as a whole too. ... I think it’s not getting more pop in the bat. It is learning how to use it. I feel that once I learn how to use the power and master the technique it comes naturally.”
Though he’ll most likely bat third this season, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder is not feeling any pressure to ratchet up the power. He’s had 31 doubles and 67 RBIs the last two years, showing he’s more of a split power-average hitter than just a true slugger.
That fits perfectly for a team that thrives on small ball.
“Home runs are thrown. They’re not necessarily hit,” Corbin said. “So if they concentrate on really squaring up the baseball and getting through the middle of the baseball, those home runs will come.”
Besides, for Gregor, a soft-spoken, polite 20-year-old who leads by example, really wants to start slugging the ball out of the park, Corbin knows he will.
“He believes he’s capable of doing anything because he’s willing to invest the time into it,” Corbin said. “I’ve not seen many guys that I’ve been around that invest like he does. He is a very, very disciplined kid. There is ton of focused effort and there is a lot of focused attention.
“There’s not many guys out there like him.”