From biggest whiff to can’t miss: How Condon became a No. 3 pick

July 15th, 2024

The question from a fellow coach in Marietta, Ga.’s 6-4-3 DP Athletics travel ball program piqued Paul Fletcher’s interest.

“I’ve got this kid, and I think he can hit,” Fletcher remembers the coach saying. “What do you think?”

So Fletcher ventured over to the field where a 17-year-old played. Watched him hit a home run. Watched him scorch a line-drive out off a pretty good pitcher. Watched him belt a double off the center-field wall.

It was interesting ... but inconclusive. Any kid can have a good day, Fletcher figured, so he spent the next couple weeks checking in on Condon, to see if those feats were a fluke.

They weren’t.

Condon, this skinny 6-foot-5 kid who had somehow fallen through the cracks of the player procurement pipeline, just would not stop bashing baseballs.

“[Expletive],” Fletcher thought to himself. “This kid can play.”

We all know this now. At 21 years old, Condon was considered a can’t-miss kind of prospect.

At the University of Georgia this year, he won the Dick Howser Trophy as college baseball’s national player of the year. He won the Golden Spikes Award as the country’s top amateur baseball player. He led the NCAA in most major offensive categories, slugging the most home runs (37) of any collegiate player in the last quarter-century and posting the highest OPS (1.565) in the gauntlet that is the SEC ... by 131 points.

He walked 57 times and struck out 41. He posted astounding exit velocities. He blistered breaking balls and incinerated inside pitches. By season’s end, he might not have been at the very top of every single board in an industry rife with opinions, but he had become a clear candidate to go early in the upcoming MLB Draft -- and he ended up being selected by the Rockies at No. 3 overall.

“You look at Charlie,” said Georgia coach Wes Johnson, “and just go, ‘Wow, man.’”

Yeah. Wow, man.

Not just for the player Condon has become but for how he got here.

Charlie Condon does not whiff at many baseballs, but baseball whiffed on Charlie Condon. It might not be an exaggeration to say the industry has never missed quite like it did with this kid when he was coming out of high school in 2021.

Albert Pujols went to a junior college … but he had been on Baseball America’s Top 100 high school prospects list before enrolling early at Maple Woods Community College and attracting the eyes of the Cardinals. Stephen Strasburg was famously overweight and underdeveloped coming out of his Santee, Calif., high school … but he was still heavily recruited nationwide. Mike Trout was famously underscouted in his rainy senior year in the swamps of Jersey … but he was still a first-round Draft pick.

Condon? Everybody missed. Everybody!

The big league teams that didn’t even sniff him for the Draft.

The Division I AND Division II programs that didn’t recruit him.

Heck, even that travel ball program in his hometown miscast him … as a Jaguar.

“The Cougars are the No. 1 team,” Fletcher said. “He wasn’t on our showcase team. He was on the Jaguars, one of our middle teams.”

Again, baseball is rife with stories of undervalued players who should have been drafted higher or given more money or more at-bats or more opportunities. Players who developed late or made mechanical or mindset changes that untapped their true talent. It’s an extremely difficult sport to project.

But Condon’s story is bizarre.

It’s not like he was out in the wilderness of central Idaho, swinging a tree branch to club rocks into the River of No Return. He was in Atlanta, for crying out loud! A baseball hotbed. A scouting enclave. A place to see and be seen. He was playing for the Walker School, a private college prep that has claimed multiple state titles. He was a participant in those Perfect Game tournaments that attract so many eyes. And he loved, loved, loved baseball.

“He was a great player, a great role model, a great kid,” said Danny Garofano, who coached Condon at the Walker School. “He hit over .500 his senior year. His junior year was cut short because of COVID, but he was having a great year there as well. Just because of his sheer size and power, he was so fun to watch in batting practice. He hit the ball a mile in all directions. I was surprised he didn’t have any offers.”

It's crazy. Somehow, nobody of influence looked at this 6-foot-5, admittedly skinny dude who was athletic enough to be recruited by Division III schools to play quarterback and thought, “Hmm, if he fills out a little bit, he could really be something.”

Nobody until Fletcher.

“The more I got to know him outside of what I saw with him hitting,” said Fletcher, “he was quarterback of the football team, class president, involved in everything in high school … the kid’s just a leader and people like him. There’s a toughness to him. He’s very coachable and manageable, and I could see him developing.”

So in advance of Condon’s senior year of high school, Fletcher made some calls. He’s a former pitcher for the University of Tennessee, so, naturally, his first call was to Volunteers coach Tony Vitello.

Now this is a part of the Condon story where you just have to stop and laugh, knowing what we know now. Vitello’s Volunteers just had an epic 2024, winning 60 games, producing seven players on MLB Pipeline’s Top 250 Draft Prospects list, falling just four team home runs shy of an NCAA record and winning the College World Series for the first national championship in program history.

The Vols have it all ... and they could have had Charlie Condon too!

More from MLB Pipeline:
Top 100 prospects | Stats | Video | Podcast | Complete coverage

But Tennessee, like every school Fletcher called (Clemson and Tulane and on and on and on), was all out of scholarships. COVID was an obvious complication, maybe even a valid excuse, jamming up rosters with players who stayed on for an extra year of eligibility. College baseball teams don’t have that many scholarships to start with. And in an age in which players commit to clubs and clubs commit to players awfully early in their developmental timetable, there was simply no room at the inn -- any inn -- for Charlie Condon.

His only hope to play for a Division I program was to walk on. And if he was going to walk on anywhere, it was going to be at Georgia, in his home state.

“You couldn’t get him away from that red and black,” Fletcher said.

It’s important to note that, all baseball aside, Condon got into Georgia on his own, academically. He had received the HOPE and Zell Miller Scholarships that provide extensive financial aid to exceptional students, and he was accepted into the Terry College of Business, which, according to the Princeton Review, has a 38 percent acceptance rate.

But of course, Condon wasn’t all business. He wanted to play ball.

That’s where Scott Stricklin enters the picture. He was Georgia’s head coach at the time, and he remembers the phone call he received from friend Fletcher as follows:

“Look, I’ve got a guy that would like to go to Georgia. He got into school on his own, which is hard to do. I can vouch for his character. I can vouch for his work ethic. He's physical, maybe 6-foot-5, and he's got some tools, and I think he can help you. I think he's got a chance to be a really good player.”

With Fletcher’s work complete, Stricklin began communicating with Condon and his family, watched him on video (again, COVID), and, ultimately, a path developed for Condon to (maybe) play for his beloved Bulldogs.

“He was a true walk-on,” Stricklin said. “He wasn’t a preferred walk-on. We didn’t help him get in. We didn’t promise him anything.”

Condon got stronger and had a good senior year, but he still didn’t wind up on anyone’s Draft boards. So off he went to Athens to try to earn a spot on Stricklin’s squad.

“He came in and worked his tail off,” said Stricklin, “and we decided to redshirt him.”

There it is. Another element of the Condon story that is crazy. Because the truth is that Condon flourished in the fall of his freshman year, and Stricklin admits now that Condon woulda/coulda/shoulda played for Georgia in the 2022 season.

COVID kind of screwed that up too.

“It was still a disaster with rosters,” Stricklin said. “There were just kids everywhere and uncertainty of where this was going to go and what’s going to happen. So Charlie and Jim and Rebecca, his parents, came in, and we all sat down and talked and put our heads together, and everybody bought in [to the redshirt idea].”

Stricklin has seen what can happen when an athlete is redshirted. Some players can become embittered by the seeming slight and spend the year sulking. Others can have their confidence sapped by the setback and spend the year second-guessing themselves.

Or you can do what Condon did: Put your head down and go to work.

“We had a lot of talks about, ‘What are you going to do over the next 365 days to make yourself a better player?’” Stricklin recalls. “And he utilized every single day. He didn't waste a day. He put on 15 to 20 pounds. He got stronger, and he got emotionally more mature, just watching the game from a different angle.”

Then Condon spent the summer of 2022 with the St. Cloud (Minn.) Rox in the Northwoods League, a wood-bat league with a strong reputation for challenging players against elite competition. Condon showed no signs of rust from the redshirt year and more than held his own, slashing .286/.370/.460 in 61 games.

Condon was in the St. Cloud dugout one day when Stricklin called to tell him he was sending over the scholarship papers.

He had earned his keep. And he’s been slugging ever since.

“He's very humble, he's very hard-working, and I mean, he's just a great, great kid,” Stricklin said. “He deserves all this because he made it happen.”

He’s loyal, too.

When Stricklin was fired by Georgia after the 2023 season, every school in the country was clamoring for Condon to enter the transfer portal. He could have shopped himself to the highest bidder. But once again, nobody was going to get him away from the red and black. He stuck it out as Johnson came aboard.

“I talked to him about his goals,” Johnson said. “He made it very clear that he wanted to try to move up Draft boards. So I talked to him about, ‘You’re a really good athlete, have you thought about moving positions and showing your versatility?’ We worked to do it. In the fall, in our scrimmages, he played every position but pitcher and catcher and did it for us at a good level.”

Condon had been primarily a right fielder and first baseman in 2023. This past season, he made roughly half his starts at third base. That adaptability can aid him in an era in which defensive versatility is so highly valued.

But of course, it’s Condon’s bat that speaks loudest.

“At the end of the day, Charlie Condon moved himself up Draft boards and probably earned himself another $4 million [in signing bonus money],” Johnson said. “Nobody in baseball is going to get that in NIL [name, image and likeness] money. The development and the work ethic and the drive to be great still can outweigh what a player can get in NIL money.”

The one person you haven’t heard from in this Condon story is, of course, Condon himself. He was taking a pre-Draft break from media after Georgia’s season ended one win shy of the College World Series.

But something Condon said when he appeared on the MLB Pipeline Podcast earlier this year speaks volumes about the can’t-miss prospect that EVERYBODY missed in 2021.

“I don’t necessarily feel I was wronged out of high school with my recruiting process,” Condon said. “I wasn’t the caliber of player that I am today. I always knew I was going to be a late bloomer. That’s just kinda how my family genetics were. My brother grew late, my dad grew late when he was younger. So I knew it was just gonna take a little bit more time … I just had to believe in myself and know my time was eventually going to come.”

That time is here. Nobody is missing Charlie Condon now, and, in many ways, his crazy story is just beginning.