Max Whitt was sitting at work when a familiar face walked into the car dealership looking for help.
Everett Merchants coach Harold Pyatte wasn’t searching for a new car. He was looking for a new shortstop, and he thought maybe Whitt, the head baseball coach at Archbishop Murphy High School, could help him find one.
Only one name popped into Whitt’s head — Connor O’Brien, Whitt’s starting shortstop at Murphy this past season.
Pyatte was admittedly skeptical about adding a high schooler to a team made up of players college age and older. It’s something he’d done just a few times in his 45 years of coaching the Merchants. But Whitt sold his young shortstop enough to convince Pyatte to give O’Brien a chance, and O’Brien did the rest when he showed up to practice.
“First day of practice he impressed me with his arm, infield play, bat speed and attitude. … I was sold on the kid after a half hour of watching,” Pyatte said. “I thought to myself ‘We’ve got a pearl here.’”
O’Brien, a Seattle University recruit and the grandson of former major-leaguer and SU great Johnny O’Brien, wasn’t the only player Pyatte got in the deal. Whitt, a 17th-round pick of the Miami Marlins in the 2015 major-league draft and an NAIA national champion at Lewis-Clark State College, decided to join the team as well to play third base.
“They’re a mainstay on the left side of the infield,” Pyatte said, “and they anchor it as well as any guys I’ve seen in the league.”
The two have built a chemistry together since Whitt, 24, took over at Archbishop Murphy this spring — his first head-coaching job.
“It was actually pretty good from the start,” O’Brien said of his relationship with Whitt. “It’s his first year coaching high school baseball so he was looking to us for a little help so he can get used to what’s going on. We were pretty close there, a lot of communication.
“Once we became teammates, we obviously got a lot closer. I still go to him for help when I need something. It’s still like I see him as a coach, but at the same time he’s a teammate.”
O’Brien said he still finds it strange to look to his right and see his high school coach standing next to him on the field. During games, Whitt shares his knowledge of the nuances of the game with O’Brien.
Whitt said he sees himself as a mentor, and he takes pride in being a role model for the younger players on the Merchants.
“I see a lot of myself in (Connor), and he has got so much room to grow … there’s no ceiling for him, really,” Whitt said. “The kid is a natural athlete and he’s gifted. Whenever he needs anything, I’ll always be there for him. … If he wants to go out to dinner and talk and has any questions, absolutely.”
There is a good reason Whitt sees similarities between himself and O’Brien. A graduate of Granite Falls High School, Whitt was a star shortstop in the Cascade Conference and was known for his ability to make contact and play the field — areas of O’Brien’s game Whitt and Pyatte rave about. Whitt even possessed a long, wiry frame similar to O’Brien’s.
According to O’Brien, the two haven’t talked much about their similarities. They’ve focused more on developing O’Brien’s game. Whitt said he views this experience with the Merchants as an opportunity for O’Brien to get ready to play next season at Seattle U, which competes at the NCAA Division 1 level.
O’Brien said the first thing he noticed when he joined the Merchants was the increased speed of the game. “I think it’s been a big help getting used to what I’ll be facing the next couple of years,” he said.
O’Brien will get the chance to make the necessary adjustments in his game with a coach, teammate and friend to his right for the rest of the Merchants’ season.
“We’ve got a good bond together,” Whitt said. “Every single day we’re texting back and forth. He’s like, ‘Hey do you want a ride to the field? Do you want to get there early and play catch today? Do you wanna hit?’ … It just goes beyond baseball now and it’s awesome.”