Feb. 19, 1998
Brock Enters Senior Season as Irish Leader
By Steve Ponisciak
Despite the protestations of Yogi Berra, who once said, "Think! How can you think and hit at the same time?," baseball has been considered a thinking person's game. Notre Dame senior shortstop J.J. Brock, an academic All-America candidate, fits that mold well.
If you had asked anyone associated with Notre Dame baseball in 1995 who the team's leadoff hitter and captain in '98, their answer would probably not have been Brock. He joined the team as a freshman walk-on in 1994, and did not play in a game. Sitting out that year allowed Brock to learn more about the game.
"I understand more of the mental aspects of the game after sitting out that year," says Brock.
As a sophomore, he hit .238 as the team's regular shortstop.
With the enrollment of freshman shortstop Paul Turco, Brock willingly moved to third base as a junior. He increased his batting average by 82 points, to .320, due in part to batting exclusively right-handed.
"I had been switch-hitting off and on ever since high school, and I tried it again during my freshman and sophomore years," says Brock. "I wasn't hitting well left-handed, and I don't have outstanding speed, so I wasn't going to be able to get a lot of leg hits. Halfway through sophomore year, coach (Paul) Mainieri and (assistant) coach (Cory) Mee convinced me to stick with one side."
His offensive production took off as a result. He raised his average to .365 as a junior, and has become a stronger hitter as well, increasing his slugging percentage from .313 in 1995 to .553 last year, and has driven in a greater number of runs each year. He has also become a smarter hitter, decreasing his strikeouts each year.
In 1997, Brock started the season at another new position - second base. Again, the move was prompted by the arrival of a talented freshman, Brant Ust, who looked to play third base. In the 17th game of last season, however, the two players traded positions. Brock has returned to shortstop this year.
"I thought it would be fair to give him the first shot at playing shortstop this year," says Mainieri.
One of the ways Brock earned that opportunity was by playing shortstop for the Alaska Goldpanners last summer.
"Playing different positions has helped me understand fielding techniques better," says Brock. "At third base, you have to react quickly. At shortstop, there's more time to adjust."
Brock considers playing shortstop his most important responsibility to the team and Mainieri agrees.
"Every shortstop makes errors because they handle the ball so much, and it's such a challenging position," says Mainieri. "The one thing I know about J.J. is that when he does make an error, he's not going to lose confidence. He has the maturity to bounce back, and that's why I think he'll do a good job for us."
Brock has started this season off strongly in that direction. In the team's '98 season-opening victory against Florida State, he turned the heads of not only his coach but major league scouts as well.
"J.J. played like a major-league shortstop," says Mainieri. "The professional scouts were buzzing because of the way he played defense."
"I told him after the Florida State game that if he plays defense like that every time, we'll have a chance to win a lot of games," says Mee.
The move to the leadoff spot is another change for Brock, who batted ninth for most of last year.
"He gave us a great boost from that spot," says Mainieri. "We probably got more production from that spot than anyone else in the country."
Brock's approach may change a bit offensively.
"As a leadoff hitter, I have to be a tough out all the time, getting on base and taking the extra base when I can," says Brock. "I need to hit the ball in the gap and start something for the middle of our lineup. Coach Mainieri likes to hit and run. As a team we have some power, but we have a lot of players who can bunt or move runners over. I think I fit that mold, of a player who can do different things to help the team."
Brock is also a second-year team captain, a role for which he is well suited, with at least one more year of experience than everyone else on the team. He is a leader by example.
"I'm excited about this team, because there are a lot of guys who understand the game," says Brock. "That makes my job as a captain and a leader that much easier."
Brock is currently taking education classes as part of his preparation for life after baseball. He hopes to get into teaching and coaching. He is well-prepared, having graduated in May 1997 with a 3.25 grade-point average as a mathematics major. His classroom success helped him earn academic All-District honors in 1997.
"J.J. is the epitome of a student-athlete," says Mainieri. "He takes his academics extremely seriously, and that carries over to the way he plays the game. He's grown smarter as a baseball player each year."