'No one saw this coming': How the potential 2024 No. 1 MLB draft pick almost didn't play college baseball

ATHENS, Ga. — If then-Georgia coach Scott Stricklin hadn’t received a call from a friend in October of 2020, Bulldogs star Charlie Condon might have been playing quarterback at a Division III school instead of producing one of the most memorable seasons in college baseball history.

Before his senior season at The Walker School in Marietta, Georgia, the only schools that were recruiting Condon were Division III Rhodes College in Memphis and the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which expressed interest in him playing baseball and football.

A preferred walk-on spot to play baseball at Tennessee didn’t pan out, so Condon was prepared to play two sports at a smaller school.

But then Stricklin’s friend persuaded the Georgia coach to take a chance on a skinny 6-foot-5 hitter who hadn’t stopped growing and had somehow been overlooked by nearly every college baseball program in the country.

Four years later, the prospect almost everyone missed can’t seem to miss at the plate. Condon leads NCAA hitters in batting average (.483), home runs (26), slugging percentage (1.119), total bases (169), hits (73) and home runs per game (.67).

Going into Tuesday’s game against No. 5 Clemson at Foley Field (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU) in Athens, Condon is just two home runs away from breaking Georgia’s career HR record — in only two seasons — and is threatening a 39-year-old NCAA record for slugging percentage.

Now a 6-6, 216-pound sophomore who has played first base, third base and all three outfield spots for the Bulldogs, Condon is in line to potentially be the No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft on July 14.

“No one saw this coming,” Stricklin said.

How did the once-overlooked high school prospect rise to become the hottest commodity in the MLB draft? Described by one scout as a “unicorn” because of his height, long arms and rare ability in handling inside pitches, Condon is considered a can’t-miss prospect who won’t need too much time in the minors.

“It’s a question I ask myself to this day,” Condon said. “It’s hard to say that it’s taken me by surprise because I know how hard I’ve worked to get to this spot. But at the same time, if I pick my head up and look back at the last three years, and where I was in high school and my freshman year when I was just competing to stick around and hold on to my roster spot, I couldn’t have imagined being here.”

Stricklin, who coached at Georgia from 2014 to 2023, said Condon was the victim of unfortunate timing more than anything else. His recruiting window fell at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. College coaches weren’t able to scout prospects in person that spring, and then the NCAA changed its rules to give college athletes an additional year of eligibility. There were even fewer scholarships available after MLB shortened its 2021 draft from 40 rounds to 20, causing more players to stay in college.

Condon, who didn’t even play on the top team with his travel baseball organization, fell through the cracks.

“I think more than anything with Charlie, his story was just that he’s a really late bloomer,” said his father, Jim Condon. “He was a late puberty kid and one of the youngest in his class. He really wasn’t ready to be seen. He’ll tell you he has no regrets about people passing over him.

“He decided that if he was going to spend this much time playing baseball, he was going to bet on himself and go for it.”

After his friend’s call, Stricklin and his assistants talked to Condon and his family. They watched videos of his games. They believed if Condon gained weight and muscle, he might be able to contribute. Because Condon was an excellent student, he could get accepted into Georgia on his own and wouldn’t need a scholarship.

“He’s a pure walk-on,” Stricklin said. “When he showed up his freshman year, he was really good. We thought he had a chance. We just sat down and came up with a plan.”

Stricklin’s plan was for Condon to redshirt as a freshman in 2022 and spend much of his time in the weight room trying to gain strength.

“I think it was a hard pill to swallow when I first got it because I felt like I had proven myself and proved I could be a contributor,” Condon said. “To have that opportunity kind of slip away was tough to wrap my head around. Once I accepted it, I realized there was probably going to be a silver lining somewhere along the way. I knew there was going to be a spot for me if I trusted the process and kept getting better.”

That summer, Condon played for the St. Cloud Rox in the Northwoods League, playing 61 games in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin over three months. Using wooden bats and facing college pitchers from around the country, Condon hit .286 with seven homers and 68 RBIs.

“Seeing the college pitching was big,” Condon said. “It takes a lot of mental strength to get through a season like that being away from everything. You’re kind of isolated out there and it’s just you and the game. It really forces you to get comfortable in your skin quickly.”

Condon blew up the next season at Georgia. He led the Bulldogs with a .386 average with 25 homers and 67 RBIs. He reached base in 52 of 56 games and had a 24-game hitting streak. Condon was named SEC Freshman of the Year and Freshman of the Year by D1Baseball.

“It’s almost like the old-school football coaches who redshirt a kid and see what happens,” Stricklin said. “He put on 15 or 20 pounds and it all just clicked at the same time.”

Late in the 2023 season, Stricklin asked Condon if he had ever imagined the success he was having.

“He’s just a very, very humble kid,” Stricklin said. “He just kind of chuckled to himself. He’s obviously very talented, but he has an extremely high work ethic and extremely high character. You put all those things together with a 6-foot-6 frame and 220 pounds, it’s got a chance to be special.

“I think what’s made him so good is that he’s had adversity. He’s had obstacles, and he never complained. He bought into everything.”

Another hurdle came after the Bulldogs finished 29-27 and missed the NCAA tournament in 2023. Stricklin was fired after compiling a 299-236-1 record in 10 seasons. Georgia reached the NCAA tournament three times during his tenure but never advanced past regionals.

Georgia hired LSU pitching coach Wes Johnson, and Johnson’s first recruiting call was to Condon to make sure he wasn’t going to leave via the transfer portal.

“It was never a real possibility that I wanted to get in the portal and go anywhere else,” Condon said. “Whether it was this coaching staff or not, the university was the only place that gave me a chance out of high school. It was the university that had given me all the time and resources and put so much into my development. I couldn’t turn my back on that.”

Condon has been even better in his second season with the No. 20 Bulldogs. He has nearly as many homers (26) as strikeouts (29) and there has been little doubt about his long balls. He hit a 457-foot homer against Missouri, a 454-footer against Stetson and a 445-footer against Northern Colorado. His exit velocity on homers has routinely been about 100 mph and as high as 118.

Condon has hit 51 homers in 95 games, tied for second most in school history. Former major leaguer Gordon Beckham hit 53 homers at Georgia in 197 games from 2006 to ’08. Beckham also owns the single-season record with 28 in 2008. Condon is also on pace to set the UGA career record with a .427 average; Joe Stewart hit .394 from 1977 to ’79.

Condon’s slugging percentage (1.119) is just below NCAA home run king Pete Incaviglia’s single-season record of 1.140, set at Oklahoma State in 1985. Augusta’s Keith Hammonds established the NCAA record for home runs per game at .74 (26 in 35 games) in 1987. Condon, at .67, is within striking distance of that record, too.

“In an industry full of special people, he’s like a true unicorn,” said one MLB scout who has watched Condon play at Georgia. “When you start going through the comparisons for him, we start brushing up against Hall of Fame players and legendary figures. There are very few right-handed hitters with those long arms that can get to the inside pitch and handle the velocity that he can.

“It’s unbelievable when you look at his numbers. Now granted, they’re smaller sample sizes, but when you look at his numbers against 95 mph-plus pitching or against special breaking balls, his numbers are actually better. He’s such a rare combination of size, power and the ability to hit. You hate to throw around a colloquialism, but he’s kind of a generational college player.”

The Cleveland Guardians have the No. 1 pick in the draft, and Condon, Oregon State second baseman Travis Bazzana, Wake Forest first baseman Nick Kurtz and Florida first baseman Jac Caglianone are considered the top prospects available.

Even if Condon doesn’t go No. 1 in the draft, the MLB scout who spoke to ESPN said he might still top the record $9.2 million signing bonus that former LSU pitcher Paul Skenes received from the Pittsburgh Pirates last year. The Cincinnati Reds have the second pick, followed by the Colorado Rockies, Oakland A’s and Chicago White Sox.

Coming into the season, the scout believed a good MLB comparison for Condon was longtime outfielder Jayson Werth. Now, he’s not so sure it isn’t New York Yankees outfielders Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton.

“It’s the super long arms and super fast bat,” the scout said. “You look at him and his swing, you think you’re going to beat him on the other half, and then he just destroys the ball. Because of the length of his levers, his power is just so seamless and easy. He just flips balls 450 feet. The guys who do that, it’s just very rarefied air.”

Johnson coached Skenes for one season at LSU. Like Condon, Skenes was lightly recruited out of high school. He spent two seasons at the Air Force Academy before joining the Tigers in 2023. Last season, Skenes was the SEC Pitcher of the Year and Dick Howser Trophy winner as the best player in the country. He went 13-2 with a 1.69 ERA while helping LSU win a national championship.

“Nobody wanted Charlie coming out of high school,” Johnson said. “I think that’s what makes the story. We can all look at the great ones who had similar adversity earlier in their career, right? Michael Jordan didn’t make the varsity team. Sometimes that fuels them. Paul Skenes was a lot the same way. You feel good about them dealing with adversity.”

For now, at least, Condon is focused on finishing his final season at Georgia. He wants to lead the Bulldogs back to the Men’s College World Series, where they haven’t been since 2008.

“Right now, we’re focused on getting this team back to Omaha and in the postseason,” Condon said, “where the state of Georgia belongs every year because of the talent that’s here.”

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