San Francisco Giants

Joe Panik’s high school coach recalls a precocious player

San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik flips the ball to Brandon Crawford for a double play on a grounder by Kansas City Royals Eric Hosmer during the third inning of Game 7 of the World Seriesy, Oct. 29, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo.
San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Panik flips the ball to Brandon Crawford for a double play on a grounder by Kansas City Royals Eric Hosmer during the third inning of Game 7 of the World Seriesy, Oct. 29, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. The Associated Press

Tom O’Hare’s reaction was almost as quick as that of his former player, Joe Panik, when he saw Panik’s backhand dive and glove flip to start a critical double play in Game 7 of the World Series last fall.

“I jumped up off the couch,” O’Hare said.

O’Hare was the varsity baseball coach at John Jay High School in East Fishkill, N.Y., at the time Panik, now the Giants’ second baseman, starred for the team. As he watched Panik spear Eric Hosmer’s shot up the middle to help bail the Giants out of a third-inning jam against the Royals, O’Hare was first elated, then indignant when Hosmer was called safe at first (a call overturned upon review). But at no point was he in disbelief.

“Anyone that knew Joe through high school, those are the plays he makes,” O’Hare said. “He’s always had a flair.”

Those who watched Panik become the Giants’ everyday second baseman and No. 2 hitter last season remarked on his steady play and poise at age 23. But Panik was also at the center of several key moments in the Giants’ World Series run: his two-out, ninth inning walk to start the game-tying rally in Game 2 of the National League Division Series in Washington; his two-run homer off St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright in the National League Championship Series clincher; the double play in Kansas City.

Panik has seen the replay a handful of times. With a runner on first in a 2-2 game, Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt threw a sinker down and in to Hosmer, whom Panik was shading a step away from second base. Hosmer, though, kept his hands inside the pitch and shot a ground ball up the middle. It took three bounces before Panik speared it on a dive, using his glove to flip the ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who made a strong relay to first.

Looking back, Panik said three things stand out to him about the play: His reaction time off the bat, trusting his instinct to flip with the glove instead of taking one sure out, and Crawford’s flat-footed throw to first that still beat Hosmer’s headfirst dive. “You’re like, ‘Wow, wow, whoa,’” Panik said.

O’Hare recalled practices in early spring when, driven indoors by East Coast snow, the John Jay High team would run drills practicing bare-hand and glove flips. Panik played shortstop in high school, so he never had to execute the backhand glove flip to second. Still, O’Hare said, “He definitely had a few glove flips.”

“I always wanted to test my limits,” Panik said last week. “Not try to be flashy, but see if I can do certain things so my body knows, ‘Hey, if I get put in an uncomfortable situation, can I handle doing a glove flip or something?’”

O’Hare said he first coached Panik on a middle school team when Panik was in seventh grade. The school district allowed middle school students to try out for high school sports and, the next year, Panik was playing for the John Jay varsity baseball team at age 13 – despite the fact that, in O’Hare’s words, “He still looked 13 years old, probably 5-foot-4, 140 pounds.”

“I think the reason he was able to do that in part, besides his skill, is he was very calm,” O’Hare said. “You’d never know if he was uncomfortable in a situation.”

Because of his early start, Panik played five years of varsity baseball at John Jay. “We’d get off the bus his senior year and I could see the look on (opponents’) faces when they realized, ‘This kid is still here?’” O’Hare said. By his final year, Panik was closing in on the state record for career hits in Class AA. He was one hit shy of tying the record entering what would be his final game.

“He hit a home run to tie the record,” O’Hare said. “And then in his next at-bat, he hit a home run to break the record.”

Panik lived this off-season in Westchester, about 45 minutes south of his hometown of Hopewell Junction, but went home to see family and noticed the signs: “Honk for Joe Panik” in front of a shopping plaza, “Congrats Joe Panik, World Series champion.” The area is Yankees and Mets country, but O’Hare said he noticed “a lot of Giants hats being worn” around last October.

“I’ll tell you, though, it didn’t change much for him,” O’Hare said. “He’s still the same humble, down-to-earth kid.”

One trip home was for a community event honoring Panik at John Jay High. With family and friends on hand, speakers such as a county executive and O’Hare touted Panik, and a video montage recounted his road from Hopewell Junction to World Series winner. Panik described it as “not awkward – that’s not the right word – just different.”

The event is on YouTube, and it isn’t until past the hour mark that Panik finally takes the microphone.

“When I got up there and spoke, I spoke from the heart, everything I said,” Panik said. “That part was easy.”

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