Carignan and Campbell have an unwavering baseball passion
A state championship in 2003 was already so much more than any dream. Norwich Free Academy scored two runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to beat Amity 2-1, giving the Wildcats the Class LL title and the state's No. 1 ranking at the end of the season.
Among the members of that team were what then-NFA baseball coach John Iovino calls "the best pitcher I coached in 29 years" and "the best all-around player in 29 years."
The pitcher was Andrew Carignan. The all-around player was Eric Campbell.
"That high school season was my favorite baseball season of my life, for sure," Campbell said.
"It's the best year a lot of us have had," Iovino said.
Carignan and Campbell, like many of the players on the team that year, were the best of friends, friends who loved to play baseball.
As kids, they played baseball at the bus stop before school. They played together in Little League. And in 1995 when their teacher at the John M. Moriarty School, Craig Powers, assigned a summer project on anything they wanted, the boys picked - what else? - baseball.
In a story chronicled in The Day's sports section, Carignan, 9, put together a report on Baltimore legend Cal Ripken, who had recently broken Lou Gehrig's record for 2,130 consecutive games played. Carignan even attended Ripken's record-breaking game on Sept. 6, 1995, in Baltimore. Campbell, 8, did his report on Gehrig, the New York Yankees' hall of famer.
"Their passion for the game of baseball was developed at a very young age," Iovino said. "That hasn't wavered since I've known them."
But Carignan and Campbell didn't stop there. They didn't stop playing baseball after graduating from NFA or even after successful college careers, Carignan at the North Carolina and Campbell at Boston College.
They haven't stopped yet.
Carignan, a fifth-round pick by the Oakland Athletics in the 2007 Major League Draft, made his major league debut in 2011 and picked up his first career win in April, 2012, against the Kansas City Royals. Carignan, 26, a dominant closer at North Carolina, was a reliever for the A's before injuring his right pitching elbow in a game on June 5 of last year and undergoing Tommy John surgery - to replace the ulnar collateral ligament - later in the month. He's rehabilitating at the A's spring training site in Phoenix with hopes of a return to the majors sometime this summer.
Campbell, also 26, received a promotion to Triple-A this season by the New York Mets, who chose him in the eighth round of the 2008 draft. Campbell, the Most Valuable Player of the Eastern League All-Star Game a summer ago, is batting .200 in 12 games so far for the Las Vegas 51s, but has shown progress, picking up hits in three straight games earlier in the week. He is a utility player, appearing in games at first base, third base and outfield in Las Vegas, as well as making an appearance on the mound.
"It's kind of crazy," said Carignan of the two friends from a mile apart in Norwich, Conn., who could someday be in the big leagues at the same time. "We always, we had a common goal. We both wanted to play at the highest level. We were two of the better players when we were little, we had good college careers. It came to fruition."
"There are days where you wonder if it's the right career path, but it's definitely been worth it," Campbell said. "(To make the major leagues), that's why I'm doing it. Nobody signs up for this to play in Triple-A. You just hope you stay healthy and keep producing. ... I think this has always been the plan for both of us."
Carignan was with his team in Triple-A Sacramento on Sept. 1, 2011, when he found out he was being called up to the major leagues for the first time.
"It was a mixture of every emotion possible," said Carignan, who is listed at 5-foot-11, 235 pounds. "I called my parents at 2 a.m. their time and woke them up, My dad got up and got (plane) tickets. I drove to Oakland the next morning. I got called up the same day I made my debut. My parents (Gary and Lisa) and my sister (Olivia) were there."
Carignan, who was primarily a catcher growing up, only began pitching full time his junior year at NFA, the year the Wildcats won the title. In the state tournament that season, he won five of the team's six games and saved the other. In 2004, he was named Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year.
He helped lift North Carolina to back-to-back appearances in the championship round of the College World Series. As a junior in 2007, he was a third-team selection to the Baseball America All-America Team, finishing 2-1 with 18 saves and a 1.43 earned run average. Carignan tied a record with five career saves in the College World Series.
In 2012, Carignan broke spring training as a member of the major league club, but made a few trips back and forth to Sacramento before seemingly settling in. He made the preseason trip to Japan with the A's, taking the loss, the only one in his career so far, in the team's regular-season opener in Tokyo and is 1-1 with a 4.50 earned run average and 13 strikeouts in 17 career appearances.
Carignan, who began throwing exercises from 45 feet last October, following his surgery, has now begun pitching in extended spring training games.
"I'm just kind of working back, inching along in the process," Carignan said by telephone earlier this week. "It's definitely boring, it's definitely tedious. I've been up at 7 a.m. every day; that's not my ideal work time. But I'm well on my way. I feel good.
"I know so many people that have gone through this process. It's kind of common now in baseball. It's a matter of taking your rehab seriously. … I'm hoping somewhere in the next three weeks to a month I should be out of here, a little rehab assignment in High-A, then to Sacramento. From there, basically once I'm healthy, it's all up to me. I have to take care of business."
Campbell calls the Mets fair with their promotions. When he's felt he's deserved to move on to the next level, he generally has.
Last season's effort in Double-A Binghamton, where Campbell hit .297 with nine home runs and 50 RBI, in addition to 25 doubles, was what Campbell considered a "bounce back season" from his .247 average in Binghamton the year before. That was enough to land Campbell in Las Vegas, where his parents Duke and Amy visited him last week.
Campbell, who is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, spoke this week of what it takes to persevere as a hitter.
"You really just do the same thing every day. If you do, an 0-for-10 shouldn't really bother you. You have 400-500 at-bats to turn it around. You spend a little more time in the cage," Campbell said. "… You have to have confidence. If any sort of doubt creeps in, then you're done. You have to believe in yourself."
Duke Campbell, who was also Iovino's longtime assistant baseball coach at NFA, tells the story of the day his son was drafted in 2008. The pair planned to go golfing, so as not to sit by the computer and wait for Eric to be chosen.
"When I went to pick him up, he's got the golf clubs all set and ready to go and he's in the driveway waving his arms. He said, 'It already happened,'" Duke Campbell said. "I was like, 'C'mon.' That was a joyous moment. We went out to dinner with the Iovinos and Eric and his girlfriend and we laughed a lot. … When Andrew got drafted it was like he set a new bar. Eric wanted that, too. It was like, 'OK, let's see what happens.'"
Duke Campbell calls his son, "the quietest guy in the world." Carignan, meanwhile, whose coaches all his career had New York Yankees-like no-facial hair policies, now sports a beard, moustache and hair that springs from beneath his cap. He's a regular, often comedic contributor on Twitter.
"Andrew has always been more outgoing, much more in your face. He was a pitcher," Duke Campbell said. "Eric was just very happy to be in the background. Andrew is the horse we rode. I guess their personalities blossomed early and they stayed true to form.
"… They were definitely hard workers and they took pride in their bodies. They weren't stupid about things. They had the eye of the tiger; they were not just happy to be at the next level, but they wanted to make contributions."
Iovino checks on his former players' statistics every night, he said. That also includes Zach Zaneski (Class 0f 2004), a catcher at the Double-A level in the Texas Rangers' organization and Dominic Leone (Class of 2009), a pitcher in Single-A with the Seattle Mariners.
Iovino attended Mets spring training this year to watch Campbell and was at A's spring training last year to see Carignan. He said not only do those two players have passion for baseball, but talent to play the game and the work ethic to foster that talent.
Meanwhile, the Carignans and the Campbells still play cards together, while their sons keep in touch by text and spend time together at home when they can.
Said Iovino: "It's a thrill of a lifetime. They're following their dreams. But they've never forgotten who they are and where they came from."
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