TRENTON — Peter O’Brien always wanted to hit for power.
He’ll never forget his first high school home run: “Junior year, left-center,” he said before a Double-A Eastern League game for the Trenton Thunder. It was a summer league game in the Florida Keys, a day he went 5-for-5, hit two homers and missed a third when it hit off the top of the fence.
He has hit a lot of home runs since then, but it wasn’t until the end of his sophomore season in college that he realized his swing might actually be plugged into a power socket. As a catcher at Bethune-Cookman (Daytona Beach, Fla.), he hit 20.
Going into last night’s game in Richmond, he led the league with 10 home runs, including a grand slam, a go-ahead, pinch-hit shot and two in one game. Including his early season stop at Single-A Tampa, the right-hander has hit 20 homers this spring.
He is one of only six minor league players with a .660-plus slugging percentage.
Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson recently compared O’Brien’s smooth, easy swing to Willie McCovey, Dave Kingman, Darryl Strawberry, Dick Allen and, of course, himself. Trenton manager Tony Franklin used the name Barry Bonds.
“He has big-time power,” Franklin said about O’Brien, who turns 24 next month. “He has a special gift. When you see this kid hit a baseball, you have to say to yourself, ‘That’s a little different than anyone else.’
“Bonds had that kind of power. He (O’Brien) hit a home run a couple of weeks ago, when it left the bat, I couldn’t see it; I couldn’t look high enough. It’s a different sound, too. That was one of the loudest balls I’ve heard in a long time. It’s different from the other hitters.”
O’Brien’s background is different as well.
His mother, who speaks very little English, is from Cuba, and was a member of the National Cuban Ballet. His father is Irish and speaks even less Spanish.
“They met on a set when she was doing a show in the U.S.,” O’Brien said about his parents. “He kept asking her out, but he couldn’t speak any Spanish and she couldn’t speak any English. It must have been pretty funny.
“She was still dancing when she was pregnant with me, then she stopped after my brother was born.”
Younger brother Patrick graduated from high school last week and also plays baseball. Their father was a pitcher at Western Michigan and their uncle played ball in Cuba.
His passion for the game followed O’Brien to Bethune-Cookman College, where he and his roommate and a couple of other guys on the team would take reps in a batting cage off campus.
Cookman played its games on Jackie Robinson Ball Park, sharing it with the Daytona Cubs, a minor league affiliate of Chicago.
The players would hop a 7-foot fence and head to the batting cage, where the stadium groundskeeper would leave them a bucket of balls.
“We’d finish practice, go eat dinner, then come back to the field, and if the Cubs had a night game, we’d wait until everyone was gone and go hit until one or two in the morning,” O’Brien. “We’d hit off a tee or toss in the cage out in left field. We never got chased.
“I wanted to get better,” he said about the extra workouts, “and I was going to do whatever it took to do it.”
That went on for three years until his mother, who was diagnosed with leukemia when O’Brien was in high school, had to have an operation. After turning down an offer from the Colorado Rockies, he transferred back home, enrolled at the University of Miami and was granted an NCAA waiver and played his senior year with the Hurricanes.
“My grandmother lives with us,” O’Brien said, “and my mom’s family lives in South Florida, so on the Cuban side everyone speaks primarily Spanish. When we’re together at dinner we go back and forth all night, so when I tell a story I have to say it in English and Spanish.”
There are no language barriers during the annual Thanksgiving Day Wiffle ball game.
“My mom and dad take it seriously,” said O’Brien, whose family eventually built a batting cage in the yard. “They have all these wild pitching motions and throw sinkers, curveballs and knuckleballs. My uncle always reminds me of the times I was little when I would hit the ball over the roof.”
O’Brien’s longest home run — though some might assume it came this spring a couple of times at Arm & Hammer Park — was apparently hit during a Cookman game at Delaware State.
“Left-center, off a building,” O’Brien said with a smile. “I think that was the farthest, or at least it felt the farthest. But that was with a metal bat. When I hit one here, sometimes I’ll come back to the dugout and joke and say, ‘That’s a good wooden bat.’ But I usually don’t say much after a home run.”
Others do the talking when he cranks one over the wall toward Route 29, or when they hear the sound of a quick swing saying hello to a 90-mph fastball carrying his future.
“I feel like I’ve always taken the tough route when I had to do things. My parents and my family always taught me to work hard for whatever I want,” O’Brien said, “so I’ve always been that guy and never take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Getting to the major leagues will be the final answer.
“I feel confident,” he said. “I know what I have to work on and what I have to keep doing. I feel physically ready for sure, but most importantly, mentally I’m ready. I’m in a good place right now.”
And he’s not surprised.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I don’t think I’m that far away at all, and I think the sky’s the limit. I always knew I wanted to be that guy.”
The power guy.