Men's Sports Sports

Mike Strong: From the Diamond to the Rough

Vin Gallo

It was just the two of them – Bob Frazier and his 10 year old grandson, roaming and carting along the grass of Timberlin Golf Course in Berlin, Conn. It was the boy’s first time out on the field. He and his grandfather mowed through 13 holes – smiling, laughing, and sometimes slowing the game down.

“Swing easy,” Frazier said to his grandson, rocking the club behind the ball. “Don’t rush it. Don’t try to kill it. Just let it come to you.”

The two arrived at the 14th hole, and the boy took aim at the ball with intent focus. As he swung clean, just as his grandfather instructed, the ball sailed above the fairway and landed just outside the green. The boy’s eyes, lit with elation, tried keeping his composure for the finishing putt, his face lightly beaming. Frazier looked on with pride, smiling just as wide.The ball jumped off the club, this time just grazing the edge of the cup. With excitement still in his chest, the boy hurried over to his shot’s resting place and again steadily tapped the ball towards the hole. The ball found the cup and rattled in with a satisfying “chocka locka.” Frazier yelled in triumph as the boy turned to his grandpa, dark blue eyes shining, and a wide grin across his face. The boy raised his arm to the sky and held up three fingers. It was the first ever par three for Mike Strong.

“He’s always excelled at golf,” said Frazier. “I think deep down he’s always known that too.”

But growing up, a young Strong’s heart had always belonged to a different sport. Since he was three years old, life was all about the baseball diamond. Whether it’d be fielding line drives or staring down batters on the mound. Golf was something he visited only once or twice a month.

“Golf was sort of like my hobby,” said Strong. “I didn’t really take it seriously.”

If he wasn’t in season, Strong was playing AAU baseball in the summer or fall. As a freshman on his high school team, he already had his sights set on collegiate competition. Trinity College sat four miles away, the Bantams at the time, boasting a shiny 34-11 record from the previous year. Though whether it’d be Division III or II, it didn’t matter. As long as he could play baseball.     

As much as his grandfather hoped for Strong’s heart to find golf again, a young Mike was adamant about playing America’s Pastime. Strong’s mother, Thersea, remembers the fall night when golf reached out to her son again. Newington High School coach Jay Barboratto had received word about a 13 year old regular at Stanley Golf Course in New Britain who had an impressive swing for his age. Barboratto made the call to Strong and asked to speak with Mike. Thersea recalls what her son’s answer was when asked if he’d want to play golf.

“He said, ‘coach, you should think about having golf in the fall. The season would be just as long, and then I’d play baseball and golf,’” said Thersea.

The interest was there, the passion was elsewhere. “He wasn’t ready to let go of the baseball,” she said. But fate would be sure that a club would find its way back into Strong’s hands.

Strong remembers vividly the January morning that would dramatically change the course of his athletic career, when he made the eight minute drive from Newington, Conn. with his dad to Baseball City, a youth baseball training facility in Hartford. Strong had a scheduled practice with his AAU team.

Midway through his throwing session, Strong heard something snap in his arm. Though as a 14 year old, who just wanted to prepare for the the upcoming season, it didn’t hurt enough to stop.

“A pain came right up my arm,” Strong said. “I thought, ‘okay this isn’t that big of a deal.’ So I threw another one.”

The very next throw registered a pain twice as intense. Following examination it was revealed that Strong had damaged elbow ligaments. The term for youth players is “Little League Elbow,” but the course of recovery is identical to what professional pitchers deal with when opting for Tommy John surgery.

“I couldn’t even straighten out my arm. It killed me,” he said. “So I went to the doctor, he told me what I had, and I had two options: either surgery or rehab.”

Strong didn’t want to deal with surgery or a recovery process. A comeback would likely take an entire season, so he opted for the rehab stage. The injury wasn’t an obstacle that kept him off the field either. His pitching career may have been on hold, but he could still play third base.

Strong played out his first two baseball seasons (his freshman and sophomore year) with the Newington Indians. Each game, he consistently showcased excellence in the field. Manning third, Strong picked liners and smothered wicked grounders at the hot corner, with errors rarely ever materializing by way of his glove. His fielding was maxed out. But so was his hitting. At the plate, Strong would earn his walks, and his ability to track bad pitches kept his strikeout total down. Though the ball just wouldn’t fly for him on the diamond like it would on the fairway. The baseball would either dribble off his bat into the infield or would time out as a harmless pop up. Strong understood that the hitting wouldn’t be improving much either.

In the spring of his junior year, Strong made the decision that he’d drop baseball for a spot on his high school’s golf team.

“I was shocked,” recalled his father James Strong. “Baseball was in that kid’s blood.”

Halfway through his tenure with his high school baseball team, Mike Strong knew that room for improvement had ultimately met a dead end.   

“I was 14 [at the time of the elbow injury], so I still played with it,” Strong said. “At that point I tried to play it through two years in high school. I was still on varsity and everything. But I knew I topped out. I was just going to stay where I was at and not get any better. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something that I knew I’d get better at. I knew it when I sat down in my junior year. I knew that with golf, I had all the potential in the world to grow.”

Strong arrived at Springfield College having claimed the No. 2 spot on his Newington golf team the previous year. He emphasized the degree of difference and difficulty between golfing for a team and simply driving to the range for an afternoon.

“Competitive golf can get to you,” Strong said. “It’s one of the most mental games I’ve ever played in my life. It’s got to be three times more mental than baseball, because you have no one to blame but yourself. The ball’s not moving, you should have no excuse. With the same swing every time, it should be so easy, but it’s not. That’s the beauty of the game.”

Mike’s father James is impressed with how quickly his son has acclimated to the courses.

“He’s learned to love golf a lot,” he said.” It’s surprised me how quickly he’s picked it up.”

Despite his skill, Strong is still discovering bits and pieces of the sport, in his fourth season of golfing competitively.  

“I’m still learning now,” Strong explained. “I’ll take a shot and Matt [Gazaille] will be like, ‘why’d you use that club?’ And I’d go, ‘what do you mean, that was however many yards away.’ He’d answer, ‘fly or lie,’ and I’m like, ‘what the hell is a fly or lie?’”

Sophomore Doug Shane also competed in Connecticut for his hometown of Hamden. Entering the program at the same time as Strong, he knew Strong would contribute to the team immediately.

“I knew he’d be good right off the bat,” said Shane. “The seniors [in our freshman year] really took him under their wing and showed him the way. They knew he had potential.”

As Springfield’s No. 1 golfer, victory is always in the fold for Strong. He can win even against his grandfather now.

“He [naturally] hits the ball hard and he hits it straight,” said Frazier. “He can make the ball turn, or fade. I can’t beat him anymore. He couldn’t wait for the day he could beat me, and finally he did, just last year. It was the best day of his life. And it made me happy. I’m very proud of him.”

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