SALISBURY, Md. (AP) — Family is more than a six-letter word to Delmarva Shorebirds’ pitcher Brenan Hanifee.
It’s one of the reasons he first started playing baseball at a young age, found confidence to break away from his comfort zone and ultimately become one of the top young pitchers in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization.
Baseball is life for Hanifee, and it has been for as long as he can remember.
The sport can be traced back generations in the pitcher’s family, but the man who first introduced the Virginia native to a bat and ball was his father, Sean.
Much like his son, Sean Hanifee lives, eats and breathes baseball, having played in college at Bridgewater before having a long career as a coach.
But Sean Hanifee’s love for baseball also stems from his relationship with his grandfather. Being the son he never had, the two bonded over the sport, playing catch, hitting dingers and listening to Orioles’ games on a transistor radio.
Due to school and work obligations, Sean Hanifee eventually moved away from his grandfather and father. But once he and his wife, Alison, married and had two kids, the former Bridgewater second baseman wanted to move home to give his grandfather the chance to bond with his children.
“Family was really everything that dictated that move,” Sean Hanifee said. “He never had a son, so I was pretty spoiled by him. I thought he’d want the opportunity to spend time with (my kids).”
In his younger years, Sean Hanifee’s grandfather trained horses on a huge area of land, but as he started to age, the property was divided up among the family.
While Sean Hanifee built a house, his sister’s section laid bare since she was not in a position to use the property.
Still having a love for a baseball, the father of two had a vision, and shortly after, the 2-acre lot that belonged to his sister was transformed into a baseball diamond. For the next several years, Brenan and his brother Evan would spend hours playing the game with their father.
The trio would work on fundamentals, batting and pitching, all while their great-grandfather sat in his wheelchair, watching his family play while still listening to the Orioles on the radio.
“I don’t know if I built it for the kids or to entertain him,” Sean Hanifee said with a chuckle. “We had a nonthreatening environment where we could just play. When (Brenan and Evan) got old enough, they realized we were really out there just goofing around. But we were doing our best, and I think it certainly helped them become better players.”
Eventually the field was demolished, but the memories remain with the Shorebirds’ pitcher.
Whenever Brenan Hanifee takes to the diamond, he can’t help but think back to the field he grew up on. The future Orioles’ draft pick would spend hours throwing balls to home plate perfecting his throw and technique.
“They’re memories I’ll never forget,” Brenan Hanifee said. “We still talk and laugh about it now. The neighbor would get mad because my brother would hit balls off his garage door. It gave me a love for the game. It doesn’t matter what you do out there, you’re just playing. We’d try to make those plays we’d see the guys do on TV and just enjoy the game.”
With his father giving him tips, Brenan Hanifee mastered the art of pitching, and it showed at an early age.
Once he started playing Little League, the dual-position athlete was always two years ahead of his age group. Not only was he a force on the mound — Brenan Hanifee could also knock the ball over the fence in the blink of an eye.
One year, he didn’t play during the regular season after injuring himself on a slide into third base, but the impressive youth returned in time for the all-star tournament and homered 14 times while helping his team to a championship.
Brenan Hanifee also started to show his confidence at a young age, telling his father the night before a big tournament game exactly what he was going to do once he made his way to the plate.
As Sean Hanifee prepared the lineup card, a 7-year-old Brenan Hanifee went over and colored in the diamond next to his name. He told his father he was going to lead off and hit a home run on the first pitch.
A day later, Brenan Hanifee didn’t swing at the first pitch, but as the second came flying from the mound, Sean Hanifee watched as his son’s hit sailed over the fence for a homer.
“He’s always been able to compete at a level greater than what’s naturally expected,” Sean Hanifee said. “He sets a goal, and he finds a way to achieve it. He’s always accomplished whatever he set out to do.”
When he made it to high school, Brenan Hanifee was a four-sport athlete, playing baseball, football, basketball and golf.
During his sophomore year, his brother was the quarterback while he suited up at wide receiver. Together, the two lit up the scoreboard, with Evan Hanifee setting the school record for passing yards. Brenan Hanifee came up just a few yards short of the most receiving yards mark.
Though it was heartbreaking to both, Brenan Hanifee knew his future was on the diamond, not the gridiron.
Controlling the mound at Ashby High School, the ace was committed to attend East Carolina for college, but Major League Baseball had other plans.
Brenan Hanifee and his high school team were two wins away from a Virginia state championship. The semifinals happened to take place the same day as the 2016 MLB Draft, but while the pitcher focused on the team, his dad monitored social media from the bleachers.
The senior didn’t see the mound during the game because his coach wanted to save his arm in case Ashby advanced to the finals. But a loss sent the Knights home early, with Brenan Hanifee more upset with the loss than finding out which Major League team was looking at him.
But Sean Hanifee was in the loop, hearing rumors that Baltimore was planning to take his son in the third round.
Once Baltimore’s pick came, the organization chose outfielder Austin Hays.
Confused and frustrated, Sean Hanifee and his family followed behind the Knights’ bus trying to get a signal on their cellphones.
“Finally, we got a signal, and we stopped in the middle of traffic with the Orioles’ picking,” Sean Hanifee said. “Chaos broke out, and finally my oldest son said that the Orioles had drafted (Brenan). We were all on the side of the road celebrating.”
In the bus ahead, Brenan Hanifee had also learned the news, but his reaction was a little calmer than his family’s.
“We got to the parking lot of the restaurant we were eating at and (Dad’s) flipping out,” Brenan Hanifee said. “I think it hit him a lot quicker than it hit me. I didn’t even really believe it at the time.”
But it was a moment neither Sean or Brenan Hanifee will ever forget. The Virginia pitcher was going to his family’s favorite team.
Thinking back to his childhood, Brenan Hanifee admitted his father was tough on him and his brother. But once he signed his contract with the Orioles, the pitcher was grateful for everything his dad and mother had given him through the years.
“He was all over us when we were younger,” Brenan Hanifee said. “He disciplined us pretty heavily, but I think both of us can look back now and thank him for doing that. It kind of shaped us into the people we are today.”
For the next two years, Brenan Hanifee worked his way up the Orioles’ ranks, seeing time with the GCL Orioles, Aberdeen Ironbirds and ultimately Delmarva Shorebirds.
In Aberdeen, the right-handed pitcher saw action in 68 innings, tossing 44 strikeouts and finishing the year with a 2.75 ERA.
Along with a handful of young pitchers, Brenan Hanifee was assigned to Delmarva prior to the 2018 season. Once he took to the mound at Perdue Stadium, things started falling into place.
The 20-year-old has been dominant, starting 11 games, throwing 45 strikeouts and allowing just 13 walks, with a record of 4-3. He also helped the Shorebirds achieve their best start in franchise history.
“You make it as simple as possible,” Brenan Hanifee said. “You just throw strikes in the bottom of the zone. You can’t give these teams anything, and if you don’t, more than likely you’re going to have a good outing.”
As he continues to work his way up the farm system, the one common factor has always been his family’s support.
Though they don’t see each other every day, Sean Hanifee and his wife will often make the trip to see his son pitch if it’s within a four-hour range. When he can’t, he’ll send Brenan Hanifee a text wishing him luck, while offering a few words of wisdom.
But he knows his son will be fine — Sean Hanifee’s witnessed it the last 20 years.
“Never be too high or too low,” Sean Hanifee said. “Everything has a limit. We spent a lot of time on fundamentals, but we also spent an equal amount explaining the mental side of being an athlete. He knows how to handle success and how to handle failure.”
Through his years of progression, Brenan Hanifee isn’t just playing for personal glory — he’s playing for his entire family and the baseball legacy they’ve left.
“They’re a big part of this, and that’s how I want it to be,” Brenan Hanifee said. “I always want to do well, and sometimes it’s more than doing it just for yourself. Both my mom and dad have been there. At times you want to quit or you hated the game, you come home and things aren’t that bad anymore.
“Both my parents did a great job raising us, pushing us to be the best we can be, and I’ll always be thankful for that.”