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For Rays' Hank Conger, West Coast trip means going home

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Hank Conger (24) connects for a single in the second inning during the exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. on Friday, March 11, 2016. WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Hank Conger (24) connects for a single in the second inning during the exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. on Friday, March 11, 2016. WILL VRAGOVIC | Times
Published May 6, 2016

Growing up near Anaheim, Calif., playing baseball, and rather well, Hank Conger was naturally an Angels fan. He would go to a bunch of games, often with some high school buddies who had a hookup for good seats. He would sit and watch and cheer — and dream the dream of so many others.

"You watch games and you're like, 'Dang, I want to play here one day,' " Conger said. "And then in 2010 I'm on the field and I'm in the dugout. ... It's crazy."

The Huntington Beach prep star got to live out that fantasy as few others have, getting drafted in the first round (in 2006) and going on to play for his team, spending parts of five seasons with the Angels.

Only Conger, now part of the Rays catching tandem, found out it wasn't all fun being the hometown hero.

"When I got called up, it was hectic that first year," he said. "It wasn't a 'tough' transition, but it was a 'different' transition with everybody wanting your time. I think that was the first year I kind of learned how to say no to people.

"It's awesome to be playing in your hometown, but I had to prepare myself and take care of my own business."

Rays manager Kevin Cash, a Tampa native, went through a similar experience during his 2005 stint with the Devil Rays and, to a lesser degree, during frequent trips back with the Red Sox and Yankees.

"It's fun to see everybody, but it can be at times a little overwhelming," Cash said. "When you're dealing with 40 ticket requests and accommodating everybody, sometimes you just have to be able to separate that and just go play."

Conger, 28, eventually found a way to strike the proper balance and got comfortable with the situation. For example, he got an apartment to share with a teammate, but he would still go back to his parents' house on off-days for a home-cooked meal.

After being traded to the Astros after the 2014 season, Conger had a better appreciation for the opportunity.

"In the beginning it was overwhelming and toward the end I got used to it and enjoyed it," he said. "Then last year in Houston, especially because I was alone — it wasn't that I took it for granted because I did enjoy every minute of it back home — but I kind of realized how good I had it, just getting to play 10 minutes away from home."

His parents were always around, as was his younger brother. So were buddies he played with on the Ocean View Little League team that got within one win of the 2000 World Series in Williamsport, Pa., and the Huntington Beach High team he starred for and earned a scholarship to Southern Cal.

Because the Astros were in the American League West, Conger knew he would still get to make three trips to Angel Stadium last season, with the oddness of being a visitor wearing off increasingly after the "initial shock" of coming out of the other dugout.

But Conger is with the AL East-based Rays now, which makes this weekend's series the only time he will get to play there, and actually makes it a little more hectic. Plus, he hasn't gotten off to a particularly strong start, hitting .172 with just one RBI and losing playing time to Curt Casali.

"It'll be fun," Conger said. "It's always good. "I'll definitely enjoy this trip."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.