Omaha, Neb. — Batting practice had concluded minutes earlier at Rosenblatt Stadium, and Lawrence native Kevin Hooper plopped down in the Omaha Royals' dugout for a chat.
Now in his sixth season in professional baseball's minor leagues, Hooper remains so near and yet so far from playing in the majors.
At the age of 27, when baseball players usually are considered to be in their prime, Hooper vows he feels no urgency to attain the highest level in his profession.
"I don't feel any pressure whatsoever," he said as he gazed at the visiting Albuquerque Isotopes taking infield practice. "I guarantee you I've done more than anybody ever thought I would do."
Omaha lists Hooper at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. Both numbers are exaggerations. On the field, he could be confused for the batboy. But it's always been that way -- since his days at Deerfield School, West Junior High, Lawrence High, Wichita State and, ultimately, in a host of minor-league cities across the U.S. and Canada.
Holcom League peanut
Lee Ice, who coached Hooper in American Legion ball, remembers the first time he saw the undersized kid wearing a baseball uniform. Ice was coaching third base at Ice Field, and he happened to glance over at the adjacent diamond where Hooper was playing in the Holcom League.
"He was so little they'd be hollering things like, 'Get the hat off second base,'" Ice recalled.
When Hooper first tried out for the Legion team, he hardly could hit the ball out of the infield. But he could run, he could field and he could throw accurately. And he never stopped hustling.
"Everybody told him he couldn't do it," Ice said, "and every time somebody told him he couldn't he did."
Hooper played two summers for the Legion, usually batting ninth and playing either second base or shortstop. Then he signed a letter of intent with tradition-rich Wichita State.
"Wichita State only saw him play once," Ice said. "He went 0-for-6, but WSU signed him two weeks later. He was 5-4 and weighed 125 pounds. A year later he was playing in the College World Series."
That was in 1996 at Rosenblatt Stadium, proving once again that what goes around comes around. Hooper is playing in Rosenblatt Stadium again, this time as a free agent in the Royals organization.
Summer of discontent
In what has been the most up-and-down summer of Hooper's pro career, he now feels refreshed and enthused since joining Kansas City's Triple-A farm club about 10 days ago.
"What better place to try to make your big-league debut?" Hooper said. "Heck, George Brett is throwing batting practice to me. What an honor."
Hall-of-Famer Brett, now in the Royals' front office, was in Omaha last week to work with young third baseman Mark Teahen. Brett, now 51, was in uniform and did indeed throw some BP. He also had a short sit-down with Hooper.
"I told him I was a Lawrence boy," Hooper said, "and I told him what a pleasure it was watching him play. I was 9 years old when they won the '85 World Series. I can remember going to a clinic over there and Frank White standing on top of the dugout speaking to us."
Hooper probably went to that clinic with his best Lawrence buddy, Brad Stoll.
"Sludge -- that's what I call him -- and I grew up together," Hooper said. "Our dads played on the same softball team, so Sludge and I did everything -- baseball cards, catch, you name it."
Stoll nearly is five years older than Hooper, but the two hit it off.
"On weekends our dads would play in softball tournaments," Stoll recalled the other day, "and we'd play endless hours of whiffleball. He was leaps and bounds better than I was."
Plug for a buddy
A few months ago, Hooper put in a call to Lawrence High principal Steve Nilhas endorsing Stoll for the head baseball job. Hooper's suggestion doubtless wasn't the deciding factor, but Stoll did get the job, and Hooper is thrilled.
"Lawrence High has a good man," Hooper said.
Not surprisingly, Stoll believes the Royals organization has a good man, too.
"I know this has been a tough summer for Kevin," Stoll said. "When he was with Columbus, he was as down as I've ever heard him. But then again his downs are ups for most people."
Hooper began the 2004 season with Albuquerque, the Florida Marlins' Triple-A farm club. It was his third season with the Marlins' top farm team, but Hooper was on the 40-man major league roster and he was optimistic he could be called up at any time. Then in May, the Marlins designated him for assignment, meaning they had removed him from their roster.
A few days later, the New York Yankees added him to their 40-man roster and assigned him to their AAA farm club at Columbus, Ohio. Renewed optimism soon gave way to despair, however, when Hooper was benched for the first time in his life.
"It was a weird situation with the Yankees," he said. "They put me on their roster, and I didn't end up playing. Why did they sign me? They have the money, that's why."
Yankees finally say yes
Eventually, Hooper asked the Yankees to release him. Two agonizing weeks later, the Yankees agreed to let him go, even though they still have to pay him through the end of September. Free at last, Hooper called his agent and told him to start looking.
"I could have played golf every day for the rest of the season," Hooper said, "but I wanted to get back into it. I had some offers, but I always said if I became a free agent I'd look at the Royals, and they wanted me."
If in early September, when major league rosters expand, the Royals should call Hooper and tell him to point his car south on I-29, he and Lindsey, his wife of 10 months, will be in Kansas City as quickly as possible. But that's still a big if.
Hooper has been playing second base every day in Omaha, but he is off to a slow start with the bat, primarily because he's adjusting to returning to the daily grind.
"I hadn't played for a week before I was released," he said. "My first game back, I made three diving plays, and I was beat. But I feel good, and I'm seeing the ball well."
Against the Isotopes that night, Hooper would go 1-for-4, steal a base and turn three doubleplays. That was quintessential Kevin Hooper. He's a .250-plus hitter, can steal a base and can fluidly turn two.
Moreover, he is durable. Hooper has been on the DL just once during his pro career and that was for just a week. Throw in his intangibles -- work ethic, upbeat attitude -- and he has plenty to offer.
Out of his control
Clearly, there are many, many players in the major leagues more skilled than Kevin Hooper. But there can't be too many with his cheery attitude and all-out approach to the game.
"He has a great air about him," Stoll said. "He has the confidence you have to have because baseball is a failure-oriented sport."
Meanwhile, all Hooper can do is suit up for the Omaha Royals and hope that someday the voice on the other end of the phone will be a major-league general manager.
Hooper has come a long way already, but he still hasn't entered the big top.
"You always think about it," Hooper said, "but I have no control over it."