Hooper honored by LHS

Ice Field tribute touches former Lion who went on to play in majors

Kevin Hooper, a Lawrence High graduate who went on to play baseball at Wichita State, in the minor and major leagues, throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the LHS-Free State game. The game was rained out after just one inning Wednesday at Ice Field, but a pregame ceremony honoring Hooper went off without a hitch. A banner depicting Hooper's jersey at LHS was revealed on the fence in right-center field.

He has an American League championship ring from the time he spent with the Detroit Tigers. During his days at Wichita State University, he was a two-time All-American and took the field at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.

Yet Wednesday, as he settled into a spot in front of the mound at Ice Field, Kevin Hooper felt a rush of adrenaline.

Hooper, a 1995 graduate of Lawrence High, was in town to have his number dedicated by the Lawrence High baseball program. Even with all of his past successes, the significance of the moment was not lost on the former Lion.

“This is where it all started,” Hooper said. “If I don’t do what I did here, on this field, I don’t have the opportunity to go on to have the kind of career I’ve had. So it’s a very special day for me. And to have my family here to witness it makes it even better.”

During his youth baseball career in Lawrence, Hooper spent the better part of six years eating up ground balls from his shortstop position at Ice Field. It was there that he put in the kind of effort that has made him Lawrence’s gold standard for what hard work and dedication can do for a player.

“He’s a great example for everyone who plays baseball in this town,” LHS coach Brad Stoll said. “There are people – to this day, even – who look at him and have no idea how he played in the big leagues. But if you’ve seen him play defense and run like a cheetah, you realize how.”

Wednesday’s ceremony began with the revealing of a banner that hangs on the right-center-field fence at Ice Field. The banner includes a depiction of Hooper’s jersey from his days with the Lions.

After the banner was unfurled, Hooper trotted out to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Lions’ game against crosstown rival Free State, a game that was called off after less than an inning because of rain.

For Hooper, tossing out the first pitch for the city showdown had special meaning. For the players who witnessed it, the moment went way beyond special and made the entire afternoon worthwhile even though rain forced yet another game to be postponed.

“That’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” said LHS senior catcher Chase Muder, who wears No. 11, Hooper’s number while with the Lions. “I’ll probably never do anything like that again. To be on the same field with a guy who played in the major leagues and came through Lawrence was amazing.”

For the pitch, Hooper grooved a low-velocity fastball over the inside corner of the plate. Before he took the ball, Hooper joked with the Lions in the dugout about how at his age, 31, it might take him a little longer to get loose.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Muder said. “I thought he was going to bring it a little bit. It was a little high and inside, but I’d call it a strike.”

The pitch – and the weather – were the only thing about Wednesday’s ceremony that missed. No make-up date has been announced for the game.

Hooper’s days with Major League Baseball are behind him. Today, he resides in Wichita with his wife and daughter and is expecting his second child in the coming weeks. Instead of spending his days in the anonymity of Triple-A baseball, he now plays the role of hometown hero while filling a spot on the roster of the Wichita Wingnuts, an independent minor-league club.

Every time he takes the field, as the 2006 pennant race with the Tigers and the do-or-die games with the Shockers flash through his mind, he’ll be able to add the image of his jersey being honored at Ice Field to his memory bank.

“Those of us who know Kevin know this isn’t something he trivializes,” Stoll said. “To have his name and number on that fence means a great deal to him.”