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Archive for Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Keegan: Hooper: ‘I gave it my all’

February 20, 2008

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On the 81st and final birthday of Don Knotts, who portrayed Barney Fife - the most lovable underdog in television history - a baseball underdog rapped a single to right field in the bottom of the ninth.

Kevin Hooper did what we all dreamed of doing when we were too young to know better. He reached base safely on a hit in a major-league baseball game and heard the roar of the home crowd. The hit came on July 21, 2005, off of Minnesota Twins left-hander Terry Mulholland in Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers.

A graduate of Lawrence High and a two-time All-American at Wichita State, Hooper never made another hit fly off of his bat in the big leagues.

Hooper appeared in 14 games and had eight at-bats in parts of the 2005 and 2006 seasons. He surrendered the dream of making it back to the bigs by signing Tuesday with the Wichita Wingnuts, an upstart independent-league baseball team that will count on Hooper to play shortstop and generate ticket sales.

Barring a baseball miracle, he never again will wear a major-league uniform, but if you think that embitters him, you don't know what makes Hooper tick.

"I'm OK with it, I really am," Hooper said by telephone from the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, where the Wingnuts held a news conference to announce their marquee signing. "My childhood dream was to play in the major leagues, and I got a chance to do it. The opportunity for consistent playing time never came, but I'm OK with that. I can look in the mirror and know I gave it my all."

Hooper, married and expecting a second child, has lived in Wichita since 2001. As parachute landings go, Hooper, 31, can't ask for a better one than playing in front of his adopted hometown crowd as the biggest name on the team. He became a cult hero playing Triple A ball in Toledo, an affiliate of the Tigers. He'll do the same in Wichita.

Hooper spent the last three seasons in the Tigers' organization. He had a chance to return to the Tigers as a Triple A player, but instead signed with the Houston Astros with the idea of competing for a big-league utility job. A week-and-a-half later, Mark Loretta accepted salary arbitration, which spelled the end of any chance Hooper had at making the Astros' roster. He asked for and was granted his release, gave a verbal promise that he would not play for another affiliated minor-league team and signed with the Wingnuts.

"I pondered the last couple of years when it would be my last," Hooper said. "I spent the last six years in Triple A, going up and down a couple of times. There's not a whole lot more for me to do at Triple A. I've done all I could. Being able to be here with my family is priceless."

Hooper could leave the Wingnuts if a major-league job became available for him, but that's not going to happen at this point. He said he might play for the Wingnuts for just one season and then pursue his goal of becoming a manager, starting in the minor leagues for a major-league organization, his first preference being the Tigers.

"I can guarantee you one thing," Hooper said of the Wingnuts, "we'll take the field strong day in and day out. I have a passion for the game and the way I think it should be played."

It's a game best played looking ahead, not back. That's where Hooper's eyes remain trained.

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