It was a typical Saturday, not doing much of anything. Tim Hopkins and his fiancée were returning to Summerville from Mount Pleasant after picking up a few items for the house.
The phone rang. Son No. 1 was on the line.
“Hey man, what’s going on?,” Hopkins said to T.J. Hopkins, a South Carolina outfielder from 2016-19 and minor-league ballplayer since.
“Dad, I’m at a gas station,” T.J. said. “I’m going to the majors.”
It was all Tim could do to keep the truck under control, not to mention his emotions. Once he coughed back the wave of pride, he croaked, “I need you to tell me that one more time.”
The details were hazy, with everything his son was telling him fighting with the constant thought: “My boy’s going to the major leagues!” T.J. was filling up somewhere between Louisville, his Triple-A minor-league outpost, and Cincinnati, trying to beat the clock before the Reds threw the first pitch against Milwaukee.
Tim was just trying to get home so he could unload and start planning. When was the next flight to Cincinnati (5:30 a.m. Sunday), are there comp tickets (yes), where’s a good hotel …
And of course the usual directions.
“You only got three hours to get there? You better haul (tail)!” he hollered.
Many days worth of work, all of that encouragement, had at last arrived. T.J., who learned the game on Lowcountry rec fields, honed it at Summerville High and became a master of the extra-base hit with the Gamecocks, was at the highest level.
He recorded his first career RBI that day on a bases-loaded walk, and two days later with Tim in the stands, he smoked his first career hit. Tim was surrounded by a group of about 20 — T.J.’s friends, agent, family — and of course got to talk with him on the field afterward, but it’s still settling in.
That was his son out there, resplendent in that white uniform with red trim, “26” glistening on his chest and back, his last name above the latter. Tim collected the ball which T.J. connected on for his first hit and the lineup cards for his son’s first two games, and sat there in Great American Ballpark with a grin that could be seen from any other American ballpark.
“I cried for about an hour and a half when he told me he was going. I had tears in my eyes when he stepped to the plate,” Tim said. “It was good stuff. All I can say. It was damn good.”
Tim stayed for the rest of the homestand, and T.J. was sent back down to Louisville on June 18. Father and son have again been in the same stadium this week, as the Bats traveled to Charlotte for a six-game series that ends Sunday, and they’ve caught up.
Sure, it was a letdown to be demoted. But T.J. is keeping the faith he’ll soon be called back up. He was batting a robust .330 with seven home runs, 14 doubles and 27 RBIs through June 22, and it’s clear he can handle Triple-A pitching.
T.J. had four hits with an RBI, stole a base and scored four runs in 14 games with the Reds, which is fine. Gives him something to work on rather than belting 10 homers in his first 12 major-league at-bats and having nowhere to go but down.
“It’s a constant chess match,” T.J. told reporters after his debut game. “I think that’s the name of the game. They’re going to adjust to you, you got to adjust to them. Work hard and believe in myself.”
He’s not presently with the Reds, but was part of the start of a resurgence as Cincinnati has become the hottest team in baseball. They’ve won 11 straight while vaulting into first place in the National League Central, despite an extremely young roster (outside of veteran Joey Votto).
They’re obviously not going to change anything while it’s working, but baseball will take over eventually. Losses and injuries and sudden slumps will happen.
“I think T.J. will be the first call back,” Tim said. “He thinks that, too.”
In the meantime Tim knows that T.J. is constantly thinking of the taste he received, six games in front of the Reds faithful and an extended road trip to Los Angeles, St. Louis, Kansas City and Houston.
It all seems like fate; when T.J. and Tim talked before the season began, T.J. let him know something.
“He told me going into this year, he was going to give it two more years. If he didn’t get a call, he was going to come back home and go to work and do his own thing,” Tim said. “I told him, ‘Let’s just wait and see.’”
Now even if it never happens again, T.J. is all the better for it. He had 15 days in the major leagues, which meant he was automatically boosted to a major-league salary (the minimum MLB salary this season is $720,000). He has a nest egg, his troublesome back problems have disappeared and his dream came true.
Now to make it come true again, and realize another dream of making it to a big-league roster to stay.
“He’s never been a big smiler. T.J. is always so serious, he’s always focused,” Tim said. “And I saw him smile more in those 15 days when he was up there than I ever have.”