All American Game : : Story
Friday, August 01, 2014

Hooper paves his own way

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Perfect Game

If you take a quick scan of the rosters for the 2014 Perfect Game All-American Classic you're going to find some familiar names. After all, big league bloodlines are often regarded as almost a sixth tool when it comes to intangible qualities certain players possess.

Daz Cameron, Nick Shumpert, Kody Clemens, Elih Marrero and Ke'Bryan Hayes are the sons of long-time major-leaguers Mike, Terry, Roger, Eli and Charlie respectively. Lucas Wakamatsu's father Don is currently the bench coach for the Kansas City Royals and spent two years as the manager for the Seattle Mariners.

Both Parker Kelly and Kyle Tucker have brothers, Carson and Preston, who are prominent prospects in the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals organizations.

Similar to Jahmai Jones, whose late father Andre -- as well as his two brothers, played college football at a high level -- Justin Hooper chose a path in baseball despite having deep roots on the gridiron.

Hooper's father, Michael, was a standout for San Diego State in the mid-1980s. His brother, Austin, is a tight end at Stanford, and his uncle Greg also played football for the Cardinal. Another uncle, Chip, played tennis professionally and was nationally ranked at the peak of his career.

So while baseball may not be as rich in his blood as some of his PG All-American teammates, the athletic pedigree certainly is.

I hung up the cleats actually,” Hooper said in a recent phone interview of his decision to focus on baseball. “My brother and my uncle and my dad are all football guys, so when I hung them up they were a little angry. But I had to pick one or the other.”

Hooper stands out on whatever field he's playing on as a 6-foot-7, 230-pound athlete. Although he didn't attend the Perfect Game National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla. in mid-June as most of his PG All-American teammates did, he did make the trek to Chula Vista, Calif. to attend this year's Sunshine West Showcase in early June.

There he quickly opened eyes, throwing free and easy in the low-90s, peaking at 95 mph, while also throwing a curveball and a changeup. He uses his stature perfectly to pitch on a downhill trajectory to the plate, making his heat look that much faster. And he's also working on a slider to help broaden his repertoire even further, and overall enjoyed the opportunity the Sunshine West Showcase presented him with.

It was a great opportunity to play with a bunch of other guys trying to get their names out there, guys that like to compete and get after it with a bunch of [scouts] looking at you.”

I don't mind [the attention],” Hooper added, speaking specifically to the attention players get from scouts and recruiters at national level events. “Everyone that wants to go play in college wants to play on a big league field. But for me, right now, I'm just the same me, going along doing the best that I can.”

Education is a recurring theme in conversations with both Justin and his father, Michael, who stresses the importance of not just looking at one's short-term goals, but doing the proper things at a young age to set oneself up for a lifetime of achievements.

Education is extremely important in this family,” Michael Hooper said. “We leverage our athletic ability to kind of help you farther in life. I'm not talking about a very short sports career. I'm talking about building another kind of career for a long lifetime. My kids have been fortunate enough to work hard and put themselves in a position to set themselves for the back half of their lives.

What sports does, it helps them get ready for life, the lessons in life. How to win, how to lose and how to respect the game and move forward.”

The life lessons imparted on Justin and his brother have definitely taken root.

As much as I love baseball I want to play until I can't anymore,” he added. “But as much as baseball is a part of your life and who you are as a competitor, there's always something after baseball and you don't want to be the greatest [scratch] golfer ever when you're 35 years old. You want to be able to do something in the community, start my second career, making sure I get a good education.

Hard work pays off. I've been blessed enough to be tall and have all of the physical attributes, but also your mentality [is important], to take that and put something towards it," he continued. "That's how most of my family was. My uncle would wake up, early morning, and just go serve to noboby across the court before school and ended up being ranked 17th in the world. My [other] uncle was a great baseball and football player. But he didn't want to go to the draft, he wanted to go and enjoy Stanford. And now he has a medical [profession].”

The recruiting process is something Justin got a taste for prior to him going through it himself, as his brother, Austin, was deciding where to continue his athletic career, and education, coming out of high school.

Hooper found that process particularly stressful, and didn't care to go through the long process himself. Fortunately, he found the advice he needed that he used to make his eventual commitment to UCLA from an unexpected source.

I was at a family barbeque and Mr. Crawford, Brandon Crawford's dad, showed up, and I was talking about how stressful it was to find a college and the draft,” Hooper recalled. “He gave me the phone and said 'here, talk to Gerrit Cole.'

I was blown away by what Gerrit had to say. He absolutely loved UCLA, and obviously going from the 29th pick to No. 1 overall I think Coach Savage did a little something for him over there. I just believe they can get me better [too].”

And getting better is something Hooper has his mind focused on currently. Although he doesn't spend the summers traveling across the country with a travel team, he makes sure to put in his work close to home.

He plays with his De La Salle High School teammates in a local league called the 680 League, and makes frequent visits to Los Angeles working with renowned pitching coach Tom House.

There's this place called Total Player's Center here in Pleasanton,” he said. “I find an open cage, stretch, and just me loving baseball I go through three or four buckets, a couple of hundred balls. I'll be feeling it a little bit, but just getting out there [feels good]. It's a good hurt, and the rest of the day you feel productive that you got something done.

Right now I've been trying to stay consistent, repeating my delivery over and over again. I've been going down to see Tom House in LA and he's fixed me up a quite a bit and fixed my mechanics. I actually got finished with a 40-50 pitch bullpen and I was pretty on the dot. So I feel really good and confident about my summer.”

In addition to Hooper's eye-popping mid-90s heat, the Perfect Game scouting staff got a first-hand look at Hooper's pre-game regime that includes a series of long-toss, jogs and sprints before finally heading to the bullpen to warm up for game action. It's a process that has worked very well for Hooper as he looks to hone his craft, knowing the process, and the discipline, is an important part of the journey.

And all of the hard work, discipline and focus has definitely payed off for Hooper, who will be among the nation's top high school players in mid-August at the Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park. The opportunity, in addition to the nationally televised audience, will give Hooper the big stage he seems to thrive on.

Oh my gosh. I absolutely was just speechless,” Hooper said when he learned he was invited to participate. “I wasn't expecting to make anything aside from just playing some baseball. It's so cliché, but it's totally true, it's just an honor to be one of those kids to play at Petco Park and play under the lights on a big league field.”

The honor also hit home with his father, who wasn't shy about sharing his pride and excitement for his son.

C'mon, I'm an Aztec,” Michael Hooper said cheerfully. “Going back down to San Diego and playing on the big stage, we're just honored to be even thought of to come down there and participate. It's going to be great for the event and we're just looking forward to seeing our son go out there and compete.”

And for all of the importance that Michael puts on education and putting yourself in a position for a lifetime of success, giving back is also a high priority. The fact that the Classic makes it a priority to give back to the community and support the fight against pediatric cancer is something that hit home with the Hooper family.

One of the things we do every year is we go spend time at the children's hospital in Oakland,” Michael said. “We talk to the kids as a family and it's really important for us to give back and understand just how lucky to be doing what you're doing. Whether that's playing baseball or standing upright.”

Once again, the life lessons Justin Hooper has learned from his parents have been embedded in his fiber, as he too is quick to recognize there are much bigger things in life than playing baseball.

I can't think of anything more important than effecting somebody's life. I feel very fortunate that I can help someone else.”

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