The flashback came last year when Buffalo State’s bus arrived at Salisbury State College. Backup quarterback Kyle Hoppy spent part of the previous summer there with another sport in another life. The potholes and convenience stores and restaurants were all too familiar.
Hoppy was 22 years old. His friends from Orchard Park High’s Class of 2009 were finished with college and beginning their professional careers. He already had one professional career behind him and was sifting through his first semester of college and riding the bench like many a fellow freshman.
And there he was back in Salisbury, Md., returning to the place that marked the beginning of the end and the end of the beginning and the beginning of another journey toward the unknown. For him, it was all so confusing, so surreal.
“It was an experience for me,” Hoppy said with a laugh this week. “Where the school was, that’s where I went to eat almost every day. I drove by the campus every day. Going there and not being in a baseball uniform but wearing a football uniform was like, ‘Whoa. I came full circle here.’ ”
And yet his circle wasn’t really a circle. Hoppy’s path back to Western New York was filled with squiggly lines that connect dots in an abstract portrait of a baseball player chasing his dream. It began when he turned down a football scholarship to Bucknell and signed with the Baltimore Orioles out of high school.
Playing for Palookaville
Hoppy spent 2009 in the Gulf Coast League in Florida, the following season in the Appalachian League. He played for the Bluefield (W. Va.) Blue Jays against small-town Virginia teams such as Pulaski and Danville and traveled to baseball outposts such as Burlington, N.C., and Princeton, W. Va.
All together, it was a long visit to Palookaville.
He had another season in the New York-Penn League, but it was the 16 games he played in Delmarva, Md., near Salisbury, near Nowhere, that it became evident he should be doing something else, somewhere else. And it was then, and only then, he could step back from the scribbling and see the big picture.
“I gave it a shot,” he said. “It didn’t work out the way I hoped that it would, but I’m glad that I made that decision.”
Anyone could revisit the past now and conclude Hoppy should have played college baseball and gained an education. He would be off and running by now, with baseball or without. He would have earned a degree from Bucknell, a very good school that would have helped open doors into the real world.
It wasn’t that simple.
Hoppy was midway through his senior year at Orchard Park when he accepted a football scholarship to Bucknell. The school doesn’t offer baseball scholarships, but his football coach agreed he could play both sports. It was an extra incentive to lure him into the program. He was all set.
“It was a win-win for me,” Hoppy said.
It became a lose-lose for Bucknell a few months later when professional baseball scouts started showing up at Orchard Park. Hoppy’s flawless swing and athleticism had drawn attention during a tournament in Florida the previous summer. The following spring, word about him had spread.
Orioles threw him a curve
Funny, but Hoppy was barely on the radar for most Division I baseball schools. Buffalo wasn’t known for developing baseball players, a northern bias that still exists today despite contrary evidence. Schools interested a year earlier had redirected their recruiting after hearing he would play college football.
His road also took a different direction.
Hoppy was named Player of the Year as a senior at Orchard Park and was selected in the 28th round by the Orioles. He slammed the brakes on his football career and faced a difficult choice. He didn’t want to pass on a rare opportunity to play professional baseball and someday regret that decision.
Does he take a direct path to D-I and embrace the comfort and certainty that came with Bucknell or veer left as a long-shot outfielder in the minors?
“Ever since I was a little kid, I dreamed of playing in the MLB,” he said. “Seeing that I had the chance after being drafted, I figured that I would give it a shot. I knew about Dave Hollins and what he did. I wanted to give it a shot and see what I could do. If I go to school, I might not have that chance again.”
Hoppy signed with the Orioles for $150,000, plus a stipend for college, a safety net if his career collapsed. He made $3,300 for playing three months in rookie ball and slightly more at higher levels. Along the way, he suffered a hernia that led to him losing pop in his bat. Younger players pushed from behind.
In four seasons, that sweet left-handed swing produced only 91 hits and two homers. He never batted higher than .216 and was released by the Orioles in 2012. The Phillies took a peek at him the same season. In no time, his professional baseball career was over. His dream-becoming-reality took a different form.
He has watched former teammates blossom. He played with Manny Machado in spring training. He drove to the ballpark in Bluefield, W.Va., with Jonathan Schoop, the cannon-armed O’s rookie and rising star second baseman. Hoppy made peace with the fact that he simply wasn’t good enough.
“It was the chance I always dreamed of, the chance of a lifetime,” he said. “I can say that I gave it a shot. I played minor league baseball. When I get older, I won’t be looking back saying, ‘I could have done this.’ I took a risk, and it didn’t work out. Now, it’s time to change course and be successful at something else.”
These days, Hoppy is just your typical 23-year-old sophomore and starting Division III quarterback who played professional baseball and has a “scholarship” funded by the Orioles. His deal with Baltimore covers his Buffalo State tuition while football fulfills his competitive spirit.
Hoppy, an all-Western New York quarterback who led OP to a state title in 2008, never lost his love for the game. He landed at Buffalo State after reconnecting with former high school teammate Garrett McLaughlin, an offensive line coach with the Bengals. Hoppy sat the bench last season while shaking off rust that eroded his football skills after four years away from the game.
Football skills return
The same ability he showed in high school returned this season. He completed 50 percent of his passes for 1,240 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first six games. He carved Cortland State for 335 yards and four TDs in the opener. Buffalo State is 5-1 with Utica coming to town Saturday at Coyer Field.
Before the season began, Bengals coach Jerry Boyes was tabulating the votes for team captains when it dawned on him. Hoppy was the runaway candidate on offense even though he barely played his freshman year. He completed none of his five passes over two games of mop-up duty.
“It was really interesting,” Boyes said. “Here is a kid who has one year with us, who hasn’t established himself as a player, and yet he was one of the captains. It says something. It’s like the old E.F. Hutton commercials. When he speaks, they listen. It’s how I would describe Kyle. He’s an E.F. Hutton leader.”
Hoppy still makes the game look effortless, and he’s particularly effective when throwing deep. Sometimes, you would swear he was long tossing a football before a baseball game. With him comes experience his teammates could only imagine and lessons not included in a college curriculum.
Doing things his way
People generally establish where their lives are headed by their 30th birthday. For better or worse, most get what they deserve. Hoppy isn’t taking a conventional path toward his future. He’s taking his path. In seven years, the business administration major will be where he belongs, too.
He reconciled with his first real encounter with failure in sports, knowing it did not make him a failure in life. Baseball history is littered with careers of promising unknowns who fell short of expectations. Hoppy swung and missed. At least he swung. The greater crime would have been going down looking.
“I’m a little bit late, but I’m not behind,” Hoppy said. “At 30, we’re going to be in the same place. I’m doing things in a different order. I took risks earlier in my life. It’s taking me a few more years to get there, but I don’t feel like I’m too late. I’m just catching up, that’s all.”