TJ Hopkins

TJ Hopkins

TJ Hopkins had already been at spring training in Arizona for a month, building on a strong finish to the 2019 season and preparing for his first full season of professional baseball.

Teammate Luke Berryhill had been in Arizona even longer, reporting to Cincinnati Reds camp with pitchers and catchers in early February. After an injury-plagued summer after being drafted, he had rehabbed and worked hard during the offseason to prepare for his quest to become the Reds’ catcher of the future.

Madison Stokes had played winter ball in Colombia, South America, was in the best shape of his career and poised for a big season when he reported to the Phillies spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla. He was even looking forward to a possible switch back to shortstop after playing first, second, third and some outfield during his first full pro season.

But over the course of 24 hours on March 12-13, their lives would change dramatically as Major League Baseball canceled all spring training games and then closed training camps and sent players home. Suddenly, thousands of big-league and minor-league players had their lives disrupted and joined the rest of the population in the battle against the COVID-19 coronavirus.

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South Carolina currently has eight former players in the major leagues, while Hopkins, Stokes and Berryhill are among 34 former Gamecocks that played in the minors last season and were preparing for another pro season when spring training was shut down.

They should all be two months into the 2020 season by now. Instead, they are home, doing their part to keep themselves and their families healthy and safe, and wondering when they will get to resume their baseball careers.

“It’s crazy, man. It’s hard,” Hopkins said from his home in Summerville, S.C.

Berryhill and Hopkins couldn’t believe it when they were told spring training was over and they were being sent home.

“That was really wild, it was really the last thing I expected,” Berryhill said. “I had heard a little bit about the spread of the virus but I didn’t think it would be anything serious. … And then they called us all back into the facility and told us, ‘Here’s the deal, go see the people inside and we’ll get you packed up and sent out.’ It was really weird, it all happened really fast.”

Hopkins had gone out to eat with some teammates when the NBA announced it had canceled its season after player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. They were joking, he said, about baseball being postponed but didn’t believe it would actually happen.

“I was like, ‘no way,’ because our season hadn’t even started yet,” he said. “And then a couple of days later they said we have to send you guys home, that’s the safest thing to do right now.”

For each player, the news was a shock that triggered a series of mixed emotions.

“I had prepared for about six months just to try to play my first full professional season and to hear it get ripped out from under me, that really sucked,” Berryhill said.

Luke Berryhill

Luke Berryhill 

Stokes was also disappointed. He had climbed three levels, from rookie ball to high-A, in 2018, had a solid 2019 season (10 home runs and 42 RBI in 418 at-bats) and was looking forward to continuing his climb in 2020.

“Part of me, as bad as it sounds, didn’t want to go home because I had prepared and trained all fall for this,” he said. “I was just really hungry for the season and had high expectations for myself. We were just starting to get into game mode, getting our bodies in shape to play games and I was all excited.

“I didn’t want to come home because I was so ready to play the season and get sent to an affiliate. Then I was like, I can’t do anything about it and it will be good to spend time with family, but the baseball side of me and the competitive side of me was like, ‘Nah, I want to stay here and compete.’”

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Hopkins was equally disappointed. He was packing to head home to Summerville when he realized how fortunate he was. While most minor league players are being paid $400 per week, that’s not a lot of money for older, more established players with families.

“I have a few friends who have a family and they have only $400 coming in right now and that’s what I started thinking about,” he said. “I feel bad for guys like that that are still in the minor leagues and they are 25 and they have a family they have to provide for. It’s just hard.”

LIFE WITHOUT BASEBALL

While most minor leaguers are working odd jobs to help make ends meet, they are also keeping their minds on baseball and preparing for when the season resumes. Hopkins, Berryhill and Stokes were all working out at local gyms until those too were closed. Now they are developing their own routines, whether it’s lifting weights and training at home or hitting and throwing at local fields.

Hopkins, an outfielder for the Reds, continues to train every day, whether it’s going for a run, lifting weights or just finding a place to hit.

“I have to do at least something because I can’t go to sleep at night if I don’t do anything, because I just feel terrible about myself,” he said. “I make myself do at least something baseball-related each day. … I have to do something like that so my mind can take a break because we are supposed to be playing baseball right now so I’m still trying to be in that baseball mindset.”

Stokes is staying at his parents lake house in Winnsboro, S.C. and has had to get creative with his workouts. He hits balls into a net or takes batting practice with his brother and goes to a local field where his dad hits him ground balls.

Madison Stokes

Madison Stokes 

When he travels to Raleigh to visit his girlfriend, he goes to a church field where he throws and hits into the fence.

“I can’t really throw that hard to my girlfriend, so I have been throwing to a fence, and the fence isn’t that great at throwing back,” he said.

His mission is to stay as prepared as possible for when the call comes to return to baseball activity.

“I’m training as if I was in spring training and as if I was going to play next weekend,” he said. “It’s not a super-intense workout but I am doing something every single day just to stay in really good shape and stay in baseball shape. That way I am prepared regardless of when they tell us to come back.

“I am doing everything I can with what I have, which is enough.”

The biggest challenge is staying sharp mentally and not getting down while waiting for their athletic careers to resume. Most are working odd jobs and trying to stay busy during their spare time.

Hopkins goes fishing and watches classic baseball games and sporting events on TV. Berryhill, who is also an aspiring country music singer, has been playing guitar and writing a few songs. He’s even played a few gigs around his Canton, Ga. home.

They all play video games to stay mentally sharp and as a way to stay connected with their teammates and friends. Such activities are important to keep their minds occupied and their spirits up.

“Knowing that it’s probably going to be at least a few months away, it kinda starts to get you a little unmotivated because you have already worked for so many months with a deadline and now you don’t know if the season is even going to come at this point,” Berryhill said. “I’m doing my best to stay motivated but those thoughts are starting to creep in a little bit.”

Stokes likes to read and listen to podcasts but also plays whiffle ball, ping pong or shoots pool, anything to stay competitive.

“Whenever I am doing some kind of activity, I try to make it as competitive as possible,” he said. “My family and friends might not like it, but it helps me keep my edge.”

Stokes says having a daily routine is also important. A devout Christian, he starts his day with meditation and Bible study.

“As soon as I wake up, I get on my knees and it’s that first act of praying that just really sets the tone for the day,” he said. “Then I make my bed and complete a task. Within 10 minutes of waking up I have already prayed and completed a task, and something as simple as that sets the tone and sets your mind right.”

Though they are doing everything they can to stay in shape and stay active, it’s hard not to think about baseball and what they would be doing right now if not for the pandemic that has affected every aspect of life. They dream of the day, hopefully soon, when they will be able to return to the game they love.

“I miss it a lot,” Hopkins said. “I was right in the swing of things. We were already playing games and I was just getting pumped up because it was my first spring training and I already had experienced some of it. … We weren’t around the big-league guys but we would be working out and they would come up and introduce themselves. It was just cool to be around all that.”

“I miss it every single day when I wake up,” Stokes said. “I’m used to waking up at spring training and going straight to the field. Some days I wake up and I’m like, ‘Gosh, this stinks, I can’t do anything and can’t go play baseball.’ I 100 percent miss the competitive side of it.”

For Berryhill, he’s missing more than just the game and the daily routine.

“I really miss being around my teammates and the guys that I have built up friendships with,” he said. “Not being able to really see many people, it gets kinda lonely at times.”