COLUMBIA — T.J. Hopkins wasn’t drafted last season, which wasn't much of a surprise. He played well, so well that South Carolina basically didn’t win when the outfielder from Summerville wasn't in the lineup, but he missed 26 games while healing a fractured vertebrae and a busted hand.
Yet he did get the offer that college juniors hope for, perhaps not set-for-life money, but great money for an undrafted junior that came off an injury-marred season.
“He got offered after the draft by two or three teams for the minimum of $150,000,” said his father, Timmy Hopkins. “He turned it down.
“It was frustrating not to see his name called in the draft, and he took it as, ‘You know what, I’m gonna go back to school.’”
It was an immensely tough decision to make. How does a 21-year-old turn down a six-figure check? How does a college junior, knowing if he waits a year there might be no signing bonus offered because teams know he has nowhere else to go, say no thanks?
How did Hopkins, with a hospital chart that filled a second manila folder, refuse a guaranteed offer for at best a gamble?
Because of loyalty.
“He and I, we bleed two different sets of colors — kelly green and sunflower gold of Summerville High, and we bleed the garnet and black,” Timmy said. “We’ve both been like that all our life. He was always a Carolina fan, and that’s all he wanted to do was play for the Gamecocks.”
As the Major League Baseball draft plays out this week, it’s time to see how much that loyalty earned. Hopkins, perhaps a fifth-round pick or better if he had been healthy as a junior, has an outside shot of being drafted in the first 10 rounds this week, thus earning the six figures he declined last year (world champion Boston has the final pick of the 10th round Tuesday, with a listed bonus slot of $142,200).
Whatever the case, there are no regrets. Hopkins started all of USC’s 56 games his senior season. He hit .285 with 11 home runs and 42 RBIs. He swiped 18 bases in 22 attempts.
Hopkins showed every one of the tools he possesses and there has to be some MLB team that values those.
“It only takes one team to like you,” he said. “All I need is one little chance. That’s all I care about.”
Hopkins has heard from 29 of the 30 MLB teams. He’s back from a recent workout in Atlanta where he showed off for a few of them, clocking what his father said was a 6.4-second time in the 60-yard dash.
He was back in Summerville on Monday and that's where he and his immediate family will wait for the call.
“I think honestly, to T.J., staying healthy was worth any money that he gave up last year. He will tell you this — it’s not about the money. He wants to go to a good club and move up just as quickly as he can,” Hopkins’ mother, Missy, said.
“For T.J. to go back to Carolina and play his senior year and do some of the things he couldn’t do last year … They didn’t have the best season but he did accomplish a few of the things he wanted to do. I’m sure beating Clemson was high on his list this year.”
Hopkins did go out with his first series win over the Tigers, and added the Tom Price Award to his collection as USC’s MVP of the three-game rivalry series. He smashed three homers and drove in nine against Clemson, and while the Gamecocks didn’t reach the postseason for the second time in his career, there was no doubting what he meant to his team.
“From my house to Founders Park is 92.7 miles. That sophomore and junior year, at times, it felt like it was 180 miles one way,” Timmy said. “I felt like I could get there in an hour every day this year because he was playing. Nice to sit there and watch him fulfill the reason he came back.”
The call will come Tuesday or Wednesday. There are a few favorite teams Hopkins is keeping to himself, although anybody who has spring training in Florida will be fine.
But after traveling the potholed road of his injury-plagued college career, any call from any team will be celebrated.
“All he wants is an opportunity. Does he want to sign for a little bit of money? Sure, every kid does,” Timmy said. “But he just wants to play baseball.”