Hopper all smiles with Reds

Hopper all smiles with Reds

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Nine years. Nine long years.

That's how much time outfielder Norris Hopper had spent in the Minor Leagues before he finally broke into the Majors last summer. That included nine seasons of mind-numbing bus rides for road trips, taking care of his own bags and equipment and wondering if he'd ever make it.

There were eight Spring Trainings that Hopper spent in a Minor League camp trying to claw and climb his way up. The Reds' crowded Minor League clubhouse is only a few feet away from its big-league counterpart and separated only by an office, but it may as well be miles apart. Players battled for access to the soup at lunch time and for the attention of the decision-makers.

That's why Hopper, now 28 and a little aged by prospects' standards, could fully appreciate the first Major League camp of his career.

"It's easier to get your work done here," said Hopper, before he took leave from camp to attend his grandmother's funeral. "It's more relaxed up here, more laid back. But it's still hard work. Don't get me wrong. You work hard.

"Most of these guys up here know how to get their work done on their own. There's not as much repetition. It's just getting yourself ready. There aren't as many instructors around you up here telling you what to do. They know you know what to do."

From the time he was an eighth-round draft pick in 1998 until 2004, Hopper was with the Royals organization. He never made it above Double-A despite some productive seasons as a speedy hitter.

"The tough thing for me was I was seeing guys that I had better numbers than passing me up on the Minor League levels," Hopper said. "I didn't know what was going on. They always say you need a break in this game. I felt like once I got with a new organization, it was a brand new start."

The events leading to his big break began to materialize when he signed with the Reds as a six-year Minor League free agent in 2005. Instructors told Hopper that he didn't have to just hit the ball on the ground and run fast. They made it mandatory for him to try for home runs when he had 1-0 counts.

"I felt free," Hopper said.

After Hopper batted .310 with Double-A Chattanooga that season, he was often summoned to the big-league side to fill in at Reds exhibition games last spring. The organization took notice of his effort in those limited auditions, even though Hopper wasn't on the 40-man roster and began 2006 back at Chattanooga. He played 13 games before a promotion to Triple-A Louisville followed.

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Years of playing in the Minors never seemed to sour or discourage a usually congenial Hopper.

"He's outstanding," Louisville manager Rick Sweet said. "He's full of life and excitement. He's one of those players that when he walks on the field, he starts smiling and starts going. And it's all good stuff. When you have a player like that, there's always going to be something going on."

In his first Triple-A season, Hopper led the International League in hitting with a .347 average. His speed yielded him 25 steals, but also gave opposing teams plenty of headaches.

"The perseverance has been pretty good, obviously," Sweet said. "He's been one of the most exciting players I have ever had, as far as going out and making things happen. It's not just offensively. It's on the bases. It's defensively in the outfield, and even at second base."

Injuries at the Major League level had the Reds summon Hopper on Aug. 20. In his debut as a pinch-hitter, he notched a single against then-Pirates reliever Mike Gonzalez.

"It was the craziest thing," Hopper said of the moment. "The first day I got there, I wasn't even in the dugout for two innings and [manager Jerry] Narron told me to go hit. [Todd] Hollandsworth was already walking to the plate and he called him back. I grabbed my bat. I didn't even put any pine tar [on the bat] or stop at the on-deck circle. I walked straight to the plate with my bat hanging on the side. I said hello to the umpire and he kind of gave me a look. It was just awesome."

Hopper made nine starts in two stints at the Majors and made the most of the chance by batting .359 (14-for-39) with one homer and five RBIs in 21 games.

"He stayed within himself," Narron said. "He knows he's not a home run hitter. He knows he's a guy that can run a little bit. He played a so-called little man's sort of game where he puts the ball in play and is a very good bunter. I think a lot of times, guys come to the Major Leagues for the first time and they try to do more than they're capable of."

"I was just waiting on a chance to get there," Hopper said. "Once you get there, you have to do something to open some eyes and maybe stay there. I told myself I would go up there, relax and be me."

About a month after the Major League season, Hopper didn't just go home and recount his Major League memories on the sofa. The North Carolina native wanted to keep his momentum going and played 32 more games with Navojoa in the Mexican Leagues last winter.

"It's the worst place in the league. If you go there, then you love baseball," Hopper said. "It's in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing around."

Hopper may be on the 40-man roster and in big-league camp, but knows he lacks big-league job security. Cincinnati already has four outfield spots locked up and he is up for a fifth spot along with Chris Denorfia, Josh Hamilton and Bubba Crosby. For Hopper to make the 25-man roster out of camp, he'll really have to separate himself from the group or count on some breaks to fall his way.

"I don't think he can play the game any other way than hungry," Sweet said. "He wouldn't know what to do with himself if he tried to calm down, and I've never seen him have a bad day. He walks into the clubhouse with a smile on his face and leaves with a smile on his face, regardless of how his day is going. He is a real treat to have."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.