Toops' grand slam home run kept Arkansas alive in the 2004 NCAA Regional in Fayetteville as the Razorbacks eventually advanced to the College World Series for the first time in 15 years. There is little doubt it is, to this point, the most significant play in in the current era of baseball at the school; an unlikely hero hitting an unlikely pitch at an unlikely moment to save things.
But to a newer generation of University of Arkansas students, Toops might be better known for his vocals as he hopes to hit another grand slam with his latest project.
An independent music artist, Toops' first single "Can't Stop Lovin'" is scheduled for a digital release this month on iTunes and BradyToops.com. It will precede his first full-length album "A Little More Love", which is tentatively scheduled to be released in the fall.
"I love the tunes. I love what we're going after," Toops said. "This CD, it's going to be a great representation of me but it's also going to be done at a level of excellence that's going to be second to none. I'm doing it in Nashville with Nashville musicians, a real producer, the whole thing. So I feel like this CD will be able to match up with anybody."
Music wasn't the profession Toops hoped to make it big in at first. Like all guys that spent their lives in baseball, Toops hoped to work his way through the farm systems and into the major leagues.
Toops was taken in the 10th round of the 2004 MLB Draft with the 300th pick overall. He spent three seasons with the Cardinals organization, making it to High-A West Palm Beach before calling it quits in 2006.
"When I was done playing baseball I was like, ‘What do I do now? How do I want to spend my life?'" Toops said. "I was kind of at a crossroads at what to do. I prayed about it and asked the Lord what He wanted me to do, and I felt like He asked me a question back saying, ‘What do you want to do?'
"I'd never been asked that question because my whole life there wasn't any freedom for me to explore new things. I was on a set path with school and baseball. When I felt like God asked me that question, I thought I enjoy nothing more than playing, doing music and singing songs. It was just like natural and thought I'd give it a shot."
Toops started by singing to church youth groups back home in Minnesota before eventually migrating south again, this time to Kansas City, where he currently resides, though he admits his black 2004 Pontiac Grand-Am is more home to him than anything.
Since the beginning of 2009 Toops has "played everywhere from North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas City, Arkansas, Louisiana, Nashville to L.A. I've been all over the place," he said.
After traveling to Omaha to watch the Razorbacks in the College World Series last June, Toops said he time last summer in Taiwan doing missions work when he got a call from an old friend back in Arkansas. It was Jonathan Beasley, Toops' former college minister who had three years earlier started his own church in Fayetteville called The Church at Arkansas.
"I get a phone call out of the blue in Taiwan and he says, ‘Hey, our worship leader is going to go to Colorado; Would you like to come down and help us out during this transition?'" Toops said. "He gave me lots of freedom. He knew I was living in Kansas City and traveling a lot, and he didn't want to restrict that. I've known him for 10 years. I met him back when I was a freshman and attended University Baptist Church, where he was a pastor at the time. I loved what they had going on so we've had a long-standing friendship. It was a pretty easy decision."
|Toops spent three years in the Cardinals organization before pursuing a musical career.|
"I've loved the chance getting to lead worship at the same place consistently and to take a congregation and go somewhere with them," Toops said. "I feel like I've grown as a worship leader, as a musician, as an artist, as a leader. I feel like our church has grown in their ability to engage with God and worship. It's a fun experience."
Between the trips to Northwest Arkansas, Nashville and back home to Minnesota, Toops has already put more than 15,000 miles on his car since the beginning of 2010. Given to him as a graduation present by his dad and grandfather, it's a gift that keeps on giving.
"My car is my home, basically. If I'm not driving, I'm feeling like there's something wrong," Toops said. "I've been traveling for the last six years. With minor league baseball you live on the road. It's kind of the same with music. I just grab my guitar, put it in my backseat, grab a suitcase and go find somewhere to play."
Traveling back to Fayetteville has given Toops the opportunity to reunite with old teammates and interact with current Razorback players. Most game weekends Toops can be found somewhere around Baum Stadium and he sometimes participates in a team Bible study that's held on Mondays.
"You know, he's a great guy," current Razorback catcher James McCann said. "He's kind of a role model for me to look up to being the Razorback player he was, the big hit he had and the fact that he stays centered in God. It's really something I can look up to."
McCann said having a former player around has been a plus.
"He's shared stories with me about the coaches and what they did when he was here," McCann said. "His stories have allowed me to learn from his experiences and how to deal with guys on the team this year.
"As a sophomore it's tough sometimes to look up at the older guys and be able to interact with them. He's really kind of taken me in and allowed me to feel comfortable talking with him."
Toops hopes he's able to mentor young musicians in the same way. Though his first album is done as an independent, he has started his own music label called UnderSpoken Records.
"Technically it's a business and a label but it's more an idea right now," Toops said. "I think I just started with just my music in mind but also with the idea that I could help new artists get their foot in the door and push along. If I could make it easier for them than it was for me it would be a rewarding thing."
For now, though, Toops is ecstatic at the opportunities in front of him. His new album is a looking glass into what he has become since his playing days at Arkansas.
"It's really important as an artist to find your sound and find who you are," Toops said. "I feel like I'm at a place musically and artistically where I've come into my own and figured that out over the last couple of years of playing, traveling and writing. I feel like this new project will be a great representation of where I'm at musically, creatively, individually, the whole bit.
"The reason I write music is that I want people to fall in love with God; to feel loved by God and love Him back. A lot of times that can be expressed in different ways from writing a fun worship tune to writing chill lullabies. I want people to have an experience with God through my music."
Remembering the Grand Slam
Toops' grand slam in the 2004 NCAA Fayetteville Regional is the stuff of legends. With Arkansas down two runs, down to its final out and needing a win to force a winner take all game later that night, Toops came to the plate with the bases loaded.
He recalls what happened next like this:
"Wichita State had a left-hander warming up in the bullpen and a right-hander on the mound. A lefty-lefty match-up is what you usually want in that situation. I'm thinking to myself in the batter's box that maybe if they bring in a lefty the coaches will pinch-hit for me. At the time I think I was probably hitting .290 or somewhere around .300. I had a year where I started out real slow and came on at the end, so I was actually starting to get hot as a hitter but I was pretty sure that if they brought the lefty in they were going to pinch-hit for me. I talked to Coach (Dave) Van Horn probably six months later about the situation. I asked him, ‘If they would have brought that lefty in, would you have pinch-hit for me?' He told me he wouldn't have but I don't know if I believe him. It's easy to say looking back but who knows what would have happened if I would got pinch-hit for in that situation.
"I think I was the most nervous of anybody in the whole stadium walking to the plate. It was two outs, the ninth inning, bases loaded, down 9-7 and I just remember thinking, ‘There's no way I can get out of this situation.' I was looking back at the dugout and thinking ‘You can't hide now.' There were a million things running through my mind at that moment but I tried to silence everything down. The only piece of advice I could remember in that moment was what my dad always told me growing up, ‘See a good pitch.' I thought to myself sometimes the first pitch is the only good pitch you're going to see in an at-bat. I wasn't thinking about getting a home run; I wasn't thinking about anything but seeing a good pitch and hitting it. I walked up to the plate and everybody is standing up. My family was there and the whole bit. I'd been in this situation before. My sophomore year in 2002 we played at Clemson in the Super Regional and I struck out to end the year. I remember stepping in the box and thinking, ‘If you look like a big leaguer, you'll hit like a big leaguer.' I was trying to exude confidence because on the inside I wasn't feeling real confident. I wasn't necessarily doubting myself but I knew this was it. I stepped into the box and looked down at my feet and this thought came into my mind out of nowhere and it was, ‘This is what you were born for. This is what you were created for.' Two seconds later he threw the change-up middle of the way about thigh-high. It was a change-up and I don't hit change-ups. Normally I roll over to the second baseman on a change-up. For some reason that day I just stuck with it, saw the ball through the middle of the zone and got it up in the jet stream.
"With the exhilaration of that moment after hitting the grand slam I was overwhelmed coming back out for the bottom of the ninth. I remember just squatting down with my catcher's mask on and my back to the stands and I lost it for a couple of seconds. The magnitude of the moment hit me and I actually started crying. Nobody saw it and nobody knew it, but I was overwhelmed and I didn't know how to respond. I was so happy, you know, but I was like, ‘Wow, did that really just happen?'
"At that point the momentum shifted in our favor that there wasn't even a thought of losing the second game. It was actually an interesting game and we won 4-3. We only got a few hits and they had some errors, but we just felt like we were in control the whole time. It almost was like destiny."
When Toops left Arkansas to pursue a career in professional baseball he was eight credit hours short of graduation. He finished correspondence courses in 2007 but as a Chancellor's Scholarship recipient he had to write an Honor's Thesis to complete his degree requirements - 40 pages, single-spaced.
"I got to write it on the history of the University of Arkansas baseball program," Toops said. "It was awesome. I went from the late 1800s to the present day and looked at all the determining factors that led to its rise in both popularity and revenue. I covered coaches, players, significant moments, stadiums and everything that led to college baseball growing in prominence at the University of Arkansas over the years. It was pretty fascinating."
Was the home run significant enough to make the paper?
"It was actually the pinnacle of the paper!" Toops said with a laugh. "It might be a little narcissistic but it's cool because every moment in the program is stacked upon the previous moment. You can only start as far as the people before you went. My grand slam wouldn't have been anything if the ‘85 team, ‘87 team, ‘89 team hadn't made it to the College World Series. If they hadn't done that we might not make it to the SEC, might not build Baum Stadium; everything led to that moment and then you get lucky with one swing of the bat and you're remembered forever in the Hog nation."
Where is he now?
Toops, 28, has stayed busy since we first ran this story in the May issue of our magazine. Since he has began working for Kanakuk Camps just outside Branson, Mo. Because he stays at the camp nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week he said he isn't making the drive back to Fayetteville this summer on Sunday mornings, though he will resume doing so while finishing up his album in the fall.
Toops recently had the highlight of his musical career. Along with dozens of other artists, he collaborated with Grammy Award winning artist Michael W. Smith for a project to help the recovery efforts following the Haitian earthquake.
It's probably safe to say he'll top that feeling when he hears his first single playing in his Grand-Am later this month.
Photo by Marc F. Henning