Andrew Hutchinson has been a multimedia reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 2014.
Toops' grand slam turns 10
Looking back on the most impactful play in Arkansas baseball
Arkansas junior Brady Toops hits a two-out grand-slam home run in the ninth inning of a Sunday, June 6, 2004 game against Wichita State at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE When Arkansas was down to its final out of the 2004 NCAA Fayetteville Regional against Wichita State, its players never lost confidence that they could come back.
With two outs, the bases loaded and the Razorbacks down by two runs, Brady Toops, the starting catcher, stepped to the plate.
“I just thought, ‘Could Brady do it one more time?’” said Clay Goodwin, a junior on the team. “He had so many walk-offs and big hits in his career.”
Led by second-year head coach Dave Van Horn, Arkansas won the regular season SEC championship and entered the regionals as the No. 8 national seed, with a 39-21 record, despite being picked to finish next to last in the SEC.
The run seemed to be in jeopardy, but Toops kept it going with a first-pitch swing that has gone down as one of the most famous in Arkansas baseball history.
Arkansas hosted a regional in 2004 for only the second time in school history and was heavily favored to win it.
During the regular season, Arkansas went 25-7 at Baum Stadium and didn’t lose a single SEC home series.
“It was a magical year,” Goodwin said. “That team just always came back, especially at home. We took pride in winning in front of our home fans.”
The Razorbacks cruised to a 4-1 win over Le Moyne in their regional opener before losing to Wichita State 4-3 in the winner’s bracket game. They bounced back with a 10-7 victory over Missouri in an elimination game to set up a rematch with the Shockers.
Playing in a double-elimination format, Arkansas needed to beat Wichita State twice, while the Shockers needed to win only once to advance to the super regionals.
Heading into the bottom of the eighth inning, the score was tied 6-6 and Wichita State was coming up to bat as the home team. Then “the wheels fell off,” Toops said.
Toops, a redshirt junior, had already decided he was entering that year’s MLB Draft and wouldn’t be coming back to Fayetteville in 2005.
“We were starting to run out of pitching and everyone was tired,” Toops said. “We couldn’t get outs, we made errors and people were stealing on me. Down 9-6, I was walking back to the dugout with my head down, thinking that’s it. That’s my college career right there.”
Due to bat seventh in the top of the ninth inning, Toops said he sat on the bench complete depressed while his teammates stood on the top step of the dugout to cheer on the team.
The Razorbacks started their last frame with a pair of hits and a pair of outs, bringing up senior Haas Pratt, who tied for the team lead in home runs that season with eight. Toops perked up.
“I thought we had at least one shot at this thing,” Toops said. “Maybe we could tie it up with a three-run bomb and go to extra inning. I got off my seat and started cheering.”
Pratt worked the count to 1-2 and fouled off a hard slider. The next pitch was another slider and he hit a chopper of the middle. Wichita State’s shortstop fielded the ball, but his throw pulled the first baseman off the bag and Pratt was safe.
Arkansas had pulled within 9-7 and freshman Danny Hamblin came up to bat. That also meant Toops was on deck.
One out away from elimination, Hamblin worked to a full count. The situation reminded Toops of his freshman year in 2002, when he had a full count and swung at a fast ball over his head to send the Razorbacks home from the Clemson super regional.
“I was standing (on deck) thinking, ‘When you strike out, I’m not going to be angry at you,’” Toops said. “That was probably the biggest moment of his life.”
Unlike Toops two years earlier, Hamblin watched ball four go by and extended the season.
“At that point, I literally thought, ‘Uh oh, now I have to hit,’” Toops said. “I looked back at the door in the dugout and thought, ‘How can I get out of this moment?’”
Before he stepped into the box, Wichita State’s coach visited the mound. Toops thought the Shockers might make a pitching change, meaning Van Horn would likely pinch-hit for him.
Instead, the right-hander stayed in the game and Toops’ thoughts turned to the at bat. He had a bad habit of rolling his hands over on first pitch change ups, so he told himself to focus on that.
Even though he was nervous, he realized that he needed to think positively, so he kept thinking of the simple piece of advice his dad told him when he was younger: “Just see a good pitch and hit it.”
“When I stepped into the box, I looked down at my feet and tried to act like I had a lot of confidence,” Toops said. “It was eerily quiet and loud at the same time. When I looked down, a phrase went through my mind: ‘This is what you were born for.’”
Sure enough, the pitcher threw him a first-pitch change up, Toops kept his hands back and made contact.
“Your immediate reaction is that you hope it’s gone,” Hamlin said. “I think that ball barely scraped the back of the wall. It just kept carrying and kept carrying. It seemed like the outfielder was waiting for an hour.
“Then everything exploded.”
Toops was mobbed by his teammates at home plate. The Razorbacks had to play defense in the bottom of the ninth inning, but that was merely a formality.
Later that day, Arkansas played Wichita State again, this time for the right to advance to the super regionals.
The Razorbacks won a close 4-3 game thanks to a pair of eighth-inning errors by the Shockers, but the game never felt that close to the team.
“The momentum shifted in our favor,” Toops said. “Losing wasn’t an option. It almost felt like we were in control the whole time. The home run took all the wind out of the sails of Wichita State.”
The next weekend, Arkansas hosted a powerful Florida State team led by future first round draft pick and current Boston Red Sox player Stephen Drew.
A then-record 9,338 fans saw the Razorbacks win the first game of the series 7-5. The record attendance was shattered the next night, as 10,027 fans saw Arkansas clinch a spot in the College World Series for the first time in 15 years by beating the Seminoles 4-2.
The team ran out of gas in Omaha, however, losing to Texas and Arizona.
When Brady Toops wrote his thesis, it was about the history of the Arkansas baseball program.
In his thesis, he looked at key players, coaches and moments since the Razorbacks first fielded a team in 1897.
The climax is his grand slam against Wichita State, which vastly increased the popularity of Arkansas baseball. He said that the Razorbacks missed an opportunity to capitalize on heightened support when they hosted their first regional in 1999 and didn’t advance to the super regionals.
Five years later, Toops didn’t let a similar opportunity slip by.
“I think in every sport there are defining moments along the way,” Toops said. “I felt that 2004 was a moment the program had been building to for 30-something years. When that home run went over the fence, I don’t understand it, but something magical happened.
“It created a catalytic moment that captured the attention of the entire state. Baseball was sort of trying to go, ‘Hey guys, we’re here, too.’”
Since the 2004 season, Arkansas has sold 10,000 or more tickets for a single game 14 times and been ranked in the top five nationally in attendance every year. In 2007, it became the first school in NCAA history to average more than 8,000 tickets sold per game.
Arkansas has also extended the luxury suites all the way down both foul lines, added seating behind the left field bullpen and renovated the Hog Pen beyond the left field fence.
The Razorbacks have consistently fielded good teams since Toops’ grand slam. Averaging just over 40 wins per season, they have made the regionals every year and made two more trips to the College World Series.
“I think the (grand slam) got the ball rolling for what Arkansas needed to be,” said Blake Parker, a freshman on the team. “It’s a big shout out for Van Horn. He built on that to his advantage.”
A day after his grand slam, Brady Toops was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 10th round of the 2004 MLB Draft with the 300th overall pick.
His dream of becoming a big leaguer ended nearly two years later, when the Cardinals released him on May 23, 2006.
“When spring training came around in 2007 and I didn’t have an invite, I knew it was time to move on and try something new,” Toops said.
He found something new in music, becoming an independent musician. He had always loved music and had a natural inclination toward it, but because he had spent the first 26 years of his life playing baseball, he had a very limited set of skills.
While his baseball skills do not help him with his music directly, the sport did help prepare him for his current career.
“What my baseball career taught me was how to live life on the road,” Toops said. “The minor league lifestyle is not much different than that of a independent songwriter.”
Now in his sixth year as a fulltime musician, Toops plays 75-100 times per year, including performing at storyteller concerts and worship leading at churches.
In August, his first full-length album debuted at No. 8 on the Christian/Gospel iTunes chart and he began a five-week tour. He said it wouldn’t be the last album he writes.
“I’m in the process of writing a new record, but I’m continuing to play and also create,” Toops said. “It’s a tough balance.”
Other members of the 2004 team have stayed involved in baseball.
Clay Goodwin, who led the team with a .319 batting average, is the Director of Operations at Arkansas, overseeing travel and other behind-the-scenes aspects.
Danny Hamblin, the career home run leader at Arkansas, co-founded the Texas Oilers baseball organization, doing lessons and helping run a facility.
The only player on the team that is still playing baseball, however, is Blake Parker.
Listed as a catcher, first baseman and outfielder on the 2004 roster, Parker broke into Major League Baseball in 2012 as a right-handed pitcher.
Last season, he was one of the Chicago Cubs’ best relievers, posting a 2.72 ERA in 46 1/3 innings pitched. He also struck out 55 batters, while walking only 15.
Despite the good year, Parker started the 2014 season in triple-A because of a poor performance at spring training.
“I didn’t really have the spring I wanted,” Parker said. “I’ve been up and down a few times. My stuff came a little later that I had hoped, but I feel good and I want to finish strong.”
The grand slam lives on in Razorback lore and has been consistently ranked as a top moment in UA history.
In 2011, the 15th anniversary of Baum Stadium, it was voted as the top moment in the history of the stadium.
The next year, Hawgs Illustrated ranked it as the No. 6 Arkansas sports moment in the SEC era.
“It really was a powerful moment,” Toops said.