Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
In Nashville, Toops reacts to Hogs' latest contender
Arkansas' Brady Toops hits a grand slam in the ninth inning against Wichita State in the NCAA regional tournament in Fayetteville on Sunday, June 6, 2004. (AP Photo/Neemah Aaron)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It is easy to spot the man with arguably the most important swing in Arkansas baseball history.
Wearing a white T-shirt and black ball cap, Brady Toops was behind home plate Thursday when the Razorbacks defeated Vanderbilt 8-2 to pull within one victory of winning the SEC baseball championship.
Toops, 41, moved to Nashville 13 years ago to pursue a career in music. He released a studio album, "Tried & True," in 2017 and has recently started to focus on music again after five years away from it.
He also hosts a podcast called "Soul Games" and manages a few Airbnb properties in bustling Music City.
As he watched the Razorbacks salt away their 20th conference victory, Toops marveled at the consistency of his former coach, Dave Van Horn. Toops grew up in Minnesota, was recruited to Arkansas by Norm DeBriyn and remained for two seasons after Van Horn arrived before the 2003 season. Toops was the starting catcher as the Razorbacks won the SEC in 2004 in Van Horn’s second season.
“Van Horn has been a winner everywhere he’s been,” Toops said. “When you’ve got a $27 million baseball facility and you have a winning history, it’s not hard to convince guys to come play for you. I think it’s a lot of hard work.
“There’s nobody who wants to win more than Van Horn. It’s almost like his grit forces these teams to become better than probably they even are. He’s done it for a long time and he’s built a program and it shows.”
Toops’ two-out grand slam in the ninth inning of an 11-9 victory over Wichita State at the 2004 NCAA Fayetteville Regional helped kick start Van Horn’s run of success at Arkansas. Perhaps no play has done more to ignite a college baseball fan base.
The Razorbacks drew more than 10,000 visitors to what is now Baum-Walker Stadium the following week for a super regional against Florida State. Arkansas won both games to advance to the College World Series for the first time in 15 years, and the success of that postseason created the demand for expansion that led to what the stadium looks like now.
“Baseball kind of swept across the state,” Toops said. “I think it kind of made a statement that Arkansas baseball was here to stay, and then Van Horn and his staff and the teams over the last 20 years have really proven that. I think there was something about our team that lit a spark in the state and people started showing up. When they started showing up, a momentum started being built, and a recruit that comes to see a game with 8,000 to 10,000 people regularly…it’s just so electric.”
Toops said he and his 2004 teammates are keeping tabs on this year’s team. They interact through a group text and have a connection to the team through Clay Goodwin, that year's starting third baseman who is in his 16th season as the team's director of operations.
Toops said he is hopeful the 2004 team can reunite for a series in Fayetteville next season to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of its title run.
According to Toops, the 2023 Razorbacks share some similarities with his team 19 years ago.
“I don’t know that this team has the best players that Arkansas has ever had, but it seems like the way they gel is really special,” Toops said. “And that’s what really matters.
“I think we had one second- or third-team All-SEC player [shortstop Scott Hode]. We were just dirtbags and we played hard and we believed we could win and stayed in it. At this level you can’t make errors, you’ve got to throw strikes, you’ve got to get a couple of big clutch hits. If you can do that and you’ve got some guys that can drop some bombs, you’re going to be fine, and that’s what this team has. They’re really special. It’s fun to watch.”
Van Horn shared similar thoughts during an in-game TV interview Thursday.
"We know we have a lot of good players," Van Horn told SEC Network. "We might not have too many like superstar big-league type guys yet, but as far as just playing hard, man these dudes just show up every weekend and just play."
Thursday’s game was the second Toops has seen in person this season. He was in Fayetteville for a business trip last month and attended one of the Razorbacks’ victories over Texas A&M. He plans to attend the second game in Nashville and any Arkansas game when he has a chance.
“I think the 2004 team takes a lot of pride in the fact that we were the beginning of the new era of Razorback baseball, but at the same time we can’t take credit for it,” Toops said. “There’s been so many players. Van Horn, what he’s done for this program is incredible. He’s done an incredible job to take that spark and actually make it into somewhat of a wildfire.”
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