Big league hurler, former Wheeler to pitch sportswear line locally
By Clint Thomas, Gazette-Mail Metro
Big-time baseball pitcher Chris Hook aims to encourage energetic upstarts to play hookey.
His wife, Toni, a former Fayette County teacher, emphasizes that the expression shouldn't be taken literally. The accent is on "play," she said, while "hookey" is defined primarily as wordplay on the couple's surname.
"Play Hookey Sports" is the sportswear line Chris plans to test-market in the Charleston and Cincinnati areas, probably by next winter.
Currently working as a Headstart psychologist and counselor in the greater Phoenix area, Toni expressed some trepidation about the concept's name when Chris pitched it to her a few months ago.
"Being an educator, I wondered, 'What kind of meaning does this have?'" Toni, 28, said during a telephone interview from the Hooks' Scottsdale, Ariz., condominium home. "We decided we were using it both ways. To play hookey might be something mischievous-sounding to draw people into it, particularly teens who aren't always so pro-school.
"But then they'd see the message that it's not about skipping school. It's more of a positive aspect, just using sports as a vehicle they can use to go other places, such as college, to gain insight, to have a road to the future."
Chris agreed. The recent San Francisco Giants middle-relief pitcher said his idea for the project stemmed, in part, from the 1994 strike-stricken baseball season and the fan rancor it created in its wake.
"I thought we were losing focus on the fun of sports," the 28-year-old right-hander explained. "I think not just kids, but young adults and people who are active in sports, need to concentrate on fun. When I play the game, I enjoy playing it, that it's gotten me to where I am. I love the people, the game, the competition.
"People look at sports as money, money, money. Sports are for fun. I think that's the root of everything. 'Play Hookey Sports' is kind of a free-and-easy attitude, going out and enjoying yourself, playing as hard as you can."
From Watt Powell...
After a triad of tryouts for his hometown Cincinnati Reds as a junior at Northern Kentucky University and an instructional pitching stint in Plant City, Fla., Chris found himself a member of the 1990 minor league Charleston Wheelers team. He said his first extended time away from home and family helped spark an unremarkable start as a pro.
"I was grabbing for something," he recalled. "I didn't perform as well as I could have. I did poorly the first half of the season."
Wheeler Manager Jimmy Lett shifted Chris to the bullpen, where he eventually tallied a 6-5 record for what emerged as the South Atlantic League championship team.
In June 1990, the rookie pitcher met his wife-to-be. While teaching first grade at Valley and Falls View elementary schools for five years, Toni earned a master's degree from West Virginia Graduate College. Celebrating her graduation, she and some girlfriends encountered Chris and other Wheelers at a downtown Chili's restaurant.
"I was still in my go-out-and-have-a-good-time phase," Toni said. "I walked by Chris, and he gave me some silly pick-up line. We just hit it off."
Later, Chris offered to drive Toni home. She noticed a Reds sticker on the windshield and mentioned offhandedly that her father was a big fan of the team.
"He very humbly said, 'That's why I'm in the area,'" she said.
"Meeting Toni really solidified my life that year," said Chris. "It put me on a positive thought. She has always been such an inspiration and always [has] been behind me. Her family has also been really supportive. It was kind of a turning point for me."
The couple married in November 1994.
From 1991 to 1995, Chris hopscotched across the country, refining his pitching skills at various minor league levels. Disappointed at not being added to the Reds' 40-man spring training roster in 1994, Chris was traded to the San Francisco Giants.
Along with pitching for the Giants' AAA Phoenix Firebirds franchise, Chris participated in the Arizona Fall League with another up-and-coming player hungry for the bigs.
"The first day of practice," Chris recounted, "we were all sitting on the bench. We were going out to do some stretching, and I heard that laugh. I see that smile down the bench, and it kind of shocked me. I was frozen: Michael Jordan.
"I really appreciate the time I got to spend with him," he said of the basketball legend who attempted a baseball career with the Chicago White Sox. "He was a pure gentleman and a great teammate, just one of the guys."
Unlike Mike, however, Chris reached the majors the following spring.
He had worked at the T.J. Maxx in Scottsdale that winter, uncertain of his status with the Giants. Two days into spring training, the call came.
"It was a shock, as big as any shock could be," Chris said of the telephone call from his trainer, telling him to report to the stadium immediately. Toni had their car at work, so Chris shimmied frantically into a pair of sneakers and began running to the ballpark approximately five miles away. Not far from his porch, he skidded to a halt.
"Wait a minute!" he thought. "I've got a bicycle! I'll ride my bicycle to the stadium!"
(When he broke the news to Toni over the phone, she chided him for pulling a sophomoric prank while she had work to do and other lines to answer.)
A few days later, Chris, wearing No. 37 on his San Francisco Giants jersey, made his major league debut against the Florida Marlins in the third game of the season.
His next game was against the Los Angeles Dodgers rookie sensation Hideo Nomo, a match-up Chris won for the Giants in extra innings.
"It thrust me into the team, really made me a part of the team," Chris said of the win. "It made it real comfortable for me for the rest of the season."
Chris completed the year with a 5-1 record and a 5.30 ERA. Although he became the first Giants rookie to pitch five consecutive wins, the team removed him from its roster after the season.
"That was a real letdown," Chris said. "I cleared waivers, and no one claimed me, so I went to spring training as a non-roster player once again. But I went with a mission. I was fortunate enough to become only the second pitcher to make the team as a non-roster player. It was quite a fight."
He spent most of last season with the Firebirds and 45 days with the Giants before becoming a free agent.
Chris hopes to know if he'll make a major league roster within the next few weeks. He said he is even weighing the option of pitching in Japan this year.
Regardless, Chris wants to introduce his self-designed T-shirts, caps and other "Play Hookey" sportswear items before the end of the year. He envisions augmenting them with sports and motivational clinics featuring local athletes and ex-athletes who have excelled in other professions besides sports.
"I'd like to have athletes who have played in [the youths'] area. I think it's easier for kids to realize that this guy's really done this.
"A kid could think, 'Maybe if I play sports, I could be an accountant or a lawyer.' There are so many strings to this rope -- I need to intertwine them all to try to make the kids come back to sports, that playing sports is about having fun, that if you put that effort into it, it can take you to more places than your back yard -- to college, to a better job."
Chris said he began preparing the sportswear last summer.
"Designing ... helps time go by quicker in the winter," he said. "I started with the idea last summer and made some T-shirts for some guys here. I decided to take this to a different level, put some meaning into this, give something back. And maybe I could start another career for myself later on down the road."
For more information, visit http://members.aol.com/playhkystts.