Hoover's pitching roots took hold early
Following a ghastly 1-10 season in 2014, Cincinnati Reds reliever J.J. Hoover rebounded last season to sparkle. His 8-2 record and accompanying 2.94 ERA are proof of that.
In February, he will begin spring training for his fifth year in the majors, all with the Reds.
With flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman having been dealt to the New York Yankees, Hoover could see himself moving into Chapman's role, mindful in 2012 at Triple-A Louisville, he posted 13 saves with a 1.22 ERA in 37 innings before getting his first call-up by the Reds.
Mainly used as a setup man, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound right-hander hasn't come close to those double-digit saves in any of his other professional seasons.
“I would like a shot to close,” said Hoover, 28, who attended Elizabeth Forward and Calhoun (Ala.) Community College, which also has produced 12 other MLB draft picks, including Jorge Posada and former Pirates outfielder Gary Redus.
From the time he was a little boy growing up with two sisters and parents Jim and Carol Hoover, James Allen Hoover Jr. knew he wanted to play baseball. As he got older, his desire to pitch became an obsession.
“J.J. was a unique player,” said Frank Champ, Hoover's coach at Elizabeth Forward. “He was strictly a pitcher. Rarely did he ever get an at-bat. From the first day I met him, baseball was his life. He told me, ‘I'm going to work on my pitching. I'm going to pitch in the majors.' That was his and his dad's and mom's philosophy. That was their work ethic.”
Jim Hoover wore neutral-colored clothing to the 2013 National League wild-card game at PNC Park between the Pirates and Reds because he has always been a Pirates fan — “I cried when Sid Bream slid home safely,” Hoover said of the winning run for the Atlanta Braves in the NL Championship Series with the Pirates in 1992. But he wouldn't dream of turning on his son.
It was at that game — a 6-2 Pirates victory — that a fidgety Hoover sat among Reds fans and subtly pretended to be a Cincinnati follower.
“I was in the Reds' section because J.J. got me seats,” Jim Hoover said. “One side of me was amazed at the atmosphere at PNC Park, the prettiest park in the world. At the same time, I'm telling myself that if the Reds win, that's good (financially) for J.J.
“When they brought him in to pitch, he did his job. After that, I was in the outfield sections, and there were a lot of Pirates fans. I didn't want the Reds fans to see me there. I got the best of both that day.”
From Elizabeth Forward to Calhoun CC, to four years in the minor leagues, Hoover diligently prepared to be a successful major league pitcher.
The journey essentially began with those backyard catches with his dad.
“He was always throwing to his dad,” Champ said, “no matter the weather conditions.”
When he got the call to the majors in 2012, Hoover pitched 28 games for the Reds, going 1-0 with a 2.05 ERA. It fulfilled a lifelong dream, and ignited some pleasurable memories of a time when Hoover was glad for his family's love.
“We both kind of got interested in the Braves, because back then, they were always on TBS,” Jim Hoover said. “One day, when J.J. was still pretty little, he came to me and said, ‘Dad, can you teach me how to pitch?' I said, ‘Well, son, I don't know how to pitch. How about we learn together?' ”
Jim kept an eye open for TV games that interested him and began videotaping such pitching greats as Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux.
“I was interested in the older guys,” Jim Hoover said. “I kept looking at their mechanics. I watched them before I went to work.”
After work, father and son hit the backyard.
“I tried to put that information in him,” Jim said. “The mechanics is the key. I told him to just watch what they were doing and try to do it the same way. Everything else will fall into place.”
Hoover began to grow. And grow. And grow. He was a big kid. His dad took him to all the tryouts in every sport. He liked baseball.
“I took him to football practice and they wanted him to play line,” Jim Hoover said. “He had a strong arm, the strongest of all the kids. He was a freshman out there throwing the ball 50 yards. When the coaches came in, one would say, ‘OK, my kid will play quarterback.' Another one would say, ‘My kid will play running back.' ... J.J. was a lineman because he was big. That didn't last very long.”
J.J. Hoover, who lives with his wife just outside Cincinnati in northern Kentucky, followed his calling. He was drafted out of Calhoun CC in 2008 by the Braves in the 10th round and was added to their 40-man roster in November 2011.
“Growing up, I was actually more of a Braves fan because of TBS always carrying their games,” Hoover said. “I got to watch guys like (Tom) Glavine, (John) Smoltz, (Chipper) Jones ... “
In April 2012, he was dealt to the Reds for infielder Juan Francisco and earned the first of his five major league saves against the Pirates on Sept. 12.
“I realize it's a business,” Hoover said. “Obviously, my mind is in Cincinnati with the Reds now. But I'm definitely proud of where I came from, proud of the people at Elizabeth Forward and proud that my parents raised me right. I have a lot of respect for where I came from.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.