Cooper Hummel stood at home plate in the ninth inning on Sunday, grinding as usual.
The 27-year-old former Lakeridge standout, now a rookie outfielder/catcher with the Arizona Diamondbacks, was hitless on the game – hitless on the season and his MLB career, in fact – and was facing a San Diego pitcher, Javy Guerra, who’d fanned him in his last at bat.
“I was just trying to put together a good at bat,” Hummel said. “I wanted to hit the ball hard.”
The first pitch was a 98 mile per hour sinker that stayed up. Hummel, a switch hitter batting from the left side of the plate, did not offer.
The second pitch was the same as the first. Hummel attacked and fouled it off.
The third pitch from the right hander was a slider. It was supposed to dive at Hummel’s feet, rendering him powerless to make contact should he swing. Instead, it hung in the middle of the strike zone.
“My bat just went,” Hummel said. “I was just trying to hit a hard line drive.”
Hummel made contact and raced towards first base. The ball was hit well to straightaway center, but how well?
Hummel’s head was down, but his wife, parents, grandparents and a few friends, all in the stands at Chase Field, watched as the ball soared and carried over the batter’s eye and out, 430 feet from home plate. Hummel had his first major league hit and it was a three-run home run at that!
“I was hauling and hit first and saw it go out,” Hummel explained. “Honestly, I blacked out after that.”
In the videos and photographs capturing that moment, Hummel is seen grinning from ear to ear. That smile stayed with him the rest of the day and into the night.
“I had the feeling of getting that monkey off of my back,” Hummel said. “I’m here! I’ve arrived. No one has to ever say again that, ‘You still don’t have your first…’”
Hummel’s story is one of drive and determination, persistence and single-mindedness. All he ever wanted to be was a baseball player, but he encountered speed bumps at every stop from his days before high school up through the major leagues.
“I’ve tried to remind myself, when everyone else said I can’t, to prove people wrong,” he explained.
Born and bred in the greater Portland area, Hummel gained a measure of notoriety 15 years ago playing for Lake Oswego Little League, which advanced to the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Hummel was one of 12, 12-year-olds, but was the smallest by far.
“I put in the work and earned that spot, but everyone else had hit their growth spurt and I was still 5-0,” Hummel said. “I was written off at an early age.”
Hummel enrolled at Lake Oswego as a freshman. He was still on the short side at 5-5. Hummel played on the freshman team and occasionally swung up to the junior varsity for summer ball.
By the end of the summer, LO’s JV coach told him to give up the game. He wouldn’t amount to anything because he wasn’t big enough, strong enough or good enough.
“I used that as motivation,” Hummel said. “This is all I wanted to do since I was 5.”
Hummel transferred to Lakeridge, thinking a change of scenery would do him good. He was eager to show what he could do both as a switch hitter and as a strong-armed catcher.
Colin Griffin, the current head coach at Jesuit, was in his fourth year with the Pacers when Hummel arrived.
“I told Cooper he would have to earn a spot on a team just like everyone else,” Griffin recalled. “In regards to switch hitting, he would need to spend twice as long in the cages working on both sides of the plate. His eyes lit up when I said this, because that was exactly what he wanted. Cooper had a work ethic that was contagious. He would always ask coaches to stay late, encourage his teammates to meet during their free period or lunch to hit, and drag his dad up to the hitting facility late at night to get extra reps. Working on the game of baseball was fun to him.”
Hummel was serviceable as a sophomore, Second Team All-League as a junior and, fully grown at 5-10, all-world as a senior. Hummel hit .580 for Lakeridge and was named Three Rivers League Offensive Player of the Year and a First Team All-State catcher.
His senior year was a turning point for Hummel and for Lakeridge baseball, Griffin noted.
“I do remember with Cooper that I was not longer concerned with anyone running on us,” the coach said. “And when he was in the batter’s box, everyone knew there was a strong chance that Cooper was going to bring some excitement.”
Hummel helped Lakeridge sweep West Linn for the first time since the [Dave] Gasser era. In one game against the Lions, Hummel hit a grand slam and bases loaded triple. Lakeridge also made a nice playoff run, including beating higher seeded Westview on the road.
Because college recruiting happens early in a high school career, Hummel wasn’t on any school’s radar until his breakout senior campaign.
“I was the guy Baseball Northwest never ranked until my senior year,” Hummel said. “And even then I was only 28th out of 30 in my class.”
The University of Portland came in late and offered Hummel a spot on its team. Hummel accepted, but his first two years with the Pilots were a struggle. Hummel batted .118 as a freshman over 37 plate appearances and .192 as a sophomore over 87 trips to the dish.
“I didn’t have a lot of opportunities my first two years,” Hummel said. “Sophomore year, I DH’d a little bit. I found myself bouncing in and out of lineup 1-2 times a week.”
Hummel blossomed as a junior, hitting .320 in the rugged WCC and distinguishing himself in a year when Portland struggled to win games. He was rewarded in the MLB Draft as one of 10 from the conference to be picked. The Milwaukee Brewers selected Hummel in the 18th round. He signed and was off to start his professional career within 24 hours.
As with high school and college, things did not go smoothly for Hummel, who struggled for the better part of four years before breaking out last year.
“It’s been a grind,” said Hummel, who took out his frustrations by taking batting practice at all hours of the day and night. “This is all I’ve wanted. I was going to do anything that helped me if I had to stay in the cage until midnight.”
With capable catchers lined up in front of him in the Brewers’ organization, Hummel, a strong natural athlete, added outfield play to his skill set.
“I had to find another way out on the field,” he explained. “I had to let my bat play. I put in all the work to be here.”
Griffin recalled a conversation he had with Hummel upon graduation from Lakeridge.
“I told him to get an outfield glove; learn how to run down fly balls,” the coach said. “’Make yourself more versatile, because you can run and throw. And, with your ability to swing it so well from both sides of the plate, it will increase your chance for your name to be on the lineup card.’”
Hummel broke through last year in AAA. He was going along just fine playing for Nashville, but took off with Reno after he was traded to the Diamondbacks late in July. Hummel hit .353 over the second half of the season with good power and became a bona fide prospect. The Diamondbacks added him to their 40-man roster and, earlier this month, he broke spring training with the major league team.
Griffin was not the least bit surprised to see Hummel in the big leagues to start the year.
“I learned very quickly that if you told Cooper, ‘No,’ or got in the way of his plan, it was more fuel for his motivation,” Griffin explained. “The kid has drive! He has a huge heart! He is humble! I’m so proud of him. He has gone about this as a true professional.”
After eight hitless at-bats to start his pro career, everything came together for Hummel in that ninth inning on Sunday, when he crushed that hanging slider and hit it way out of the ballpark. The moment, and the elation experienced by his wife, parents and grandparents, was a top story on MLB Network that evening.
“I’ve watched my family’s reaction many times,” Hummel said. “It’s so surreal. I don’t think I could ever have imagined it this way.”
Hummel added his second career hit, along with four walks and a stolen base, today, when the Diamondbacks outlasted Houston in extra innings.
“It’s pure joy and bliss being up here,” he admitted. “No one thought I would be the one to be here. My dreams have become a reality. I am literally living the best job in the whole world.”