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Hunter Bishop Chose Baseball Over Football, And The Rest Could Be History

Image credit: Hunter Bishop (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

Hunter Bishop was never going to have an easy decision. As a talented baseball and football player at Serra High in San Mateo, Calif., Bishop had options.

He was a sought-after baseball recruit and played at the 2015 Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley Field. But he was also garnering looks in football, particularly after moving from quarterback to wide receiver as a senior.

Bishop’s older brother Braden played baseball at Washington and had been drafted by the Mariners in the third round earlier that year. Hunter decided to follow in Braden’s footsteps—sort of. He chose football, committing in December of his senior year to Washington as a preferred walk-on. For most college baseball coaches around the country, that was the signal to take Bishop off their boards—another premium athlete lost to football.

But Arizona State coach Tracy Smith knows a little something about how fickle teenagers can be, even when it comes to something as big as their college decision. For years, he had seen players change their commitments. But as the father of three boys who went on to play sports in college, Smith has seen the process from the other side.

In fact, as Bishop was wrestling with his decision, Smith’s youngest son Jack was in the process of deciding where he would play football in college. Jack had committed to Nevada-Las Vegas during the summer but was still having doubts and decommitted in November. He picked Northern Arizona the following month, but just before signing day in February he changed to Arizona State.

Because of that experience, when Bishop picked football, Smith called Bishop’s father, Randy.

“We understand Hunter’s doing the football thing at Washington,” Smith remembers saying. “I’m just going to do this because I’m living it in my own world right now with my own kid changing his mind. In my personal opinion, your son is a major league baseball player. Not that he couldn’t play football, but his career’s going to be in baseball. So in the event that he ever changes his mind and wants to do that, please pick up the phone and call me.”

A few weeks later, Randy Bishop called Smith. Hunter was having doubts and wanted to visit Arizona State.

“He came down, did the visit and ultimately ended up coming,” Smith said. “I often wonder if I didn’t make that call if that would have happened.”

It may be a stretch to say the baseball world owes Smith a thank you note for making that phone call, but a few tweets wouldn’t be out of line. Because three years later, Bishop has developed into one of the best players in the nation and is expected to be a top 10 pick in the draft this year. As May began, he was hitting .354/.484/.792 with 19 home runs and 11 stolen bases and looking very much like an All-America.

Earlier this season, Bishop and the Sun Devils played a series at Washington. Husky Stadium, the football team’s home, looms a few longballs beyond right field at Husky Ballpark. Bishop said the setting was surreal.

“It’s just weird to think this is where I could have been playing football,” he said. “I grew up here with my brother going here and football. It’s kind of crazy to see it, but I’m really happy with the decision I made.”

That decision keeps looking better as Bishop has put together a breakout season. Arizona State, after enduring the two worst years in program history, has surged with him. But that breakout, while long awaited, was hardly preordained.

Bishop struggled at the plate for two seasons, both for the Sun Devils and in the Cape Cod League. He hit .276 over his first two seasons at Arizona State with a strikeout rate north of 25 percent. His Cape numbers were even worse. Through those struggles, however, he would show glimpses of his potential.

Bishop had a reputation as a tinkerer, always chasing a new stance or swing that would unlock his raw potential. And that potential was seemingly limitless as a lefthanded hitter listed at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds with plenty of athleticism.

“You don’t see many guys his size run the way he does,” Smith said. “He can outrun a baseball defensively. The bat speed, I think, is well documented with all the TrackMan data. If you were going to say what’s a knock on his game, maybe throwing a baseball—but even that’s not horrible.

“The sky’s the limit for him, but he still has a long way to go.”

Bishop has unlocked those tools this year largely thanks to a more mature, disciplined approach at the plate. It’s something he has worked on before, but this year hitting coach Michael Earley was able to get through to him and help him improve his mental game.

“I’d say in the last two years I was a little bit immature, and he just smacked me in the face and said, ‘You’ve got to be better,’” Bishop said. “Mentally he’s helped me take big strides.”

That change stood out to Washington coach Lindsay Meggs, who coached Braden and has known Hunter for many years. He said Hunter has learned to stop chasing pitches, which is a key point in the process of evolving from a young, immature hitter in to an upperclassman.

“He’s really separating balls from strikes and he’s using the back side of the field more so than I remember him doing before,” Meggs said. “One of the things that’s impressive about him is the explosiveness—out of the box, on the bases, when the ball comes off the bat. That is a really talented kid from a really talented family—a great family.”

“One of the things that’s impressive about him is the explosiveness— out of the box, on the bases, when the ball comes off the bat.”

Bishop’s family has been important to his development. He said Braden played a big role in helping him stay grounded the last two years.

The brothers have also dealt with the impossibly difficult situation of their mother, Suzy, suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She was diagnosed in 2014, when Hunter was still in high school and Braden was at Washington. Hunter said back then he didn’t fully understand it. But as he’s gotten older and his mother’s condition has gotten worse, it has become more difficult for him.

“As I’m getting older and I realize how important having a mother is and seeing everyone else with their mom, it’s tough,” he said. “Definitely, it’s motivation for me on the baseball field.”

Braden started the foundation 4MOM and has since partnered it with Alzheimer’s Greater Los Angeles in the hope of helping to find a cure. The foundation has grown with his career and he was honored with the Mariners’ community service award last year, named for Dan Wilson.

Hunter has done what he can to help with the foundation’s work, and the brothers organized a fundraising event during spring training at TopGolf in Arizona. He said once he gets into pro ball, he will be able to devote more time to the foundation.

“I’m trying to get more and more involved,” he said. “It’s tough in college with doing stuff every single day, but as soon as I get into pro baseball, I definitely want to take a bigger role.”

Pro baseball is coming fast for Bishop, but he still has work left to do in college. After starting 21-0, thanks in part to Bishop’s scorching start to the season, Arizona State is looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Bishop is enjoying being a part of that turnaround. He and the Sun Devils took a lot of criticism over the last two years, which has made this year’s success even sweeter. It also has brought them closer together.

It wasn’t an easy decision that brought Bishop to Arizona State, but the people he’s found there have made it clear that he made the right choice.

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