Paul Hoilman has always had another game of baseball to look forward to.
The big first baseman was a perennial all-star, from Science Hill to East Tennessee State and right on through his first two seasons of minor-league ball. Suddenly, the games are behind him.
After spending a month at the Chicago Cubs training facility in Arizona, getting ready for his next assignment in the organization, Hoilman was told in late March that there was no longer a roster spot for him. He’s now back home in Johnson City laying the groundwork for a career in financial planning.
“As hard as it is to say, I think I’m finished,” Hoilman said this week. “At the end of the day, I had a ton of success in baseball and enjoyed every minute of it. I worked hard and certainly tried hard, and I still feel capable. It’s just out of my hands.”
Hoilman played two seasons in the Cubs organization after a record-setting career at ETSU, where he was the Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year as a junior. He was drafted in the 19th round in 2011 and spent two years in the minors, most recently playing Class A ball in Peoria, Ill.
A nasty hand injury suffered in a game last August had healed, and he was ready for the next step up the ladder when he reported for spring training. He spent almost all of March working out in Mesa with the Tennessee Smokies, the Class AA team of the Cubs.
“I wasn’t expecting to make the double-A team,” he said. “I was expecting to be sent to Daytona, which would have been a step up from last year. Daytona would have been a fun summer.”
Instead, Hoilman was called in and told there were too many first basemen to evaluate in the Cubs’ farm system. He was one of the odd men out.
“I didn’t see it coming,” he said. “I played two years with them and made the all-star team both years. I don’t know if I’m old at 24, or what. I was hitting the ball pretty well this spring and thought they thought highly of me. It was kind of a shock.”
Hoilman briefly explored his options, but he was hearing similar things from other organizations — too many first basemen.
“I talked to some of the 30 clubs, the ones that like me and had seen me a lot, like Tampa Bay, which had drafted me after my junior year,” he said. “They still say they like me but don’t have room. They have first basemen at every level, and it’s just the time of year where they have too many guys they’re looking at.”
Hoilman got on a plane the first of April and came home.
In his minor-league career, he hit .242 in 180 games, with 25 home runs and 105 RBI. He struck out 260 times in 659 at-bats.
Hoilman burst on the pro scene with the Boise Hawks in 2011 by setting a franchise record with 17 homers. He made the Northwest League all-star team.
Last summer in Peoria, he set another franchise mark with a 24-game hitting streak and was a Midwest League all-star. When he was injured with a month left in the season, Hoilman led the Chiefs in RBIs and doubles.
Still, like most minor-leaguers who aren’t drafted in the early rounds, the 6-4, 230-pounder never could be sure where he stood in the big picture with the Cubs.
“You have to be so lucky and in the right organization, along with performing at a high level,” said Tony Skole, Hoilman’s coach at ETSU. “The percentages of making it are so low. What I try to tell our guys is that if you’re not an early pick, a high prospect, you’re basically just filling out a roster for those guys.
“Paul didn’t really play himself out of baseball. The business side got him, and I think that’s what is so frustrating about it.”
Hoilman is just the latest player from this area to discover the harsh realities of trying to make a living on the diamond.
Jeremy Hall, another ETSU standout, made it to AAA in a five-year journey before calling it quits in 2011. The pitcher decided family mattered more than baseball.
Matt Rice, a childhood friend of Hoilman’s who was a catcher the last two years in the Tampa Bay organization, has also moved on to real life. Like Hoilman, he was an all-star both years as a pro.
“He had a heckuva career going,” said Hoilman, “but he got a great opportunity to go to law school at Cal Berkeley. He’s headed toward a career in patent law.”
Chas Byrne and Daniel Norris, two other good friends, are still out there on the mound. Byrne is coming back from Tommy John surgery and has pitched well in relief this spring for the Lexington Legends of the South Atlantic League.
Norris, meanwhile, has a little more job security, considering the Toronto Blue Jays paid him $2 million to sign right out of high school in 2011. But it hasn’t been an easy road so far. The left-hander is currently 0-3 with an 8.54 ERA for the Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts.
Hoilman talks to Norris regularly.
“I just tell him to have fun, to think like a hitter and get out there and pitch,” said Hoilman. “Daniel is such a good athlete and has such a good head on his shoulders, any adjustments he needs to make, he can do it quickly. It’s just a matter of time before he’s right where he needs to be.”
Hoilman leaves the game with plenty of memories.
He owns the A-Sun career records in homers, doubles and total bases, and at least a dozen ETSU marks. There was the summer night in 2010 at old Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., when he blasted the competition in the inaugural College Home Run Derby. Three guys launched13 homers in the finals, and the big redhead had 12 of them.
A math major at ETSU, Hoilman knows financial planning won’t offer the same kind of rush as standing at the plate and trying to crush pitches. Nothing would.
“I’ve talked to all the guys, and it’s just hard,” he said. “I’ve never known anything different. Baseball is what I always wanted to do … I just loved the game — still do and always will. Who knows, I may coach at some level, but I’ll definitely stay around it.
“I know there’s a plan in place for me, and I’m enjoying being here with family and friends and kind of having a normal life. But I know I’m always going to miss standing in there and hitting a baseball.”