Drafted by the Mets his junior year at Acorn State, BJ Roper-Hubbert was working his dream job when time ran out on his MLB career. Not one to be discouraged by change, BJ turned his release into opportunity; finding a new life, and improved batting average, waiting for him across the Atlantic.
The day you were drafted by the Mets?
I think it was June 7th 2006. I was playing summer ball in Missouri. I was at the gym lifting and got a text, or call, from a friend congratulating me. I got mad. I was like, 'Don’t play around like that.' I wasn’t sure so it was a surprise. Some teammates and I drove to Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City to watch an MLB game that day. That was kind of a surreal moment because now I had the opportunity to play and experience this lifestyle; to play a game that you dream about as a kid. I took a week to think about it, told my summer team then went home and it was real, and it was fun, and definitely an experience that you can’t forget.
And March 24, 2009?
Oh it was great, no it was the worst. What I just talked about, what you think about as a kid, the potential of playing in that stadium and doing things you wanted to do as a kid and then it gets shot down. As happy as I was when I signed it was the complete opposite when I got released. Even if you expect it you still don’t really know how it’s going to hit you when you realize 'Well, yeah. I don’t have a job anymore and I can’t do anything about it in this moment.' I can do something with my attitude but it’s not something you have control over. You feel helpless, or I felt helpless. I’m not sure if everyone does but I felt like that.
You leave the minors, then what?
I had left Acorn State my junior year to sign with the Mets so I returned to school in Georgia. My mom became ill so I went to NYC to help out. When she was well I chose to stay.
NYC to Bonn?
A friend sent me a list of teams in Europe. I emailed them to say I was interested in playing. John Marshall, my assistant coach now, broke his arm late in the off-season. Mirko Heid, who was the coach at the time, invited me to play in Bonn.
You arrive in Germany and…
Culture shock. I’d never been to Europe before. There were some eye-opening differences, for example - paying to use the bathroom, learning what 'water with gas?' meant and being able to drink beer in public - to name a few.
And on the field?
The baseball was just a different mindset. For most of the teams it’s a hobby so sure you want to have fun but, at the same time, you want to be competitive. I was one of only three people being paid to play. It’s a job for us but it’s a hobby for 95% of the team, so that was a little difficult to navigate. You get the hang of it, used to it and the culture changes, as you grow into it.
What has playing in Germany provided that the US couldn’t give you?
The cultural experience is something you can only get in Europe, or wherever you’re playing be it South Africa or Australia. Baseball is a tool that a person can use to travel and experience different cultures, new customs, other people’s ways of thinking.
Baseball is a superstitious sport. Do you have any?
Nope. No pregame ritual other than being there early to be prepared.
Coaching the ‘hobbiests’ to be more professional?
Yes, but it’s still tough because everyone wants to have fun.
Speaking of fun, talk to me about a player’s walk-up music.
I think the best songs fit your personality or the situation.
So what’s yours?
I’ve got a few. Last year it was Drake but years before it was an artist from Atlanta called B.o.B. I just thought the first line of the song So Good was really appropriate for me, “Drinking a German beer with a Cuban cigar in the middle of Paris with a Dominican.” I just thought that was such a cool scenario.
The first time you called someone into your office?
That was pretty tough because you have to weigh how it’s going to affect the team and how he’s going to take it. But it’s necessary.
Any Kangaroo Court moments you’re able to share?
I feel like the best of them I wouldn’t want people to know that, that actually happened on the baseball field.
Any memorable European baseball moments you can share?
My brother Branden played for Sollingen. We faced one another the first series of 2012 and, if I remember correctly, we split so yeah, it was alright. That was the first time we ever played against each other. We’re about the same age, and our parents coached, so we always played on the same teams growing up. So yeah, that was fun, a new experience.
Nice having family around?
Yeah, definitely. Nice to go spend the night and hangout and experience Europe together.
You two are not the only pro-athletes in the family.
Our dad played three years with the Chargers (NFL). As young adults he took my brother and I to San Diego to meet a bunch of former players. That was pretty cool actually.
Did your dad influence your professional process?
We never really talked about his playing days. His advice was what most people would say, “Don’t under-value yourself. Be compensated for what you feel you’re worth.” He sat in on some of my college visits, which was nice because he knows from playing at Arizona, but we really didn’t talk much about it; still haven’t.
Is that weird?
Now that I’m older I want to know about it.
Other standout experiences?
The 2013 World Baseball Classic. It was an honor to play for the country where I was born. I still have fond memories of Bermuda. We went back a lot as kids. It’s part of my family culture.
Playing with the UK again in 2016?
I would love to.
Outfield or catcher?
I was an outfielder last time so probably the same. I’m 30 now, and I have a gray hair, so my knees… (BJ’s first gray hair arrived on interview day and he was pretty happy about it - seriously).
Favorite off-the-field duty for the Capitals?
Those first time experiences through someone else’s eyes. I like the kid’s camps and I also like the events we do for firms because they are adults maybe trying baseball for the first or second time. You can see just how much fun they have and, sometimes, you tend to forget how much fun you have doing something when you do it every day, 7 days a week.
Any off-season training going on?
We’ve done basketball in the past. This year we’re going to do handball.
Does the baseball community differ, US to Germany, or is baseball, baseball?
Baseball is baseball but it’s hard to say because when I was a kid in little league I had an entirely different view of things. Growing up I would spend the entire day playing pickup games; throwing, hitting, learning, getting burgers and fries and eating, and that was fun. I see the little kids doing that here so that’s similar.
And your grown-up experience?
You think differently. You analyze it a little bit try to sense ways to make it better. And you understand that kids are looking at you as an example. Country-to-country I feel like they’re pretty similar experiences though.
2015 the Caps were undefeated at home through the first round of playoffs. Take us through that first home loss.
We played a good team. Mainz pitcher, Jan Stoecklin, is tough but Wil Lee is a dominate pitcher. I think everyone thought we were the favorites. We hadn’t lost here all season. If it affected us at all I think it helped us realize we needed to play the way we’re able to play or our season was going to end earlier than we’d like. If anything it helped.
I think this past year, experience-wise, we gained a lot and I’m looking forward to 2016. I really think we’ll be better for playing against Heidenheim, a team that has considerably more experience – their average age is 4 years more than ours – seeing how they operate we realized we needed to work on some things to help us be more successful in 2016.
Anything you want to add?
Bonn is awesome!
In 2016, the Caps made it to the second round of playoffs once again. They had six players on the German national team and one on the Australian national team. Just this week, during the European Championship, one of those national team members received the Player of the Game award. During the German All Star Game three more Caps joined the action taking their seats on the bench for the All Stars. The Caps are also the home team of Germany’s 2016 Home Run Derby champion.
Coach Roper continues to lead by example on the field as well as in the clubhouse. He is one of 11 Capitals players that finished the regular season with a batting average over .300, hitting .341 heading into the playoffs. Within their division, Bonn had four of the top nine batters for the season, including a starting pitcher. Speaking of pitching, they finished the season with two guys sitting in the top five spots. What is important in that number is that the team spent all of 2016 down a pitcher. Here is where Roper’s clubhouse skills kicked in. Rather than replace the injured Schmitz he stuck with the rotation, using just three starters, and supplemented their play with three fielders in on relief. He also assigned Schmitz to third base coach duties for the season keeping one of the most spirited players with his team during rehabilitation. Win or loose Coach Roper has proven his ability to lead the Capitals to their individual and team goals.
Article was first published in European Baseball Magazine in December 2015.