Fargo

Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks reliever Michael Hope nearly quit playing baseball his freshman year of college. The right-hander from Camp Hill, Pa., chose baseball over football because he wanted to protect his body. He hit hard in football, fully admitting to putting his helmet down more times than he should have at tight end and free safety at Camp Hill High School.

He also played soccer, basketball and wrestled in high school. He felt baseball was his best shot at going pro. He loved the way he felt like the game belonged to him when he was on the mound.

But the game owned him his freshman season at Division II Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. Hope had a 0.46 earned-run average, striking out 110 batters in 75 2/3 innings, his senior year of high school. He wasn't used to failure. He pitched 16 innings and had a 5.06 ERA his freshman year at Shippensburg.

"College ball was tough at the beginning," Hope said. "I just didn't really love it at first. I was really contemplating quitting after that year. I went away for summer ball and had a really good summer. Met some of the best group of guys I could've played with to change how I thought about baseball at the time. We all came together, similar to this clubhouse here with the RedHawks. Just a bunch of underdogs and we did really well."

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He bounced back and the 22-year-old is now living his lifelong dream of playing professional baseball with the RedHawks.

"To get paid to play a game, it's an amazing feeling," Hope said. "To be offered that right out of college is just a really good feeling."

He bounced back from his freshman year to serve as Shippensburg's closer his sophomore season. He had a 1.30 ERA in 27 2/3 innings and six saves. He was a closer and a starter his junior and senior seasons. He struck out 74 in 58 1/3 innings as a senior, going 6-4 with a 3.86 ERA.

"He's a high-character guy, probably as competitive as anybody on the team," RedHawks manager Jim Bennett said.

Hope began playing baseball at 8 years old in Camp Hill. No one threw harder on his team, so he was immediately put on the mound. He grew up looking up to former Philadelphia Phillies Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, always sporting either No. 6 or No. 26 when he played in honor of those two. He even shares a birthday with Utley.

The sport began as something to play with friends and an excuse to be outside. But it was the competition that held him in it.

"I've always been a really competitive person," Hope said. "I was a gym class hero. I wanted to compete in everything."

Hope pitched in his last collegiate game on May 4. He immediately began contacting his summer coaches and college coaches to get in touch with teams. The Chicago Dogs, whom the RedHawks just swept in a three-game series, put Hope on a list of pitchers they could call up if they needed to. The RedHawks, however, had hitting coach Anthony Renz, who was a graduate assistant for two years with Shippensburg.

"He knew what he could do and what type of guy he was," Bennett said. "Whenever you get a rookie that can compete at this level, you never know until they get here. He was very competitive and not afraid of anything."

Hope woke up to four missed calls a couple weeks after his final collegiate baseball game. He was still hoping he would get a shot to play pro ball. He woke up to a phone call from Renz, who told him he should be receiving a phone call from the RedHawks soon. Player personnel consultant Jeff Bittiger called soon after.

Hope tried to call his mom, but she didn't answer, so he ran downstairs and there she was. He told her he was a professional baseball player.

"I was overwhelmed with excitement, going crazy at the time, just running around," Hope said. "I was pretty nervous too."

Three weeks after playing his last collegiate game, Hope was on the mound for the RedHawks. He's been a mainstay in the bullpen ever since. He's even had to bat six times because of injuries. He begged to bat in college and coaches finally let him in his last series, going hitless in three at-bats. With the RedHawks, he not only got his first hit since high school, but has three hits and with four RBIs and a homer.

"Unfortunately not," Hope said in all seriousness when asked Thursday if he was in the lineup.

His value for the RedHawks is on the mound. Entering Friday, he's 4-0 with a 2.76 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 39 innings. He's given up eight earned runs in his last 8 2/3 innings to push his ERA from 1.19 to 2.76. Unlike years ago, when struggles on the mound were met with the idea of quitting, Hope doesn't plan to go anywhere.

His next dream is the majors.

"You gotta be resilient," Hope said. "It's been like that my whole career. It's baseball. It's a game built on failures. You need to come back and do better.

"I have full faith in myself. I try not to be overconfident, but I go in there with the mindset I'm better than you and I'm going to get you out."