The Baseball Journey Of Rhode Island’s Multi-Sport, Multi-Talented John Toppa

A few mornings ago, I was watching the MLB Network and they had a special program showcasing the top 100 prospects for the 2022 MLB Draft. It was a cool show, a lot of talent of course, some high school players, some prep school level players, mostly collegiate athletes who this panel of writers projects to go 1 to 100 in the 2022 MLB Draft. After the special, I went to my computer to look up Rhode Island prospects for the 2022 draft and I came upon a list of players named in an All-Decade Baseball team by the Providence Journal’s All Star writer, Bill Koch. If you have a subscription to the Journal, here is the link to that article – RI All Decade Team.

I knew most of the names on the list, some are still playing at the collegiate level, some of whom were drafted by Major League baseball teams, and others who have even made their professional debut with MLB teams. One name on the list reminded me of my North Kingstown High School athletic days facing Rogers High School – John Toppa. Coach John Toppa who was the Athletic Director, a teacher, and the football coach at Rogers for many decades and oversaw a powerhouse school of athletics while I was attending NKHS (Class of 1990). I did a little research to find out that his grandson, John Toppa, was a premier athlete here in Rhode Island at Bishop Hendricken High School in the decade of the 2010’s, so much so that he earned a spot on Koch’s All Decade Baseball Team.

I reached out to John via Twitter to find out more about his baseball journey, not only here in Rhode Island but collegiately at the University of Connecticut. He enthusiastically responded and we spoke via email just this week. Here is an excerpt from our conversation about baseball, the skills that you build in playing multiple sports, and the response that was music to John’s ears from a trusted baseball resource.

RIBBE: John, good morning.  Thanks again for agreeing to do this and continued success in your baseball journey and in life. Tell me a little bit about your Rhode Island baseball roots – Little League? AAU?  What was that experience like?

JOHN: My earliest baseball memories are from my tee ball days at the Fifth Ward Little League field in Newport. I’m not sure if I was old enough to appreciate how special it was to be able to play baseball with the Newport Harbor in the background, but I certainly make it a point to walk by the field whenever I am home and reminisce a bit. When my family moved to Portsmouth I began playing for Portsmouth Little League, which is where I really began to fall in love with the game. During these years, myself and my teammates from Portsmouth played AAU travel baseball with the Rhode Island Reds B Team which was probably our first time playing baseball outside of Aquidneck Island. When I look back, those days were extremely formative for me as it was the first chance to see how I stacked up against kids from other parts of the state and all over New England.  

If you would like to, name some of your baseball and life mentors who helped you along the way.

My biggest influence and supporter in athletics, and in life in general, has always been my Dad. However, when I think of specific coaches who had a tangible impact on my career, the first person that comes to mind is Coach Matt McGuire. Coach McGuire was my first All-Star and AAU coach and it is essentially impossible for me to think about my early baseball days without immediately thinking of him. He was the first person to ever mention “AAU” baseball to me and pretty much assembled the entire team. I had no idea what it was, but I knew that if he was coaching a team, I wanted to be a part of it. When we first moved to Portsmouth, my dad and I would drive by the little league field and without fail there would be a white Ford pickup truck at the batting cage. We began to ask each other, “I wonder who that is? He is there every day.” Come to find out, it was Coach McGuire and his son. I remember my first time asking Coach McGuire if I could hit with them – His response of “We hit every day” was music to my ears. When I was in a terrible slump my junior year of high school heading into the state championship, I called him and asked if he could throw me batting practice. He did not hesitate for a second, and we met up at Berkley-Peckham field in Middletown for a couple of hours. We had not worked together for years, but the fact that he was so willing to work with me in a time of struggle really depicts how great of a coach and person he is. We ended up winning the championship and I broke out of my slump and won MVP, so I think it worked out!

Did you have a favorite ballpark to play in Rhode Island?  Or on one of your travel team tournaments?

Besides McCoy Stadium, my favorite field to play at was always McCarthy Field in West Warwick. The state semifinals were usually held there and there were always a ton of fans from all different parts of the state. The games always had a great buzz to them because the fans were so close to the field, and if you were playing at McCarthy, it was typically a high-leverage game.

What was your primary position in youth baseball, high school?

In Little League I predominantly played shortstop, third base, or I pitched. I hurt my arm in 7th grade as a result of pitching too much, so moving forward I really only played shortstop or third base. I played shortstop my freshman year of high school, then moved to the outfield for my first year on the varsity team as a sophomore in high school. My junior and senior seasons of high school I played third base, and then played left field all four years of college. I bounced around a lot!

Were you a talented player from the start or did your success come gradually throughout your youth playing days?

I was definitely not the most talented player growing up, especially in my earlier years. I was never the kid that hit a ton of homeruns in little league, or got a hit every at bat. When I was 10 years old, I remember being surprised that I made the All-Star team. I was always a good athlete in general, but I didn’t really start to separate myself on the field until eight grade and into my freshman year of high school. Looking back, I am glad that my successes came over time and through lots of hard work – I never felt like I could rely solely on natural talent if I wanted to keep getting better, and that mindset kept a motivating chip on my shoulder.

Play scout for a moment.  How would you describe your play on the field?  Home run hitter, speed demon, gap power, 5 tool player? 

This is a tough one. From an offensive standpoint, I’d describe myself as a gap-to-gap hitter with some occasional pop and the ability to steal bases. I hit leadoff for most of my college career, so my job was to make things happen at the top of the lineup and facilitate action. I made some major swing changes going into my senior season of college and started to drive the ball a little more consistently, but I was never going to be a hitter that relied on the long ball to contribute to the team’s success. I have always been fast, so bunting and beating out ground balls in the hole were always tools that I knew I could use to help the team even if my swing wasn’t clicking on all cylinders. I was always comfortable hitting the ball the other way, which was another component of my game that gave me some success. 

Playing multiple sports has long been proven to be a path to success for youth baseball players looking to play at the next levels of competition.  Would you agree and did you play multiple sports growing up?

I played as many sports as time would allow – Football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. There were some winter days where I would have an early morning hockey practice, an afternoon basketball game, and then an evening indoor baseball practice. I loved every second of it, and I am a huge believer in the notion that playing multiple sports helps youth athletes in a multitude of ways. Physically, it allows you to use and develop different muscles, athletic movements, and body awareness. Additionally, sports in general foster skills that go far beyond the field – Work ethic, discipline, teamwork, communication, and competitiveness. Perhaps most importantly, playing multiple sports provides youths an environment to make friends and build relationships that will likely last the entirety of their lives. When I look at my closest friends, they are all people that I played with or against in youth sports. Unfortunately, I think this is an aspect of youth sports that often gets lost in the shuffle – At the end of the day, kids need to be kids. Whether it is playing a sport, performing in a school play, or playing an instrument in the school band, forming a circle of people who share similar values and interests as you at an early age is paramount. When I was 8 years old going to baseball practice, I was not necessarily busting down the door to work on hitting left-handed curveballs. Nobody is at that age. I was going to run around with my friends, while also playing the game(s) that I loved. 

What advice would you give a youth baseball player about working towards being the best all around baseball player they can be?

I think advice differs based on what age group/skill level you are addressing, but in general, my biggest piece of advice would be to not sell yourself short or limit your beliefs pertaining to how good you are. This is much easier said than done, but can be done nonetheless. If a parent or coach is telling you that you lack a certain skill or ability on the field, it should serve as a source of motivation rather than discouragement. The beauty of being a young athlete is that you still have plenty of time to define the type of player you want to be and develop the skills that you feel need improvement. Skills and natural talent vary from athlete to athlete, of course, and no single player is the same as another. However, I think younger athletes often fall into the mindset of  “I’m not a power hitter” or “ I’ll never be able to steal bases” at an extremely young age.  If you want to improve your power, figure out how your swing works, identify some adjustments you think need to be made, and make them. If you want to get faster, run some sprints with a timed goal in mind and work at it until you’re hitting that goal consistently. It’s really not rocket science, especially at a young age. You don’t need Barry Bonds to teach you how to hit home runs and you don’t need Rickey Henderson to teach you how to steal bases. Figure out what you’re good at and embrace it, while also recognizing what you need to improve upon. Coaching helps, obviously, but the majority of improvements are going to be made on your own, especially at the youth and high school levels. 

You attended Bishop Hendricken High School.  What was it about the Hendricken academic and athletic programs that interested you to go to school there?

I have to give my parents the credit for introducing me to the possibility of Hendricken. I was in 7th grade, and they told me we were going to an open house in Warwick. At the time, I don’t even think I knew that Warwick existed. They told me if I did not like the environment or wasn’t interested after the open house, they would never bring it up again, so I agreed to check it out. Almost immediately upon arrival to the campus, I knew I wanted to go there. It was impossible not to walk through the doors and feel the overwhelming sense of strength, community, and character that Hendricken provides – On and off the field. A huge misconception about Hendricken (and I think private schools in Rhode Island in general) is that they “recruit” and/or offer scholarships – In my experience at least, there was no recruitment or incentivization whatsoever. When I was walking through the halls as an attendee of an open house or initiation, I was treated the same way as everybody else. The coaches spoke to me in the same fashion as they did everybody else. Do some kids enter Hendricken as highly touted athletes? Of course, but that is not unique to Rhode Island, and does not mean those kids receive special treatment by any means. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Hendricken’s best recruiting tools are its rich  history, the values that the school instills in young men over their four years, and the competitive environment it provides to allow students to push themselves towards success in whichever walk of life they are ultimately interested in pursuing. I truly believe all of the state championship banners hanging in the gymnasium are byproducts of those things, and those are the things that drew me to Hendricken. 

BHHS has a long tradition of athletic excellence.  Did you play a significant role as an underclassman, or did you have to work your way up to Varsity and a more permanent role in the starting lineup?

I started on the varsity team during my first year as a sophomore, but it was not easy. We had an extremely talented team filled with future Division 1 and professional players so it was extremely competitive. I had played shortstop on the freshman team the year prior, but the current varsity shortstop was a senior and an All-Stater so I quickly realized I would have to find another way to get on the field. I played left field for the majority of our preseason games and scrimmages and had some success, so I earned a starting spot for opening day playing left field and batting 9th. Mike King (who now pitches for the Yankees) was our starting pitcher so there were a ton of MLB Scouts at the game and there was a lot of extra juice, but once the game started I felt right at home. I hit a home run in that game which really helped alleviate some of the jitters and gave me the confidence that I belonged. Throughout the season, I worked my way up the lineup and by the State Championship series, I was batting third. Our team had an incredible run that year losing only 1 game and beating North Kingstown in the State Championship, and I earned First Team All-State honors so I definitely found success early in my career – but not without a lot of hard work and competition.

How many state titles were you a part of at BHHS?

I was a part of 5 total varsity state championships at Hendricken – 2 in football, and 3 in baseball. We also won Freshman State Championships in football and baseball in 2011/2012. 

In your days at BHHS, who around Rhode Island baseball impressed you talent wise?  Could be someone on your team or a player you faced.

Aside from the extremely talented players on my Hendricken teams (Gian Martellini, Mike McCaffery, John Willette, Dante Baldelli) I always thought Tyler Walsh from La Salle was an underrated stud. He always played very well against us in big games, and was a great goalie on the hockey team as well. 

Off season training can be tough with the New England winters and delayed spring times.  Where did you train in the off season? 

Myself and the entire Hendricken team would train at Extra Innings in Warwick. It was about 5 minutes from school, so it was very convenient. We went seven days a week and it was a blast. We would have competitions among each other and everybody was so focused on making themselves and the team better. By the time the season started, we had already been practicing with each other every day for the past 6 months so it felt like business as usual. There were always college and pro players from Rhode Island at the facility, so it was awesome to be able to pick their brains on the next level and observe their routines and what they were working on. They had an Xbox on the top floor, so oftentimes we would end up hanging out at the facility for hours on weekends even after we were done with our baseball work. I have really fond memories of Extra Innings, and I’m sure anybody that spent a lot of time there would say the same.  

What was your off season training like?  2 days a week?  5 days a week?  And was it baseball specific training or overall conditioning?

I trained pretty much every single day, aside from my senior year where I was playing football in the fall/early winter. There was no real plan or routine so I’m not sure I would recommend my training schedule to a current player, I just felt like working on my swing a little bit every day would get me to where I wanted to be. In the winter going into my senior season, I played in a local pickup basketball league for conditioning and just to play a different sport. That helped me a ton as it kept my competitive juices flowing, kept my quickness sharp, and just allowed me to have some fun in between the grind of the football season that just ended and the upcoming rigor of the baseball season. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessarily productive for younger high school kids to be lifting weights every day. I had a strict weightlifting routine during my junior year offseason and I felt it took away from some of my natural athleticism so it didn’t work as well for me as it did for some other kids. It depends on the athlete, I think.

After graduating from BHHS, you attended the University of Connecticut.  I’m sure by your HS stats that you had offers all over the place.  What was it about the UCONN program and university that caught your attention?

I actually did not have as many offers as people may think. I went to a lot of camps and showcases, but did not garner much attention. UConn actually noticed me during the state semifinal series against Johnston during my sophomore season, as did some of the other schools that were recruiting me. Some kids excel in drills and showcases, I was not one of them for whatever reason. My decision ultimately came down to the coaching staff at UConn. Their on-field success speaks for itself, but I could immediately tell that Coach Penders and his staff were people that I wanted to be led by during very formative years of my life. In some sense, your college coaches become your parents for 8 months out of the year, and you spend almost every waking hour with them. From that perspective, I think it’s very important to feel confident that your college coaches are going to not only push you to improve as a player, but also as a total person. In my opinion, Coach Penders and his staff are second to none in that regard. Regardless of whether or not a player was a 4-year starter or never touched the field during their time at UConn, you will never hear an alumni say that they do not appreciate Coach Penders and his staff. To me, that is far more important than their recent national success.

What was the transition like from HS, travel ball to facing Division1 powerhouses like?

The transition from high school to Division 1 college baseball is not easy, and unfortunately there is no bulletproof method of preparation. The fact of the matter is that most college freshmen are going to struggle in the transition and I was no exception. I got extremely sick with Lyme Disease during my first semester of college which did not help my transition whatsoever and I struggled on and off the field. Through the help of my coaches, I eventually came into my own a bit and started performing in the way that they expected me to. I was very lucky that the majority of the team was upperclassmen and veterans, so I had a large group of resources that I could turn to for advice and guidance. That was something that I tried to pay forward during my junior and senior seasons while serving as a Team Captain.  

What was the first thing that surprised you about D1 baseball and how did you adjust from that?

The biggest thing that stood to me was the overall speed of the game. Pitches were thrown faster, ground balls were hit harder, double plays were turned quicker – Everything was just being done at a speed that I was not used to seeing. Again, I don’t think there is a way to prepare for this as a high school player – You just have to work as hard as you can to adjust to it. For me, I adjusted through the “baptism by fire” method. The other outfielders that I was splitting playing time with early in my freshman season unfortunately suffered injuries, so I was essentially forced into playing every day and I had to learn on the fly. While I certainly had my struggles, I knew that I was getting more and more comfortable with the level of play even if I wasn’t yet producing the desired results. While it’s a difficult thing to go through, you kind of have to take your lumps, learn from them and move on. By the end of the season I felt totally comfortable; Our team won the American Athletic Conference championship and I was named to the All-Tournament team.

Where did you play summer baseball and for what teams?

I only played 1 full season of summer collegiate baseball, and it was for the Wareham Gatemen in the Cape Cod Baseball League.

What was the summer collegiate baseball experience like?  Did it have a minor league baseball feel to it?

Summer baseball, specifically the Cape Cod League, is probably as close to Major League Baseball as you are going to find in terms of environment. There are a couple thousand fans at every game, and most of those fans have been going to games for 20 or 30 years. Because the league is made up of the top college talent across the country, there could be anywhere from 10 to 30 scouts at a given game, depending on the time of year or who is playing. I had a solid summer season and was selected to play in the All-Star game; That game was probably the highest level of baseball I have ever competed in. You play every single day and operate as a professional. Traveling by school bus to different towns on Cape Cod and playing against the best of the best is an experience I would not trade for anything, and some of my most fond memories on a baseball field can be traced back to my time in Wareham. 

Brag a little bit, what would you say was your best game? Could be a Little League game or High School game or something more recent.  What made this game stand out in your mind?

Not necessarily my best game, but the most memorable game for me came during the state championship series against La Salle in my junior season. As mentioned earlier, I was in probably the worst slump of my life and was beginning to press. We had not lost a game all season, but La Salle had a very good team and was beating us in the bottom of the 7th inning. I hit a walk-off single to give our team a 1-0 lead in the series, and I will never forget the feeling of being mobbed by my teammates after running around the bases. We ended up winning the next game to secure the State Championship and I won Series MVP. 

You graduated from the University of Connecticut.  What is next for you career wise and possibly baseball wise?

I currently work for a commercial real estate firm in New York City as an Associate on the Investment Sales team. While I have enjoyed my experiences as a working professional, I am pretty certain that I want to make a lifelong career in athletics, specifically coaching. The coaches that I have been lucky enough to play for have had such a profound and positive impact on my life, and I hope to someday serve as a similar presence for young athletes in the future. 

Just incredible getting to know John and learn about his baseball journey from Portsmouth to Warwick to Storrs and Wareham. I really enjoyed John’s insights on being true to yourself, learning how to be humble and learn from mentors, and how to motivate yourself in tough situations. Being a multiple sport athlete, John was able to combine a ton of skill sets – mentally and physically – to perform at a very high level in baseball. I’m 100% confident that John Toppa the coach and mentor will be on the top of everyone’s list should he choose to go that direction professionally. Huge thanks to John for his honesty and for sharing his amazing baseball journey.

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