After long road, Mets' Opp ready for next challenge
Since he started playing baseball, the only thing that has accompanied Mets pitching prospect Cam Opp more than his glove is adversity. But through every obstacle, the 25-year-old has continued to push forward. On a journey that included stops in London, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Indiana, Texas,
Since he started playing baseball, the only thing that has accompanied Mets pitching prospect Cam Opp more than his glove is adversity.
But through every obstacle, the 25-year-old has continued to push forward. On a journey that included stops in London, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Indiana, Texas, Colorado and North Carolina, Opp navigated his way to a Minor League deal with New York that was signed on Dec. 16.
And, as the dual citizen of the U.S. and U.K. prepares to embark on his newest challenge, he isn’t taking this moment for granted.
“A lot of people not named Cam Opp helped get me here,” the left-hander said. “My dad, all my coaches, my teammates, my family, the Army. … I’m just lucky to have the opportunity to play again, and I’m going to take everything I learned at every step of the way to add as much value as I can to the Mets organization.”
Opp was born in Denver, Colorado. After six years there, he and his family spent four years in Chicago, where he continued to show promise on the diamond.
“I always embraced competition,” he said. “The first Little League team I played for was for 7-year-olds, and I was 5. I could have played with kids my age, but I didn’t want to.”
When he was 10, the Opps relocated to a suburb 25 minutes south of London.
Familiarity in an unfamiliar place
Opp attended an American curriculum school in England that covered middle school and high school levels. As an eighth-grader, he tried out for the high school's varsity team.
“With my drive and experience, I thought I could make the team and I did,” he said. “I was the only eighth-grader playing with juniors and seniors in high school.”
By the time he reached the upper grades, Opp caught the attention of the then-manager of the Great Britain National Baseball team, Liam Carroll.
“I first saw him earlier while he was playing at the club level and that put him on our radar,” said Carroll, who resigned from the position in September. “But what really stood out is how he held his own in that environment. The competitiveness was certainly there and the passion for the game. It isn’t easy to play here. It isn’t everywhere you look. You can’t just roll out of bed and walk to the baseball field. You have to really want it in British baseball.”
At age 15 in 2011, Opp became the youngest member of the Great Britain Baseball U23 national team.
“Most of the guys on the team were 20 to 22, and I was still just a kid. I was 15-16 and 150 pounds, I was tiny,” Opp said. “But it was awesome because I got a chance to compete against teams that were playing for the World Baseball Classic, and seeing that level of play was really beneficial for me.
“I never felt intimidated. The better the competition, the more excited I was to pitch.”
“He held his own and then some,” the coach said. “If he ever had any nerves during that time with us -- and it wouldn’t surprise me if he did -- he certainly did a fantastic job of managing them. And I think that speaks to his upbringing and the adversity he’s faced and the opportunities he has created for himself since.”
The next challenge
The summer after his sophomore year of high school, Opp attended a baseball camp in Florida where he met Christ School baseball coach Pat James. James offered Opp a spot on his squad in North Carolina, and the southpaw transferred schools for his junior year.
“There just wasn’t much competition left for me to overcome at my school,” he said. “It was apparent I needed to find a different pond because I wanted to keep pushing myself to see how good I could get.”
Opp not only honed his craft at Christ School, but he continued to dominate. The lefty was named to the all-conference team as a junior, then earned all-state and all-conference honors as a senior while being named conference player of the year and team MVP in 2014. He graduated with a 19-1 record and a sub-2.00 ERA.
When school was out those years, Opp returned to London and continued to work with Carroll and the BBF.
“He participated in some exhibition games we had over those summers, and you could really see right away the progress he made throwing in the States,” Carroll said. “It became very clear that his baseball could go places.
“You could see the physical maturity and that evidence that he would increase velocity … maybe not 96-97, but enough to be successful. And with the intellect and baseball IQ, he has a chance to get hitters out at a very high level.”
The darkest of days
During his junior year at Christ School, Opp’s father became ill in London. After undergoing several months of chemotherapy, his father lost a battle with cancer in April of Opp’s senior season.
“My guy who was my compass my entire life wasn’t there anymore,” he said. “I didn’t know what do.”
And with a decision on where to attend college looming, Opp and his family had a difficult choice to make while in mourning.
He decided on William & Mary. It was a Division I program and he had visited with the coach, who said he could walk on that year. But before the season started, that coach and the university parted ways. Opp attempted to pivot to West Point, but at the time, he needed a nomination from the vice president – then Joe Biden. Opp received that nomination, but it came late. So the Army suggested attending William & Mary for his freshman year and reapplying after that if he still was interested.
At William & Mary, he enrolled in the ROTC program and attempted to walk on to the baseball team. After three weeks of tryouts, he was cut.
“It was a tough situation, because the guy who was interested in you wasn’t there anymore. But I gave it a shot anyway,” Opp said. “They took two walk-ons and I didn’t make it. That was the toughest point of my life – not having baseball in the wake of my dad passing that year.
“I knew I was going to reapply to West Point and try to walk on to that team. But in the meantime, I didn’t have anybody else to throw with, and I didn’t know how to stay in shape. I was just trying to keep my head above water.”
Getting back on track
It all turned around in a hurry for Opp. The southpaw successfully transferred to West Point the following year and made Army’s baseball team as a walk-on.
“I tried out and really only made it because I was a lefty who could throw moderately fast -- I was only low-80s at that point. 82-84 mph, max,” he said. “But I knew my dad was looking out for me, and I was equipped to do things without him. That was my first real success without him there.
“I knew my life had changed.”
Opp joined the baseball team and appeared in 17 games (one start) for Army in 2016 -- posting a 1-1 mark with a 4.86 ERA and 22 punchouts over 37 frames.
“West Point is a daunting experience,” he said. “As soon as you get there, it’s about preparing for a lot more than just baseball. So I had to make sure I was ready physically and mentally.”
The following season, Jim Foster became Army’s head coach in an effort to turn the struggling program around. It didn’t take long for him to realize Opp would be a key component in that effort.
“When I first got here, we were 280th in the country,” Foster said. “I just remember looking around, seeing what we got, and Cam was one of those guys I said immediately that we’re going to build this program around. By the end of his senior year, we were one of eight teams in the county to win 35-plus games and play in the regionals, and Cam was one of the pillars in us being able to do that. We were lucky to get him.”
The pair began focusing on pitching drills and adding size to Opp’s frame. During his sophomore campaign under Foster, Opp was named to the Academic All-Patriot League team after making 18 appearances (five starts) and posting a 4-2 record with 36 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings.
By his junior season, Opp had touched 90 mph for the first time in his life.
“He just did everything we asked of him,” Foster said. “The weight room, nutrition, balancing all the stuff that goes on around here in the Army with the academics. But he really built himself up. Focused on his legs and core. Added some good weight, got more functional. He’s got a lot of guts. Tough kid.”
“I think when he got the jump in his fastball velocity, it really sparked him,” said Rosoff, who played his way to Class A Advanced Lakeland during his second pro season in 2019. “I think he started thinking, ‘I’m good at this. This is something that I love doing and I really want to do.’ And from there he just started asking lots of questions, playing around with grips, and I think that helped him develop his secondary pitches. His curveball got really good.”
During his junior season, Opp led the team with 25 appearances (six starts) and sported a team-best 2.66 ERA with a 5-2 record. He notched four saves while fanning 72, which ranked fourth on the squad and seventh in the conference. He was named to the All-Patriot League Second Team as well as the All-Academic All-Patriot League Team for the second straight year.
“We heavily relied on him. He was our fireman,” Rosoff said. “He filled whatever role we needed. Out of the 'pen, he came in in any spot, or if we needed a starter one day, that’s what he did. … West Point is tough, because the whole environment is a completely different animal. There’s just so much to juggle and lots to do all the time. But he always found the time necessary to get better. That’s just who he is.”
At the end of that year, Opp recorded the final two outs of the Patriot League championship game against rival Navy to secure the team’s eighth Patriot League title and a spot in the Super Regionals. Army drew top-seeded North Carolina State in the opening round, and Opp nailed down the 5-1 upset of the nation’s No. 1 seed.
“I always felt like the bigger the moment, the more I always calmed down,” Opp said. “I don’t try to force anything. I definitely felt the moment, but that’s what brings out the best in me. I just go out and keep things simple.”
Opp helped Army reach the Super Regionals again his senior season, posting a 5-1 record over 24 relief appearances with a 3.65 ERA. His velocity reached 94 mph that year, and he whiffed 51 over 44 1/3 frames.
That created some momentum for Opp as he entered the 2019 First-Year Player Draft, but the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder never heard his name called.
“I think the military commitment had something to do with that,” he said, referencing complications Noah Song faced out of Navy. “After I graduated, I still kept in shape, kept a throwing program and kept working out in anticipation of getting signed as a free agent.”
But that call never came either. Instead, Opp received a different one that kept his dream alive.
“I was at a wedding in Chicago and my pitching coach called me and said there was an opening to play in Evansville in indy ball,” he said. “The club was just hitting their All-Star break and wanted me to join them for the rest of their season.
“I just didn’t feel like my journey was over, so after I got that call, I flew to London, and threw for the London Mets just to get my arm going again in a live game. And then I flew back and knew it was sink or swim at Evansville.”
Opp appeared in 21 games for the Otters and amassed a 2.70 ERA and 4-2 record while notching a pair of saves and striking out 35 in 26 2/3 innings.
“He had some hoops to jump through to get here, but he was just very professional and appreciative for the opportunity," Otters skipper Andy McCauley said. "He showed up in-season as a rookie in a league that was a little older, had more experienced guys, but he embraced the challenge and worked himself into a pivotal role as the setup guy for us. … He’s a hard worker, very receptive to changes and tweaks to improve his game, and he exceeded every expectation we had for him.”
The end of the line?
After his 2019 season with the Otters, Opp still didn't receive any offers from big league organizations. His days playing baseball seemed to be over. One month after his final pitch in Evansville, Opp reported to Fort Rucker in Alabama to begin flight training school.
“I wasn’t going to play in the indy league after 2019," he said. "The Army was OK with it in an effort to get signed with an affiliated team, but after 2019, when I didn’t get a deal, I went ahead with my aviation commitment as an Army officer.”
But the itch to play didn't subside. Opp returned home for Christmas that year with another idea.
“We talked about it, and it was such a crazy year – graduation, played pro, started aviation – something else had to be next," he said. "I didn’t feel like I went through every avenue I could have at that point. So once I got back to flight school, I reached out to teams and I set up four workouts just to see if there was still any interest. I reached out to the scouts I did know, and Andy McCauley knew a Mets scout and he set that one up.”
The then 24-year-old was approved for leave and flew to Arizona to put on private workouts for four teams last February. He never made it past his first showcase with the Mets. After a torrential downpour moved his exhibition to inside a facility with a less-than-cordial host, Opp displayed the type of talent on the mound and character off of it that the Mets were looking for. Finally, he was offered a contract. However, the coronavirus pandemic put a freeze on operations, so Opp could not officially sign with New York until December.
Go get ‘em Cam!— Army Baseball (@ArmyWP_Baseball) December 18, 2020
Army graduate Cam Opp has signed a minor league deal with the @Mets #GoArmy pic.twitter.com/a5sn3ZgkbM
Since there wasn't a Minor League season in 2020, Opp was sponsored by the Army's World Class Athlete Program as he continued to serve his military commitment while maintaining baseball activities in facilities throughout Texas, Colorado and North Carolina, where he is working with Rosoff at the USA Baseball National Training complex in Cary.
“We’ve been working out most of the offseason together. He’s actually living in an RV that’s parked in my driveway right now,” Rosoff said. “I’m just really excited for him. To be able to get signed and continue to play is special, for him and the Army baseball program. Cam always played for more than just himself. He’s one of those guys that worked his [butt] off on everything he did, and this is an opportunity he deserved.”
As Spring Training gets underway, Opp remains hopeful his next professional pitch will come at Port St. Lucie.
“I will be putting in a waiver to transfer into the reserves at the two-year mark and that is coming up this May,” Opp said. “So the plan is to go into the reserves while representing West Point and the Army as an athlete for the Mets. ... I’m just going to get in the best shape I can and be ready to go, whenever that is.”
Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.