MERIDIAN, Texas -- The carpet of bluebonnets in the Texas pasture gave off a deliciously sweet aroma as Todd Van Poppel sat with his back against a tree. It was still and cool, a perfect turkey hunting morning.
Van Poppel made a few hen yelps and a gobbler answered immediately. Minutes later, two Rio Grande turkey gobblers were strutting just seven steps away.
"They really put on a show," said the retired pitcher, who spent 11 years in the major leagues, including two stints with the Texas Rangers. "One turkey was drumming so much, it looked like his entire body was vibrating. They were showing off for my decoy, so I just carefully crawled a few feet closer and watched from behind a little cedar bush."
Van Poppel couldn't have shot one of the birds had he wanted to -- he had left his shotgun in the truck. Besides, he later noted, if he'd had the shotgun with him, he might have shot a gobbler and messed up the entire show.
Van Poppel, 38, bought his Bosque County ranch in 1993. His father, Hank, manages the property. They'd hunted in Central and West Texas but decided on Bosque County after attending several years of father-son hunts near Clifton, south of Meridian, which is billed by the local chamber of commerce as the "Top of the Hill Country."
"We just enjoy this area," Van Poppel said. "It's beautiful and it's close enough to the metropolitan area that you can get back and forth without much trouble. I grew up hunting and fishing. I've always loved the outdoors. If it was up to me, I'd live in the middle of nowhere."
It's not entirely up to Todd, so the Van Poppel family is building a new home on 10 acres in Denton County. The country has always been his retreat from the pressures of athletics. The week he was drafted by the Oakland Athletics, Van Poppel and high school teammate William Calcott drove to the Edwards Plateau to hunt axis deer with Calcott's grandfather, a colorful guy named Bob Ramsey.
At the time, the young Van Poppel had never heard of Ramsey, a legendary former Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist and big-game hunter who popularized the tactic of clashing deer antlers to attract whitetail bucks during the rut.
During his baseball career, Van Poppel slipped away at every opportunity for fishing and hunting adventures near baseball stadiums throughout the country. He retired in 2004 but still does some promotional work for the Rangers and enjoys giving pitching lessons to young hopefuls.
"I know I'll have to get a job one of these days, but right now I'm enjoying being a father to my three kids," he said. "Because of the travel involved in baseball, I missed a lot of developmental milestones for my two older children. I'm kind of making up for that."
When Van Poppel first bought his Bosque County ranch, he sat in a blind one day and saw 22 does and one buck. For several seasons, he hunted nothing but does until he finally got the herd into a more balanced state. Even after 17 seasons, he's shot only six bucks on the place. These days, he prefers to hunt with a muzzleloader, whether he's hunting deer or turkeys.
"There are days when I just go out and watch the deer and the turkeys," he said. "Right now, my oldest son is about ready for his first deer hunt and we're working toward that. For my family, hunting is not just about killing an animal. It's the entire experience -- enjoying the outdoors with family and friends, being safe with guns and having respect for the animals. We eat what we kill or make sure the meat gets to someone who needs it more than we do.
"Every time I leave the ranch, I think of it as heading back to reality."