FORT MYERS, FLA. – Joe Hicks was a few minutes from the start of running an event in the 1975 California state track meet at Balboa Stadium in San Diego. He had arrived with spikes suited for running on a cinder track and then discovered it was an artificial surface.
“I was running around, trying to borrow a pair of the right spikes, and this young woman came up to me and said, ‘You’ve been drafted,’ ” Hicks said. “I yelled, ‘Drafted? How can I be drafted? The draft ended two years ago.’ ”
The woman was the daughter of Marty Keough, a scout for the San Diego Padres. She was trying to pass along that Hicks had been selected by San Diego in the 12th round of that day’s major league baseball draft.
“I didn’t play baseball until I was 18, as a senior at San Pedro High School,” Hicks said. “I only had played a few ballgames. I didn’t even know the major league draft was going on.”
Draft day was a bit different in the Hicks home in Long Beach, Calif., in 2008, as Joe and the rest of the family waited to find out where Aaron, an 18-year-old senior at Woodrow Wilson High, would fall in the first round of the draft.
There were teams convinced that Hicks, with his mid-90s fastball, could be fast-tracked to the big leagues as a pitcher. There were others on board with Aaron’s desire to play every day as an outfielder.
The Twins took Hicks with the 14th pick and then signed him quickly for a bonus of $1.78 million. Again, this was a dramatic change from 1975 when Joe Hicks, a righthanded-hitting center fielder, received a $5,000 bonus and headed off to the rookie league in Walla Walla, Wash.
“I could run and throw and a Padres scout told me, ‘We can teach you to hit,’ ” Joe said. “I got better, but I was never a real hitter. Heck, it took me three years to find out it was OK to hit a ball to right field.”
Hicks had a good year at Class AA Amarillo in 1978. He felt the Padres went back on their word by not promoting him to Class AAA. And then one night in 1979 in a Texas League ballpark, near sunset and with minor league lights, Joe Hicks took a pitch in an eye and broke the orbital bone.
“I played a couple more years, but I couldn’t really see the baseball,” Hicks said.
He risked a stop in the Mexican League in 1982, then came home and found a job with Local 13 of the longshoremen in Long Beach Harbor. “It’s a job for life, a good job,” Joe said. “If cargo comes into the harbor, we unload it. If cargo is going out, we load it.”
Joe worked nights for a number of years. He would play golf on summer mornings and take Aaron with him.
“When he was young, whatever he saw — basketball, football, street hockey — he tried it right away and was good at it,” Joe said. “That happened with golf. After a while, Aaron was so much better than us that he got some lefthanded clubs and played that way, so there would be competition.”
The story is that Joe was determined to keep his son away from baseball, based on resentment over broken promises and the eye injury that ended his big-league hopes.
“Me being anti-baseball is probably overstated,” Joe said. “I did prefer Aaron stick with golf. He hit the ball like Tiger Woods … way long.”
Once Aaron decided to emphasize baseball, Dad bought in. “I would throw him batting practice, but I couldn’t stand it,” Joe said. “He wouldn’t swing unless it was a strike. My arm would be killing me and he still wouldn’t swing.”
That patience is now a reason that Aaron Hicks, 23, and out of Class AA, is the current favorite to be batting first and playing center field for the Twins on April 1 vs. Detroit in the season opener.
Are you going to join us, Joe?
“The problem is I know the way spring training works: They don’t make decisions like this until the last week,” Joe said. “The longer we wait to find out, the more expensive the plane tickets.
“And even if we found out earlier that Aaron will be in Minnesota, what if we fly there and they are snowed out for four days? That could happen, right?”
The proud papa from Long Beach was assured there’s not more than a 50-50 chance of that.