JUPITER, Fla. – John Hicks has the rare talent to play professional sports at the highest level, and he believes he can spot that skill in others, too. Take that two-sport athlete on his traveling summer team back in high school — “I always thought he had the arm to be a really good pitcher,” Hicks said.
Hey, maybe he’s right. Maybe Russell Wilson would have won multiple Cy Young Awards by now. But being a Super Bowl-winning quarterback has worked out pretty well for Hicks’ long-ago Richmond Riverdogs teammate, too.
“I’ve enjoyed watching his success. He’s been pretty amazing,” Hicks said of his fellow Virginian, a Colorado Rockies fourth-round draft pick who gave up baseball five years ago and has led the Seattle Seahawks to two Super Bowls. “He was pretty good back then, too.”
Hicks had to make a similar choice as he grew up, too, because he was a decent running back and linebacker for four years at Goochland (Va.) High School, getting plenty of carries in a double wing offense. When his coaches pointed out that he probably wasn’t fast enough to play the position in college, though, he had to make a difficult decision.
“I wanted to play football, play college ball. I would have had to be a slot receiver, though, so I would have been getting my head taken off,” Hicks said. “I realized that baseball would probably be a better option.”
Especially since he was excelling at a position that has become hard to find at the professional level. Now 26, Hicks took up catching on the baseball field when he was 9 — a position he may never have tried if he wasn’t the youngest of three brothers.
“My brother was a pitcher. He was 11, I was 9, and my dad said, ‘Go ahead and catch him,’ ” Hicks said. “It was a way of toughening me up, I suppose.”
Hicks developed toughness, but plenty of skill, too. And he loved being in on every pitch, having to think along with hitters, having to quarterback the infield defense. He was still a good enough athlete to try some other positions, and when he was a freshman at Virginia, the Cavaliers tried him at first base and the outfield, too.
By then, Hicks hated all the standing around.
“It’s like, ‘Where’s the ball? I want to get into the action,’ ” Hicks said. “It keeps me locked into the game. So it was a good fit for me.”
While Wilson played football and baseball at North Carolina State and eventually Wisconsin, Hicks stayed closer to home, enrolling at Virginia just as the Cavaliers were becoming a baseball powerhouse. Hicks was drafted by the Mariners in the fourth round in 2011 and climbed the ladder quickly, arriving in the major leagues for the final month of the 2015 season.
Turns out, Hicks couldn’t emulate the Seattle success of his NFL friend. He lined a single to right in his first big-league at-bat, off White Sox lefthander Jose Quintana — then plunged into an 0-for-27 slump. By the time the season ended, Hicks’ batting average stood at .063.
“If you go up and don’t get off to the start you want, it’s hard not to let your mind wander and try to tinker with things. And I did,” Hicks said. “It was a mistake on my part. I tried to change what I did completely, made adjustments to my stance, things like that. … I just made it worse.”
Hicks’ reputation was always built on defense — he threw out 47 percent of would-be base-stealers in the minors, and five of 10 in the majors — but he was a better hitter than he showed in Seattle. Still, the Mariners, facing an overload of catchers, put him on waivers in December, and the Twins quickly claimed him.
Three weeks into training camp, they are glad they did.
“His catching and throwing have been really good. He opens up the zone for the umpire really well, and keeps [his glove] quiet back there. He’s been a nice addition for us,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “His offense is a work in progress. We know he can hit it a long ways, he’s a big strong kid. He’s just trying to tighten himself up as a situational hitter.”
Hicks managed it Monday, lifting a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning against St. Louis for the game’s first run, and collecting his third RBI of the spring as the Twins beat the Cardinals 5-3 in Jupiter, Fla. He is 4-for-13 (.308) in training camp, and while a dark horse to stick as a third catcher behind Kurt Suzuki and John Ryan Murphy, he could easily return to the major leagues with the Twins this year.
It’s no Super Bowl, maybe, but it’s still pro sports.
“It’s exciting. I thought this was a great opportunity when the Twins called,” Hicks said. “I’m really enjoying this experience.”