When Minnesota Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks played basketball at Woodrow Wilson High School in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif., he says he was a defensive player.
“I was more of a guy that got rebounds and blocked shots,” he says. “I was more of a defensive guy because we had a really good shooting guard so I didn’t really have to shoot too much.”
That’s right, Hicks was not his team’s go-to scorer. It is mildly surprising because he jumps so high you would think he is levitating, runs like The Flash and, well, he is a professional athlete.
It is fitting the he was a more defensively oriented basketball player, however, because right now his play in the field is his strongest asset. Hicks began the year as the team’s leadoff hitter but could only muster a paltry .040 batting average and was moved lower in the order. He has hit better lately but remains below the Mendoza Line, and he has relied on his defense to keep him in the lineup.
“Until the bat starts coming around, it’s”—he pauses.
“Playing this game, it’s not easy, especially at this level with these guys,” admits the 23-year-old, who was drafted No. 14 overall in 2008 and signed with the Twins out of high school. “Until you start going, defense is one of my strong suits and I definitely pride myself upon that because the more runs I prevent, it’s better for my pitching and our team.”
Hicks did just that in a May 14 contest against the rival Chicago White Sox. He hit two bombs that night and capped it off by robbing slugger Adam Dunn of what would have been the game-tying home run.
“I was just having fun,” he says, smiling. “It just seems like everything went right that game and it was pretty cool.”
Hicks says that he is at his best when he is having fun. He gets joy out of seeing Justin Morneau hit a home run, Pedro Florimon pick a speeding grounder or Kevin Correia pitch a complete game. In fact, he just likes being in a locker room surrounded by major league players.
“You just try to get it from different things,” he says. “Just the experience of playing baseball at the highest level and enjoying yourself throughout the entire game.”
The Twins feel it is vital that he remains with the big league club at this stage of his career. There is no way to truly replicate the major league experience, and they probably think he is going to become a superstar sooner or later.
While he had to win the center field position over another prospect, Joe Benson, and current teammate Darin Mastroianni in spring training, he appeared to be the front-runner for the position. Perhaps he gave management enough confidence to trade away two table-setters, Denard Span and Ben Revere, in the offseason.
“Denard Span had some tremendous ability, different than Ben Revere, who had his own unique ability,” said hitting coordinator Bill Springman. “And Aaron Hicks is kind of like those two combined.”
Springman is considered one of Hicks’ go-to guys—a person who will give him calls here and there about what he saw on video and provides him with things to think about when he is up at the plate.
“I work with Hicks, specifically, all the time,” he says. “I supply information to the big league club: I do video, I do hitting plans and I supervise hitting coaches at every level.”
Hicks began the year 0-for-11 and got his first major league hit on April 4 in an 8-2 win over the Detroit Tigers at Target Field.
“A good smile on his face,” said manager Ron Gardenhire at the time. “We told him, ‘Just keep swinging. You’re going to play, you’re going to play for a pretty good while here.’”
And the Twins have kept him on the big league roster even as fans have called for management to send him down to keep his arbitration clock from ticking.
Without an adequate replacement in center field, however, (Wilkin Ramirez and Darin Mastroianni are both serviceable at best and currently injured) and no true leadoff hitter emerging, Hicks appears to be in Minnesota for the long term.
“He’s as good as what we have and this is valuable, tremendous experience and we’re lucky we can offer him that opportunity right now,” says Springman. “Yeah, sure, we’d all like to see for himself and our club to hit better, things like that, but he wasn’t picked to be there to begin with and he earned the spot.
“Now he’s facing the best pitchers in the world for the first time and I think he’s done very, very well. He’s handled himself as a professional and he will be better for this.”
“It was definitely crazy because it was a big jump,” says Hicks, “but it’s all about not really thinking about the hype and just going out there and trying to do the best you can on a daily basis and compete at a high level.”
Hicks has already faced some of the best pitchers in the league: New York Mets phenom Matt Harvey, Jake Peavy of the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers’ $200 million man, Justin Verlander.
“As a competitor, you always want to face the best,” says Hicks. “Really, it’s all about facing the best pitchers and going from there. Against those guys, you try to get one hit out of them; they’re pretty nasty.”
Hicks also went directly from Double-A to the majors without ever making a stop in Rochester, N.Y. While he faced Harvey in High-A, most of the pitchers he saw in the low minors will never play in The Show.
Other players have made the leap—Torii Hunter, Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson to name a few—but even Hunter, who lead off and played center, wasn’t himself until his third full year in the league.
“I don’t get why people think it’s an easy transition,” says Springman of moving from the minors to the majors. “It’s not like grade school where you go first grade, second grade, third grade. You’ve got to really fight, fight and fight in this game, it’s a tough thing.”
Hicks emphasizes that he just wants to be in the locker room, around his teammates. He looks up to Twins icons like Mauer and Morneau, has spoken to Brian Dozier about the difficulties of the first major league season and enjoys working with the coaching staff (even if he’s already been confronted by Gardenhire this season).
He feels like the more time he spends in the clubhouse, the more productive he will be on the diamond.
“Just being around these guys,” he responds when asked about what will help him improve as a major league player. “Learning to mature and more as a hitter and really just”—He pauses—“It’s stressful as a rookie. Coming up, you want to [play well] right off the get-go, you want to show everybody your skills.
“It’s really just being able to harness that and control your emotions and be able to relax in situations and just go out there and have fun.”
Truth be told, Hicks has an even-keeled personality. He does not say much in media interviews, always speaking in quiet tones, and does not self-promote. He’s a quintessential Twin: He will serenely crush you.
“His personality is such, his pulse doesn’t get too rapid,” says Springman. “Some people may have mistaken that as ‘He’s not really energetic,’ but quiet waters run deep and he’s a very competitive individual, believe me.”
Springman feels that Hicks’ demeanor will serve him well as he evolves into a major league player.
“He’s pretty poised,” says Springman of Hicks. “He doesn’t get overexcited about this or about that. He’s been around professional baseball with his father [Joseph Hicks, Sr., who played in the minor leagues] and with Rod Carew and a lot of very famous players and he understands it.”
An 18-time All-Star who played in Minnesota from 1967-78 and had his No. 29 retired by the Twins, Carew has served as a second mentor for Hicks.
“It’s definitely great,” Hicks says of Carew, who he met at the Twins baseball academy. “It’s a great experience having him there to always have my back and also just teaching me about what he’s gone through throughout his major league career.
“Just to have him in my corner definitely feels good.”
Another challenge Hicks faced was the jump from having a couple thousand people watching him in New Britain, Conn., where the Twins Double-A team is located, to playing in front of crowds of over 30,000 in Minneapolis. Hicks routinely played in front of large crowds in high school and even played at game in Dodger Stadium, but nothing matches the amount of people that pack Target Field every night to see the Twins.
“I don’t think anything prepares you for the big leagues because you can’t replicate that in high school,” says Springman. “There is nothing that can get you prepared for Target Field, where you have 35-40 thousand people there. That’s a whole different kind of thing.
“Even though he played at a high level in high school, that’s small-time compared to [the big leagues].”
An additional challenge for Hicks is that he had to play in cold weather early in the year. Raised in Long Beach, Hicks is a California kid through and through.
His walk up song is “California Love” by 2Pac, one of his closest friends on the team is Chris Parmelee, who grew up 10 minutes away from him in Orange County (“Baseball is such a small world,” says Hicks.) and he loves USC, the place where he signed before turning pro (“I’m just not a fan of UCLA,” he says. “I’ve always been a USC guy.”).
So, needless to say, this 2Pac-loving, USC-backing Long Beach native got a little shock when he saw snowflakes on Opening Day.
“I played in the cold in New Britain and Low-A in Beloit,” he says. “Those are probably the only places that I played in the cold.”
He says that he was so excited when he got drafted that he didn’t even think about the potential of playing with a little chill in the air.
“It definitely stunk,” he said, laughing, “but it's just stuff you have to deal with. It's not like I’m the only one playing in the cold and everybody else plays in 80-degree weather.”
Hopefully, Hicks will heat up in the Minnesota summer. Springman feels that it usually takes players three years to feel comfortable at the major league level—there is always a big adjustment rookie year, and many players undergo a sophomore slump—but Hicks already has found a fit.
Pragmatically, the Twins need a center fielder and leadoff hitter, but he’s also a Twin at heart, humble and even-tempered, and that should serve him well in the long run.
After seeing Hicks hit three home runs in spring training and two against the White Sox earlier in the season, it’s not hard to believe that he’s going to be a superstar at the plate one day. Let’s not forget, however, that it was his defense that kept him around in the very beginning.
All quotes were obtained firsthand.