Twins prospect follows reluctant dad's path

Twins prospect follows reluctant dad's path

Twins prospect follows reluctant dad's path
Joseph Hicks, father of highly regarded Twins prospect Aaron Hicks, will openly admit it now.

"I was mad at the game," he said.

Hicks was angry because he believed the "politics" of professional baseball never allowed him to use his physical gifts to reach the big leagues. He was so angry that shortly after he ended his seven-year Minor League career, he completely phased the game out of his life -- never watching it on TV and neglecting to tell his youngest he even played it.

Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Joseph and Aaron were close. But it was days spent on the golf course -- not the ballpark -- that brought father and son together. Aaron barely picked up a bat until he was 12, and before then, he didn't know his dad did, either.

There was a very good reason for that: Joseph never wanted Aaron to be involved in baseball, even after his son grew to love it.

"I really wanted him to be a golfer," Joseph said. "That's all I wanted."

Perhaps it's easy to say now Aaron made the right career choice.

The 21-year-old switch-hitting center fielder was one of the finest ballplayers ever to come out of Major League Baseball's first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., from which more than 100 players have been drafted since the facility opened in 2006.

He was selected by the Twins with the 14th overall pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, put up a solid season for Class A last year -- a .279 batting average, .401 on-base percentage, eight homers, 49 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in 115 games -- and heads into the 2011 season as the No. 39-ranked prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com.

But some of those closest to him believe golf was his best sport.

"He was phenomenal," said Darrell Miller, a former Angels catcher and outfielder who was then director of the Compton UYA and now oversees all of the academies. "He was Tiger Woods."

"I was a 12 handicap, and he was beating me at least by 10 strokes every time we played," Joseph said. "If he would've continued on the path that I wanted him to go on and played golf, he could've turned pro right out of high school."

Shortly after the end of Joseph's professional baseball career -- one that began out of high school in 1975 and saw him toil in the Padres' system for six years, until a devastating eye injury marked the beginning of the end -- he took up golf at a nearby course. And when Aaron turned three, Joseph chopped down his old golf clubs and took his son with him.

"He just needed somebody to go out there and play golf with every day," Aaron said, "so I stuck to that role really quick."

Aaron became a golf phenom before his teenage years. During that time on the course, he knew nothing about baseball, and even less about his father's baseball past because, as Aaron put it, "I guess I just really never even thought of the question."

Joseph preferred it that way. But one day, the subject became unavoidable.

At age 12, Aaron's softball skills were starting to become the talk of the neighborhood. Then one day, after tirelessly hitting balls with a stick in the backyard, he walked into the garage, picked up a stray wooden bat and mistakenly broke it against a tree.

An embarrassed Aaron returned the bat in two pieces to his father, then saw the name "Joseph Hicks" on the barrel and became curious.

That's when Joseph brought out the memorabilia and the stories. His secret was out.

"Ever since then I always wanted to play baseball," Aaron said. "I just lost the love for golf. I was just young, and I was trying to do something new."

Joseph didn't agree. And although he didn't tell Aaron, he had his own way of breaking up what he hoped was just a phase.

"He wanted to play baseball, and he wanted to bat right-handed," Joseph, now a longshoreman, explained. "So I told him, 'OK, if you want me to get on board with you playing baseball, then you have to hit left-handed.' And I was doing that more to discourage him not to play baseball."

He also had another reason.

In 1979, Joseph was forced to repeat in Double-A -- with the Amarillo Gold Sox -- despite solid numbers the previous season. That year, a fastball nailed the 23-year-old outfielder squarely on the left eye and shook it out of alignment, making it difficult for him to pick up the rotation of a baseball or flat-out see. The eye injury healed after four years, but Joseph's career ended two years earlier without him moving past Double-A.

By teaching him to hit left-handed, Joseph believed Aaron could pick up the ball faster from a pitcher's hand, thus giving him more time to avoid those kinds of freak accidents.

"He didn't want that to happen to me," Aaron said, "and that's the main reason I'm a switch-hitter."

Despite struggling mightily from the left side of the plate early on, Aaron wasn't discouraged. He took it as a challenge, never gave up and gradually got better, with plenty of help from his father, to the point where Minnesota gave him a $1.78 million signing bonus -- which he signed at the UYA facility that helped hone his skills.

"He was struggling, but he continued on to it," Joseph said. "So I just said, 'OK, go ahead.' But I never told him to quit baseball and go back to golf. That I kept to myself."

As irony would have it, Aaron now plays golf against others left-handed, just to try to make it more interesting on the course. Joseph wanted Aaron to stick with that on a serious level, but if he was dead-set on baseball, then to at least be a pitcher -- something Aaron's live arm could have allowed him to succeed at, too.

"But I also respect Aaron's choice," Joseph quickly clarified, "because Aaron wanted to be more of a contact person, an everyday player, and I think it's probably the best move for him. And I honestly think if he would have just stuck to his right side, I'm sure my son would at least be in Triple-A by now."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and 'The Show', and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.