Hancock left impression on Trenton

Hancock left impression on Trenton

For many in the Trenton Thunder organization, the lasting memory of Josh Hancock will be when he walked off the field in the fourth inning on June 3, 2002.

It wasn't the run on five hits the right-hander, then a 24-year-old Double-A prospect in the Red Sox organization, had allowed in 3 2/3 innings that chased him from the game. It was a line drive off the bat of Travis Chapman that struck Hancock squarely in the jaw.

Yet Hancock insisted on walking off under his own power.

"He was just a tough guy," recalled Thunder general manager Brad Taylor, who was the team's assistant GM when Hancock pitched for Trenton from 2001-02. "It was truly one of the worst things I've ever seen in my 13 years in professional baseball, and he insisted on not going off that field on a stretcher. And he walked off."

Hancock had surgery two days later to repair his broken jaw, but he was back on the mound just 30 days after the incident. He pitched three innings in relief to record the only save of his nine-year professional career.

"He just bugged the living you-know-what out of everybody within the Red Sox organization for a month to get back on the field and pitch again," Taylor said. "He drove them crazy. He was back in one month, and playing well. There wasn't a lot of rust to knock off."

Hancock was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on July 24, 2002, three weeks after his return, and earned a callup to Boston that September.

"He was running within a week, throwing within two weeks, back on the mound after a month and throwing all his pitches without fear right away," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, who was then the assistant GM, told Baseball America at the time. "You can't force someone to rush back from something like that, but in Josh's case we had to fight to slow him down."

The Thunder have since become the Yankees' Double-A affiliate, but those who were there five years ago remember Hancock, who died on Sunday at 29 in an automobile accident in St. Louis, as an open, fun-loving teammate. The team plans to remember Hancock before Tuesday's game at Mercer County Waterfront Park with a moment of silence, a video tribute and a display on the concourse.

It will be just a small measure of respect for a player who made such a lasting impression during his relatively short time in New Jersey's capital.

"He superseded the normal player/front office/fan relationship," Taylor said. "He was one of those guys that everybody kind of knew, because he would make time to talk to people in the office, in the stands. He was always really good about volunteering to do kids' clinics, catch a first pitch, go to school appearances and make time for the fans with autographs and pictures."

Sometimes, those pictures could be hard to come by, because Hancock, it seemed, was always up to something.

Josh Hancock, 1978-2007

"He was forever joking around, hiding things on people," said Dave Schofield, Trenton's team photographer. "Once, he took my camera, lens and all my gear and took it back into the tunnel next to the dugout. It nearly freaked me out. But it was hilarious and he was giggling after. He didn't let it go too long and really worry me. He just got the laugh and went on. Funny kid."

Even former Thunder employees whose tenure with the team did not coincide with Hancock's knew of his willingness to engage the fans and the community. Taylor first heard about Hancock's death from Tom McCarthy, a commentator on Mets radio broadcasts who left Trenton after the 1999 season. Though McCarthy did not know Hancock in Trenton, he knew of the young pitcher's contributions through friends in the organization and spoke highly of him during Sunday's Mets game.

Throughout baseball on Sunday, Hancock was remembered fondly, as he will be once again on Tuesday night in Trenton, where he once walked off the field under his own power after taking a line drive to the face.

"I had a chance to talk with him this spring," Schofield said. "I thought he was as relaxed and professional as I had ever seen him, yet still so personable and friendly with the fans.

"We sat on the bullpen bench during infield [practice], though I should have been shooting photos. But Josh was such an engaging guy and I got to know him so well in Trenton that I just had to sit and talk. Now I am so glad I did."

Dan Cichalski is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.