This is Joe Hillman's season on the brink.
The Modesto A's, the Oakland Athletics' Class-A affiliate in the California League, will drive to Bakersfield today for a weekend series against a Dodger farm team. Given a choice, Hillman, a Modesto outfielder-first baseman, would not board the bus.
If things go as planned, Hillman will extend his three-week break from baseball and continue to work out with the Utah Jazz's summer league basketball team at Loyola Marymount. Hillman's National Basketball Assn. aspirations are contingent upon his being asked to attend the team's camp, which begins in October in Salt Lake City.
Although Jazz officials would not say when the final selections will be made, Hillman says he will likely know of his status this weekend.
In his second season in the minor leagues Hillman, who grew up in Glendale and attended Hoover High, has temporarily put his professional baseball dreams to pasture. But to the Athletics' management, the decision didn't come from left field.
"We just felt this was something Joe wanted to do and we didn't want to stand in his way," said Walt Jocketty, the A's minor league administrator. "I think (the hiatus has) taken a little bit longer than we expected. But he would certainly get to their major leagues sooner than he would ours."
Hillman, 23, already has played at the top levels of college basketball and baseball. He played three seasons of baseball for Indiana and finished with a .310 career batting average.
He also averaged 6.4 points a game for four seasons with the Hoosier basketball team despite redshirting his sophomore season.
During a farewell ceremony before the final home game last season, Hoosier basketball Coach Bob Knight nominated Hillman for the Big Ten Conference's Most Valuable Player award.
"The most valuable player is not the best player," Knight told a crowd of more than 17,000 fans in the Hoosier Dome. "It is the player that has done the most to get his team where it is. It is an absolute clear-cut situation that Hillman is the MVP. Period."
Hillman, the first player Knight had ever recruited from west of the Mississippi River, had high school figures that were difficult for colleges to ignore. He shattered all the Hoover scoring records, averaging 41.3 points a game his senior season--then the third-best average in Southern Section history--and finishing with 2,213 career points.
It wasn't Hillman's legendary shooting touch but his maturity that impressed Knight.
"None of the things (Hillman's) done statistically approach the kind of leadership he's given," Knight told The Times in March.
Jazz coaches, too, see more in him than a silky jump shot and precision bullet passes.
"It doesn't really mean anything in the summer league other than he's done a good job," Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan said of Hillman, who has had a string of solid performances, including a 14-point game against a Detroit Piston team. "Scoring is really deceiving sometimes. We know that Joe can score baskets because he can shoot the ball. We try to look at his overall game. We try to project him into where he can fit in with our whole team.
"Right now he's shown us some things that indicate to us that he's got some possibilities."
Sloan, whose son Brian was a teammate of Hillman's at Indiana, said he took note of Hillman last season. "I saw him play enough and knew enough about what kind of person he was that if he wasn't drafted, we wanted to bring him into camp," Sloan said.
Although Hillman's 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame is heavily muscled, his modest speed could prove to be a stumbling block on the road to professional basketball or baseball.
But pure speed, Hillman contends, is not essential to success on the court.
"You don't have to be the fastest guy to play basketball," he said. "There's a lot of timing involved. Timing and passing angles."
Meanwhile, the A's seem concerned that Hillman's fancy passing has made baseball a passing fancy.
"Joe hasn't contacted us. We don't know what's going on," said the Athletics' director of player development, Carl Kuehl, who stressed that management is not angry with Hillman, just curious about his plans.
Hillman, a two-time All-Southern Section outfielder, had a tough time making contact with the baseball this season. Before the team put him on the temporary inactive list, he was hitting .236. Last season, with Medford, Ore., of the Class-A Northwest League, Hillman batted .310.
"We think he's got a chance to be a good hitter. He's got good instinct, presence of mind, and he's starting to hit with more power," said Kuehl, who added that Hillman will have to adjust to the pitching in the California League. "I've seen some doggone good arms, so consequently there aren't a lot of high averages out there."
Kuehl said the only thing that caused him some concern was Hillman's habit of spending his free time at a local gym shooting baskets and not concentrating entirely on baseball. That complaint doesn't sit well with Joe's mother Sharon.
"I know my son a heck of a lot better than (the A's coaches) do," she said. "And I've never known Joe not to give 100% to everything. What if he liked to play golf every day? Would they rather have him sitting around watching TV?"
Dividing his attention while playing baseball probably helped Hillman make the adjustments necessary to keep up with the run-and-gun pace of summer league competition.
"This situation is a little more open court, quicker pace," he said. "Sometimes, you have to take the first open shot you get--it might be the only one you get."
And he's taking it.