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Twins' Aaron Hicks seems to have chosen the right course

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

Rookie center fielder from Long Beach Wilson High was a promising golfer before focusing on baseball. Although he is struggling at the plate, he is considered to have a bright future in the game.

July 22, 2013|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Minnesota Twins outfielder Aaron Hicks dives to make a catch against the Cleveland Indians on Sunday. The former Long Beach Wilson High star is working hard to make his major league dreams a reality.
Minnesota Twins outfielder Aaron Hicks dives to make a catch against the… (Jim Mone / Associated Press )

Had things gone the way Joe Hicks planned, he would have spent Monday flying home from Scotland after watching his son, who a decade ago was a child golfing prodigy, play in the British Open.

Instead, Hicks left his job as a longshoreman and made the short drive from San Pedro to Angel Stadium to watch Aaron Hicks, the former Long Beach Wilson High star and a product of the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, play center field for the Minnesota Twins.

"It's fantastic, a dream come true for him and for me to see my son out there playing," said Joe Hicks, one of more than 100 family members and friends on hand to watch the 23-year-old rookie play his first big league game in Anaheim. "I think Aaron can do whatever Aaron wants to do."

Growing up in Long Beach, all Aaron wanted was to be the next Tiger Woods. He played in the Heartwell Park Junior Golf Assn., just like Woods, and played many rounds with his father, like young Woods did. By 12, Hicks was a scratch golfer whose short-game precision matched his 325-yard, fairway-splitting drives.

"I was so focused on golf," Hicks said, "that baseball wasn't even a thought in my mind."

That changed one day in the back yard when his brother, Joe Jr., told Aaron that their father was a former outfielder who played six years (1975-80) in the San Diego Padres farm system, topping out at double A.

Aaron had no idea. He asked his father if he could try out for Little League. Joe Hicks initally said no, but not just because he thought baseball would divert Aaron from a sport he thought he had a true future in. Joe's baseball career ended when he was hit in the face by a 95-mph fastball.

"I tried to steer him away from baseball," Joe Hicks said. "After I got injured, I just gave up on baseball completely. I didn't want anything to do with it. Aaron was a really good golfer. I thought he'd get a college scholarship. He had a chance of being a professional. Baseball is tough. It's such a hit and miss kind of thing."

Joe eventually let Aaron try out for Little League under one condition — he had to bat left-handed.

"I had never hit left-handed before," said Hicks, who is now a switch-hitter. "I was one of the last picks."

Six years later, Hicks was a first-round pick of the Twins, who used the 14th overall selection of the 2008 draft on a five-tool prospect who honed his game at the Compton youth academy and Long Beach Wilson, which, with Hicks starring on the mound and in the outfield, won the 2007 Southern Section Division I title and was crowned Baseball America national champion.

Hicks signed for $1.78 million, and after hitting .286 with 13 home runs and 61 runs batted in for double-A New Britain (Conn.) in 2012, he made the jump to the big leagues this season.

Like many rookies, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Hicks has struggled at the plate — he began play Monday with a .191 average, eight home runs, 24 RBIs, 74 strikeouts and 22 walks in 246 at-bats over 71 games. But he has shined in the field.

"He's a work in progress, but he has a chance to be a Chili Davis-like player, a guy who could dominate from both sides of the plate and hit 300 home runs," said Darrell Miller, the former Angels catcher who is vice president of youth and facilities development for the Compton academy.

"He has speed, a plus arm, and he's already made a couple of great catches. You don't see guys with all those tools."

Hicks has already robbed two players, Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox on May 13 and Carlos Gomez of the Milwaukee Brewers on May 28, of home runs with leaping grabs above the wall.

"I think it goes with your aggressiveness and not being afraid of the wall," Hicks said of his fence-scaling ability. "It's a reaction play. You can't prepare for it."

On July 10 at Tampa Bay, Hicks made a game-saving, leaping catch at the wall of a Kelly Johnson 10th-inning drive before slamming face-first into the fence.

Hicks showed off his arm July 12 in Yankee Stadium, scooping up a Vernon Wells gapper to right-center field that caromed off the wall and back toward center field near the warning track and firing to third base on the fly to nail Wells.

"He's very athletic; he reminds me of Devon White with how he strides," Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said, referring to the former Angels center fielder. "He really covers a lot of ground. It doesn't look like he's going, but he's a glider. His arms stretch out forever, he has leaping ability, he's not afraid of the wall, and he has a cannon for an arm. He has all the intangibles."

But Hicks, who hit a run-scoring double in his first at-bat and a single in his second against the Angels on Monday night, is hardly a finished product.

"It's a process," Gardenhire said. "He still has his ups and downs."

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

twitter.com/MikeDiGiovanna

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