By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – The anniversary of one of the most significant days in the young life of Jordan Hicks will pass on Thursday without a cake, presents or any other signs of a celebration.
It was one year ago, on Feb. 28, 2018, that Hicks decided he had to change if he wanted to be the pitcher that he and the Cardinals both knew he had the physical talent to be.
That was the day when then-manager Mike Matheny told Hicks, a non-roster invitee to the Cardinals’ spring camp, that he was being sent down the hall to the minor-league camp because of a problem with tardiness. It was an abrupt decision but one team management felt had to be made.
It was the wake-up call Hicks admits now he needed.
“I knew right then and there that something had to change,” a reflective Hicks said. “’I’ve got to get serious.’ The biggest wake-up call was I just disappointed myself more than anything.
“I didn’t prepare. I didn’t set my alarm. I didn’t do the things I had to do. I just wasn’t prepared.”
Matheny gave Hicks a present to take with him as he headed down the hall; a book about leadership, Extreme Ownership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babbin, He made an inscription in the book and told Hicks to read it. He also gave Hicks a journal and told him to use it.
“The note told him that I believed in him, but he needed to take ownership of himself and his career, if he was going to maximize his ability,” Matheny said in a text message. “Basically telling him that the disciplines he needed to grow as a man were the same things he needed to allow him to succeed as an MLB level player.
Said Hicks, “It was all for the best for me. He wanted the best for me. I read the book and took notes. He said, ‘You don’t have to be this guy, but there’s information in here you can use.’”
Hicks, just 21 at the time without one game of experience higher than Class A but a pitcher with a definite major-league arm, had to call home and tell his mom Jennifer what had happened.
“He explained the situation,” Jennifer Hicks said in a telephone interview. “Mike Matheny essentially gave Jordan homework. He told him he wanted to see him grow from this. He told Jordan, “I have 100 percent confidence in you and I know you can do this. He was a huge supporter early on.
“As a parent having someone take that much interest in your child, ift gives you a level of comfort. He’s not alone. He’s not on his own. There are people looking out for him.”
One of those people was John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. He also believed in Hicks’ talent, and in his ability to make the highly unusual jump all the way from A ball to the major leagues – if he could make the personal adjustments in his life that he needed to make.
“Jordan was never the poster boy for doing everything perfect and so that makes it (the learning curve) even steeper,” Mozeliak said. “To his credit he allowed people to help him. He listened, he watched and he learned.
“I think that’s the biggest change for Jordan from a year ago to today is he realizes what he was doing then won’t work here. You either change or you find yourself in a bad predicament. Anytime there is a disciplinary measure involved you hope the person involved understands ‘here’s why.’”
Hicks began to correct his mistakes as soon as he reported to the minor league camp.
“I just did my work there and kept going about my business as if it didn’t happen,” Hicks said. “I still had to go play. I was still trying to get to the big leagues.”
That by itself, however, wasn’t going to get Hicks back into the major-league camp. He needed a break, an opportunity.
“For almost every major league player there is a story,” Mozeliak said. “Something had to happen for some opportunity.”
On the final day of spring training, after Hicks’ bags were “already on the way to Double A” he got the break he needed.
A well-timed injury
Hicks’ parents were excited that their son was preparing to begin the season with Springfield. Playing in the Texas League meant he would be close to their home in Houston on numerous occasions.
“He was going to be within two or three hours of our house and we had all these trips mapped out where we could go up on a week night and come home the same day,” Jennifer Hicks said.
On the morning of March 25, however, everything changed. Adam Wainwright was scheduled to start that day’s game in West Palm Beach against the Nationals but was not able to pitch after pulling his hamstring while running wind sprints.
Needing a starter, the Cardinals reached down to the minor league camp and called on Hicks.
“I knew it was a big moment,” Hicks said. “I was starting for the first time all spring. I was nervous. Yadi (Molina) and I were warming up and I was shaking a little bit. I don’t get nervous but that game was more nerve-wracking to me than opening day.
“I was just out there pitching. I just went out there and did what I always do. Maybe it was a little better that day. I was lucky enough to be prepared and have a good day.”
With his parents getting their first chance to watch Hicks on television, he dominated the Nationals. Over four innings, he allowed just one hit, didn’t walk a batter and struck out two.
Molina noticed. So too did other veterans on the team. The Cardinals left for Montreal to play a two-game series against the Blue Jays before opening the regular season in New York and the conversation quickly began about Hicks’ performance.
Somewhere during those two days, a group of Molina, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Marcell Ozuna lobbied management for the Cardinals to add Hicks to the opening day roster and their pleas were heard.
“We were at the point where we needed that arm,” Molina said.
While Hicks was still in his hotel room in Jupiter, preparing to go to Springfield, he got a phone call from Matheny telling him those plans had changed and he was going to open the season in the major leagues.
“It just all fell into place,” Hicks said. “The spark was me leaving and me having that one game to show what I was about. I don’t think I would have got that game to pitch if I had been in the big-league camp the whole time.
“Who knows what happens if I don’t get sent down. What made me the guy to pitch that day?”
It might just have been divine intervention.
“He had a chance to show them who he really was,” Jennifer Hicks said. “He didn’t want that whole issue with the late arrivals to define him. He wanted to prove to them that he’s not that person.”
Wainwright jokes now “that’s why I did it (get injured). I do have to apologize to (John) Brebbia because they kind of swapped places. I think he (Hicks) would have been up at some point but it was good he was able to be there the whole season to get that experience.
“When you have an arm like him, the ability that he has, and are an athlete like him, you just need an opportunity – and you are going to make good on it.”
“Don’t make us look stupid”
After Hicks arrived in New York, he found out some of his teammates were waiting for him. The group of Molina, Carpenter, Fowler and Ozuna who had lobbied for his addition to the roster, sat him down for a frank discussion.
“They all brought me in and told me, ‘We had a meeting and went out of a limb and put our asses out there,’” Hicks said. “They said, ‘We want you to not let us down and make us look stupid. Come here, be on time, do your thing. We know you are talented enough or we wouldn’t have gone to the manager and told him.’”
Carpenter and Molina both confirmed the meeting, and the message that was delivered.
“We let him know how much we needed him and how we needed him to be responsible, to take care of everything he needed to do to be the best version of himself,” Carpenter said. “He’s been great, zero issues, and his performance on the field has been great.”
Added Molina, “We just wanted him to be on the same page. We knew what type of talent he had. I’m happy for him.”
Hicks’ on the job education included lessons learned on and off the field during the 2018 season.
“I feel I’ve learned more about the game in just that one season,” Hicks said. “You have to mature a little bit quicker. This is a good place to learn. It’s a good environment.”
Hicks bonded with some of the younger Cardinals, including Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader, both of whom had the advantage of going to college before beginning their pro careers unlike Hicks, who was in the lowest level of the minors a week after graduating from high school.
“He’s an amazing talent and he’s got a great heart,” DeJong said. “We were supporting him, helping him out as best we could and we became pretty good friends over the last year.
“He was perfectly capable of being here and competing and he’s continuing to learn the mental piece. Once he breaks through that he’s going to be unstoppable. He knows the opportunity he’s got and he’s taken advantage of it.”
Of the 73 games Hicks pitched for the Cardinals last season, the one that stood out the most came on May 20, when he threw two fastballs in the same at-bat to the Phillies’ Odubel Herrera that were clocked at 105 miles per hour, the fastest pitches thrown by any pitcher in the majors last season.
Hicks was not prepared for the attention that came with that one performance. His social media following grew by 20,000 in one day. He had to grow up even more.
“He had to figure out how to be a professional on the job,” said Hicks’ mother. “He had to be able to be a public figure on the job. He had to do all of that on the fly and 12 months later, I think it’s paid off for him.”
In a good place
In the 77 2/3 innings Hicks pitched for the Cardinals last year, he threw 659 pitches that were clocked at 100 miles per hour or faster; 51.7 percent of all the pitches he threw. Any doubts about whether he could succeed at the major league level quickly faded away.
As he marks the one-year anniversary of having to put his items in a laundry cart and wheel them down a narrow hallway to the minor league locker room, Hicks is looking ahead, not backward.
The biggest difference from last year, in Hicks’ mind, is “being comfortable.”
“I’ve grown as a person,” he said. “I feel I have a better feel for the game. This year I am coming in with a better repertoire of pitches and know more about what I am doing. When I make a mistake I will be able to correct it quicker. I know what I need to do, even though knowing it doesn’t always mean you will do it.
“I’m still myself and I still go about life kind of the same way. I just know I need to prepare better. I know preparation is huge; in the weight room, in the training room. My mindset has to be, ‘I’m going to get better today. I’m going to get stronger today.’ You can’t go in with no goals or expectations or you’re not going to get better.”
His teammates, including those who campaigned for his addition to the opening day roster last year, have noticed. Wainwright is almost glad he got hurt, giving Hicks the chance to make the start that sent him to the major leagues.
“He’s much more intentional now,” Wainwright said. “He’s got checkpoints of where he is supposed to be and when. He’s double-checking everything, which is good. He’s taking ownership. What he struggles with, what I struggled with in the minors, is being prompt.
“He’s still a pup and he’s doing things the right way. We know Jordan and he wants to help this team win. It’s part of learning, right? When we’re not the best at something or struggle at it, we get people to help us and that’s what he has done.”
Jennifer Hicks has a lot of chances now to watch her son on television, or in person, at major-league stadiums around the country. Sometimes she has to pause for a moment to believe how quickly her son’s life has changed.
“It’s his ultimate goal to be the past player, the best pitcher, the best representative of the Cardinals that he can be,” Jennifer Hicks said. “He’s very proud to be a Cardinal. There are a lot of baseball teams but when you’re a Cardinal I think it’s almost a step above. He takes great honor in that and wants to be there for the team and for the fans.
“I don’t worry about him as much anymore because I know he is more responsible. He has taken such good control of his life I feel comfortable about letting go. I honestly feel like every year he’s just going to continue to do better and better.
“Now he can build on his knowledge. He doesn’t have to wonder, ‘Am I good enough?’ He knows he’s good enough. He has to focus on honing his craft and getting down to those details on how he can be better. He knows what he’s done and what he needs to do.”
When his series of morning alarms goes off on his cell phone, Hicks doesn’t roll over and hit the snooze button. He is too excited to get up and head to the ballpark, knowing what is waiting.
“I’m in a good position in my head,” he said. “I’m ready to stay strong, stay healthy and be there for the guys in the back end of the bullpen.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos from 2018 season from AP Photos, courtesy of KSDK Sports