Wednesday, May 16, 2012

EXTRA: The Sout’ Side dream?

He may have only been a fringe major league ballplayer who spent the bulk of his professional athletic career in the minor leagues and whose career total of games won as a pitcher didn’t exceed two figures.

Yet I can’t help but think that Kevin Hickey was the “dream come true” for many guys throughout the decades who grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

HICKEY, WHO DIED Wednesday after being found unresponsive in a Dallas-area hotel room last month, got to pitch parts of six seasons in the American League, including three years with the Chicago White Sox that became the key to his public identity in life.

Hickey was a fringe ballplayer on the White Sox teams that existed back when I was in high school in the early 1980s. He later got a second stint in the major leagues with the Baltimore Orioles at the end of the decade.

With a record of 9-14 and a 3.91 earned run average and only 17 career saves (he was a relief pitcher), nobody is going to mistake Hickey for Cooperstown material.

But I’m sure there are many Sout’ Siders who wish they could do what Hickey, a Brighton Park neighborhood resident, did – which was to pitch for the “hometown” team (for those people who view everything north of Division Street as “alien” turf).

HE WASN’T A high school star – Kelly High School (just a short Archer Avenue CTA bus ride from Comiskey Park) didn’t have a team. He was one of those guys playing in the park at slow-pitch softball (at one point for a team sponsored by then-Alderman Edward R. Vrdolyak) and smacking the ball around all over the place, although he also played with the semi-pro Markham Cardinals baseball team in the south suburbs.

Which is why he was advised to show up at a “tryout” that the White Sox have from time to time to try to build goodwill in the community. A batch of guys who are too slow to play ball professionally – but don’t have the sense to realize it – show up at these events.

A few coaches watch, shake their heads at the lack of talent, and the would-be ballplayers get to say they once “tried out” for the White Sox.

But at the tryout Hickey showed up for, he showed enough talent to be deemed worthy of a contract with the White Sox’ lowest-level affiliate in the Appalachian League. He wound up being the only one of about 250 at that particular tryout to not be rejected out-of-hand.

HE WAS THE opposite of the other “local boy” who pitched for the White Sox in that era – Steve Trout, the son of former major leaguer Dizzy Trout, who was a star at Thornwood High School in suburban South Holland.

Three years later, Hickey was on the White Sox roster. Admittedly, he was potentially the 23rd ballplayer (on a 25-player roster), but he was a part of that White Sox team that in 1983 became the first Chicago ballclub ever to finish a season in first place and qualify for the playoffs.

After a baseball career that saw him wear the uniforms of the Hawaii Islanders, the Denver Zephyrs and the Phoenix Firebirds (to name a few), he was a car salesman in Columbus, Ohio (he pitched in 1984 for the Columbus Clippers).

But then in 2003, he returned to Chicago, and wound up becoming a part of the “1980s White Sox” feel that then-Manager Ozzie Guillen had with his staff. Which made him a part of the 2005 World Series-winning ballclub.

HICKEY WAS THE guy who pitched batting practice; throwing the ball up to the plate with just enough feel on it so that batters could get their timing set just prior to playing a ballgame.

It was in that capacity that Hickey was in Arlington, Texas last month with the White Sox – where they began this season of mediocrity. The man who was diabetic (just like Ron Santo) never recuperated, and that led to his death at age 56 at Rush University Medical Center.

I’m not saying that Hickey had the perfect life. Nobody has that.

But he literally led the life of many guys who would love a crack at their favorite ballclub, even if just for one game! Hickey got six whole seasons of it.


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