Iowa's Hickman avoided gang life to become MLB prospect
IOWA CITY, Ia. – You could argue that Blake Hickman's unlikely journey from the southside of Chicago to the University of Iowa to Major League Baseball mega-prospect began in a moment of his mother's courage.
Desiree Hickman took her three oldest boys — Justin, Christian and Blake, then age 8 as she recalls — to the front of their home at 77th and Paulina streets, which had become a gathering spot for a local gang.
"She had all of us standing out there on the porch," Blake Hickman, now a 21-year-old Iowa junior, said last week, "and said, 'These are my boys. You're not going to take my boys.' … Since then, they just pretty much left us alone."
More than a dozen years later, Hickman possesses what could become a million-dollar right arm and is a success story emblematic of the rising profile of Hawkeye baseball.
In his first year as a full-time pitcher, Hickman has rocketed up MLB draft boards behind a fastball that can reach 97 mph. Baseball America ranks him the No. 50 overall prospect for the draft — which would put him in the middle of the second round.
Baseball America's Hudson Belinsky, who watched Hickman take a perfect game into the fifth inning April 11 at Maryland, wouldn't be surprised if a big-league team snaps up Hickman among the first 30 picks June 8.
"I'd probably say there's a one-in-three chance he goes that high," Belinsky said. "Second round would be a pretty comfortable bet, though."
A player picked 30th overall would be in line for a rookie contract worth around $2 million. The top 60 are slotted for seven-figure paydays.
"When people say, 'Oh he's a top prospect.' I always have to keep it in my perspective," Desiree Hickman said. "He's just my baby."
Hickman's mom politely calls the gang activity around their home adversity. Standing up to it that day, she said, was a message.
"My boys were in my gang. They couldn't be in anybody else's gang," she said. "There wasn't never going to be a point where I felt like the streets would raise my children."
Blake never got mixed up in any of it — thanks to assists from his older influences.
"We all knew what was the right thing and wrong thing to do," Hickman said. "My brothers, they kept me on the narrow straight path.
"You see a fight, you go the other way. That's the first thing my mom told me."
Though Hickman's parents divorced when he was young, he describes both as supportive and involved in their children's lives. And sports joined family as a focal point for the kids, who became excellent athletes.
Justin, the oldest, earned a scholarship to play football at New Mexico; Christian played Division-I baseball at Alcorn State; Blake's younger sister, Morgan, plays college volleyball and will attend Eastern Illinois in the fall.
Mom's driving rule was simple yet effective: Get good grades or forget sports. Even if Blake goes pro after this year, he has an agreement with Mom to someday get his college degree.
"If you didn't do the right thing, you couldn't participate," she said. "They loved sports, and that was a way of keeping them in line."
Desiree raised six children — through adoption she added a boy (Masiah, 11) and girl (Heaven, 10) to her original four — at 77th and Paulina. She has since moved to Palos Hills, just outside of Chicago, and earns a living as a real-estate property manager.
Her son has found a welcoming home in Iowa, too. He was signed by former coach Jack Dahm, who offered him more scholarship money than the Southeastern Conference schools he considered — Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee.
Here, he felt a family atmosphere — and gravitated toward clean living despite the temptations of being 21 and a prominent, 6-foot-5, 220-pound athlete on campus.
"My support system I have back home, I just don't want to let them down," Hickman said. "Going out and getting drunk would be stopping me from my goals."
Hickman was a high school catcher who idolized big-leaguers Yadier Molina and A.J. Pierzynski (then of the Chicago White Sox, his favorite team). Even if college coaches and outsiders recommended a different position because of his strong arm — he could throw base-runners out from his knees — Hickman wanted to prove himself behind home plate.
"Everybody when I was in high school was (telling me), 'You know you're going to be a pitcher,'" Hickman said. "I'm like, 'No, I'm not — I'm going to be the next Yadi. I'm going to be the next Joe Mauer.'"
His potential as a pitcher (he was a reliever for Simeon High School in Chicago) got him drafted by the Chicago Cubs, in the 20th round, in 2012. He turned down pro dollars to come to Iowa City, where he would pursue a degree in sports management — and continue catching.
Like his mom's front-porch declaration, though, there are moments that shaped Hickman's path.
April 7, 2014, was one of them.
In Iowa's series finale against Indiana, Hickman was charged three times with a passed ball — mishandling a pitch deemed routine to catch — and the Hawkeyes lost 5-3.
Hickman said at that point, he felt God was saying his catching days were done.
"That was the time where it was, 'All right, dude, you need to do something else to help your team win,'" Hickman said.
Earlier in the year, new coach Rick Heller and pitching coach Scott Brickman recognized Hickman could help the Hawkeyes more as a pitcher. They had him throw, mostly in relief, and the results were powerful.
"He was blessed with a God-given arm," Brickman said, but added: "It was hard for him to really let go (of catching)."
After last season, Iowa's third with 30 wins in the last 21 years, Hickman committed to pitching full-time. He participated in the Cape Cod summer league, where although he was up and down in compiling a 4.91 ERA in 362/3 innings, his ups enamored scouts.
MLB.com draft expert Jim Callis ranked Hickman as a top-10 pitching prospect at Cape Cod. Belinsky said scouts love the low mileage on Hickman's arm and see an "above-average" slider to complement his fastball.
Some Cape Cod adversity was exactly what Iowa's pitching coach wanted to see. It helped Hickman learn the mental side of pitching to complement his power arm.
"(Baseball) is a game of failure," Brickman said. "Those crooked numbers, a lot of times, will get you beat. He has the ability this year to slow the game down when things aren't going the way he wants them to go."
Hickman's stock has escalated as he's mowed down Big Ten Conference hitters — and helped lift Iowa baseball into a new orbit.
The Hawkeyes (27-11) are ranked nationally for the first time since 1990 and at 10-2 are a half-game behind first-place Illinois at the midway mark of Big Ten play. A crucial three-game home series against Nebraska starts Friday at 4 p.m.
With each win, Iowa gets closer to earning just its fourth NCAA regional appearance in its history.
And in looking at Hickman's numbers, it's no wonder Iowa is a surprise Big Ten title contender. As he's developed four pitches — fastball, curveball, slider and change-up — his ERA is 2.56 and he's limiting opponents to a .206 batting average.
In four Big Ten starts, he's 4-0 with a 1.88 ERA. Hickman's parents plan to be at Banks Field for his fifth, Saturday's 3 p.m. game against the Cornhuskers.
There will be a slew of big-league scouts, too — as there were last weekend when Hickman pitched seven scoreless innings and a career-high 115 pitches against Northwestern.
"If a guy says he's not thinking about it, it's impossible. I think about it every day," Hickman said. "That's the thing that motivates me, to get up those (draft) rankings even more. But it's not something that I base my game off of. I base my game off of trying to win a Big Ten championship."
Hickman said he wants to be remembered as a Big Ten champion. Still, there's no getting around the dollar signs in front of him.
"As far as the money … I just want to give everything to my mom and my father. That's what motivates me," Hickman said. "I want to be able to take care of my family."
When told what her son said, Desiree Hickman paused to compose herself.
"I don't want anything from my son. I don't want anything from my children," she said. "I just want him to be happy. If doing this is what's making him happy, I'm very proud of him."