In Jeremy Hellickson, Jim Hickey Sees Himself

By Robbie Knopf

No matter how well he played, no one could believe in Jim Hickey. Born in Chicago, Hickey attended the University of Texas Pan American because that was where he could get a scholarship. Hickey started as a first baseman and was frustrated that he couldn’t crack the Broncs’ starting lineup. But Hickey moved to the mound and instantly flourished. He won a combined 32 games his junior and season seasons in 1982 and 1983 as he steamrolled the competition. He posted a 1.66 ERA as a junior and tossed 16 complete games as a senior, still the 4th-most in the history of college baseball, on his way to an All-America selection. But it didn’t matter. He didn’t light up the radar guns, he didn’t dominate. His fastball was unimpressive, his changeup and his curveball just solid. Hickey fell to the White Sox in the 13th round in 1983 MLB Draft. They offered him just $1000 to sign. Hickey was shocked. He didn’t understand why everyone wrote him off from right from the start. He wanted nothing more than to prove everyone wrong.

Hickey began his career as a 21 year old with the Niagara Falls Sox of the New York-Penn League, going 7-4 with a 3.91 ERA and a 76-39 strikeout to walk ratio in 15 starts, including 2 complete games, 1 relief appearance, and 94.1 IP. Hickey was converted to a relief role the next season and quickly began to thrive on his way to an incredible season. He went 13-5 with a 1.81 ERA, 96 strikeouts, just 32 walks, and 20 saves in 49 relief appearances and 99.1 IP. He had found his niche as a pro in he hoped that he could continue to succeed and work his way to the major leagues.

The White Sox saw Hickey’s success and waffled about how to pitch him. They had Hickey switch off between starting and relieving all season, and Hickey couldn’t handle it. Overall he went 7-6 with a 3.86 ERA in 10 starts, including 4 complete games and a shutout, 15 relief appearances, and 93.1 IP. However, his strikeout to walk ratio was just 39-42. Nevertheless, the White Sox decided to bring up Hickey to Triple-A Buffalo, and the results were even more disastrous as he posted a 7.71 ERA in 6 relief appearances and 1 start. Just 23 years old, Hickey’s career had begun to fall apart. He would never make it to Triple-A again, bouncing around with the White Sox, Dodgers, and Astros organizations before retiring at age 27 in 1989

In 1996, HIckey returned to baseball as a pitching coach in the Astros minor league system. He worked his way up the system, ascending to Astros pitching coach in 2004. In 2006, he accompanied Joe Maddon to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as his pitching coach part of the reformed Rays staff. He has been the Rays’ pitching  coach ever since.

In 2011, it had to strike a chord in Hickey when he heard what people said about Rays rookie Jeremy Hellickson, who was on his way to the AL Rookie of the Year award. They said that despite his success in terms of wins and ERA, Hellickson’s success wasn’t sustainable.He didn’t miss enough bats and he couldn’t even force contact on the ground. It didn’t matter how well he had pitched. He was written off and dismissed. Hickey understands what’s it like to be under such scrutiny. He understands what it’s like to have people question you until it gets to your head. Hickey failed. What had started as a promising career fell apart. Hickey is going to do everything he can to make sure Hellickson doesn’t succumb to the same fate.