Blake Hickman was walking home one day from school on the south side of Chicago when he was confronted by a gang member.
“A kid walked up to me and said you’re either with us or against us,” Hickman said. “I was probably in seventh grade at the time, if that. So I didn’t know what to do. So I was just like, ‘dude, I’m not with that.’”
Hickman’s plea worked as the gang member walked away without incident, apparently feeling no threat. Hickman breathed a sigh of relief and then carried on with his life.
“I think they do stay away from guys that they see are focused,” Hickman said of gang members. “He knew that I was a kid just living life; that I wasn’t trying to get into gangs. I never got into a fight in the city or anything. That just wasn’t my lifestyle.”
Hickman was lucky as a kid growing up in a tough neighborhood in Chicago. His family helped steer him down the right path and now it’s paying dividends with Hickman emerging as a star pitcher for the Big Ten leading Iowa baseball team, which improved its records to 21-7 overall and 6-0 in the Big Ten for the first time in school history by completing a three-game sweep against Purdue on Sunday.
“My mom and my dad, were just so family-oriented and we just really care about doing the right things,” said Hickman, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound junior. “If we were hanging around the wrong people, we got away from them.”
Hickman was determined to attend college, partly because he wanted to honor the wishes of his parents and follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers.
But Hickman also had a gift for playing baseball. He was blessed with a powerful right arm that now has Hickman throwing fastballs on a regular basis that are clocked at over 90 miles per hour. He reached 97 on the radar gun in a victory over Purdue on March 28.
The Chicago Cubs thought enough of Hickman to select him in the 20th round of the 2012 Major League Baseball draft, but as a hitting prospect because Hickman mostly was a catcher in high school. Hickman decided instead to honor his commitment to Iowa, turning down a $130,000 signing bonus from the Cubs.
“At 18, it was kind of hard to turn that down,” said Hickman, who is fan of the Chicago White Sox. “But at that age, I was so happy that I realized I was not ready for pro ball.”
Hickman is showing signs now at the age of 21 that he might be ready for pro ball, but this time as a hard-throwing pitcher. He didn’t start pitching on a regular basis until last season under new Iowa head coach Rick Heller, mostly in relief.
“He made the commitment last season to pitch, and initially it was to pitch and catch,” Heller said. “That’s what I told him when I became the head coach is I said, `you know Blake, I really think your future is on the mound. But I’m certainly not going to tell you not to catch.’”
Hickman was just 4 years old when his father introduced him to the sport of baseball. Hickman enjoyed playing football more than baseball at first, but that would change over time.
By the time he enrolled at Simeon High School in Chicago, Hickman was strictly a baseball player who had a passion for being a catcher. Two of his favorite players growing up were star catchers Joe Maurer from the Minnesota Twins and Yadier Molina from the St. Louis Cardinals.
However, the opportunity to pitch always was there because of Hickman’s powerful right arm. The fact that he showed flashes of dominance while pitching on a limited basis in high school fueled the belief that Hickman ultimately would become a pitcher.
“I know in high school, scouts, my coaches, they all wanted me to pitch and I just pretty much told them no; I did not want to pitch,” Hickman said. “Whenever somebody brought it up, it made me mad because I still wanted to catch because I had favorite players like Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina and I wanted to be just like those guys.
“But in the back of my mind I knew that going to college that I was going to end up switching to pitcher.”
Hickman’s high school is known more for its basketball prowess, but baseball is hardly a sideshow at Simeon. Hickman has several former high school teammates who are currently playing college baseball.
"I know in my four years being there that baseball was huge," Hickman said.
It’s been well-documented that baseball’s popularity has suffered in large inner cities where basketball and football reign supreme. However, Chicago, according to Heller, is an exception. He started recruiting kids from Chicago while coaching at Upper Iowa.
"Chicago has always been pretty solid with inner-city baseball," Heller said.
Hickman started 29 games as a freshman in 2013, including 25 at first base, under former Iowa head coach Jack Dahm. Hickman also started four games as a catcher that season.
However, he struggled at the plate, hitting just .220.
“He just has a great arm, a big-league arm, a big-league tool,” Heller said. “As a catcher, size-wise and everything, he fit the mold, too. But his hitting wasn’t coming around. And I just felt like for his future we needed to get him on the mound because I think he maybe has a chance to pitch in the big leagues.”
Hickman has started eight games this season and has a 4-1 record. Teams are only hitting .212 against him and he has a respectable 3.13 earned-run average.
“I know last year when I was a set-up man and closer I was more like a thrower,” Hickman said. “I just wanted to blow it by people. I felt like that was my role, just try to strike guys out.
“But now that I’m a starter, my mentality has changed. I have to work on my change-up, my slider, my curve ball and spotting on my fastball. I’m just really happy to see that my hard work is starting to pay off. It’s a long season and it’s still early. So I just have to keep grinding every week.”
Hickman credits part of his success this season to paying close attention to Iowa’s No. 1 pitcher Tyler Peyton. Hickman usually starts the second game of a three-game series on Saturday after Peyton pitches the first game on Friday.
“I told him that every time he goes out there I watch him and I learn from him,” Hickman said of Peyton, who has a 4-2 record and a 2.17 earned-run average. “And when I told him that, he was so surprised.’
“But I told him, `dude, I’m new to this pitching life.’ I can see how he is getting guys out and how guys are taking pitches and how they’re swinging.”
His friendship with Peyton is one of many things that Hickman enjoys about being a Hawkeye. They come from vastly different backgrounds with Peyton being a native of Grimes.
But now they share a common goal in trying to lift the Iowa baseball program to unprecedented heights in Heller’s second season as head coach.
“It’s awesome meeting different people from different places,” Hickman said. “In high school, I never thought I’d be good friends with a kid from a small town in Iowa. Grimes, Iowa, I had never even heard of it.”
Hickman credits Heller for helping the players realize their potential and for bringing a level of confidence that was missing. The 51-year old Heller came to Iowa after having success at Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Upper Iowa.
He led the Hawkeyes to a 30-23 record last season, earning a berth in the Big Ten Tournament. The 30 victories are the most by a first-year coach at Iowa.
“Last year, he told us he wanted us to change the program,” Hickman said of Heller. “And since he got here, he has done that.”
Hickman also appreciates the impact that Jack Dahm has had on his life. Dahm coached the Iowa baseball team for 10 years before being replaced by Heller after the 2013 season.
Dahm thought enough of Hickman to offer him a full scholarship as a high school sophomore.
“Coming here with coach Dahm it really opened my eyes because he kept me humble,” Hickman said. “Before coming here he told me whatever you did in high school, it doesn’t matter because now you’re in college.
“Coach Dahm giving me a chance to come to Iowa is hands down one of the best decisions in my life. I’m definitely glad that I came here.”
Hickman said even with Iowa’s success this season it’s hard not to think about the 2015 MLB draft, which will be held June 8-10. He has improved his stock by pitching well in the Cape Cod League last summer and with his performance so far this season.
“For guys who say they don’t think about the draft, there is no way,” Hickman said. “I haven’t had a day where I haven’t thought about it. I try not to talk about it. I try to stay focused on the team.
“With coach Heller we talk about every day at practice if you don’t focus on the draft, the people in the stands and statistics and everything else, the season will go well for you. If you’re worrying about your stats, who’s watching you, who’s in the stands, it’s going to hurt you because you’ll be so worried about them that your game will just derail.”