The sign Peninsula Oilers catcher Mikey Hoehner was giving pitcher Caleb Hicks in the ninth inning at Coral Seymour Memorial Ballpark indicated fastball.
The response? A head shake by Hicks, followed by Hoehner changing his call to slider.
“I looked at him and (shook my head) no, and he gave me two (fingers),” Hicks recounted. “And he gave me this look like, ‘You better throw this for a strike.’”
A strike he threw.
The decision made to nail down the final out of a 4-3 win with a slider June 30 against the Chugiak Chinooks proved to be the right one, just like the Oilers’ decision to bring in Hicks this summer.
Hicks has given the Oilers a helping hand this summer with numerous relief outings on the mound, and has pitches that hover in the upper 80 to 90 mph range, but the shortstop can give the ball a ride as well.
Hicks, the son of Steve and Jen Hicks, shares the Alaska Baseball League lead in home runs this summer with six. Mat-Su’s Blake Benefield also has six long balls this summer.
Hicks said his ability to send the ball flying far can be traced back to something that every kid in sports dreams of doing on a hot summer day when school is out.
“I hit a home run when I was 8 years old, and it was a feeling I’d never had before,” Hicks said. “To this day, I think hitting the ball over the fence, or just doing something big on the field, it gives me a different kind of feeling than any other sport does.”
The St. Louis native has pieced together an impressive summer with the Oilers. He hit two dingers with five RBIs July 10 against the Anchorage Bucs, a team he enjoys seeing. Five of his six home runs this summer have come courtesy of the Bucs pitching staff.
But Hicks said the tough games interspersed between his breakout performances are what keep his mind-set on track to what he hopes to be a successful career.
“It keeps your ego in check when you have one game way up here,” he said, demonstrating with one hand above his head and the other below. “And the next game is way down here. It helps you realize somewhere down the middle is where your potential is.”
Hicks has spent the summer with billet parents Carolyn and Brian Vermette of Kenai, as well as a crop of close-knit teammates that have managed to keep cool under pressure while the ABL playoff race has reached a boiling point. As of Saturday, the Oilers are one game ahead of the postseason cutoff, occupying the fourth and final playoff spot ahead of the Chugiak Chinooks.
Heading into Saturday’s series finale with the Chinooks, who were tied with the Oilers in the ABL standings entering the day, Hicks closed out a victory with three scoreless innings of relief, helping to cement his case for a higher spot in the lineup at Murray State University (Kentucky), where he is heading into his third year.
“When we throw him out there, I feel like we have the game,” said Oilers teammate Kellen Strahm.
Hicks originally showed up at Jefferson College (Missouri) as a pitcher. The right-hander attended a showcase event following his senior season at Westminster Christian Academy and the organizers needed someone to throw the last inning of a showcase game.
Jefferson head coach Pat Evers took notice and approached Hicks in hopes of recruiting him.
“I ended up never pitching there,” Hicks said.
At Jefferson, Hicks averaged .356 with 10 homers, slugging .634 as well.
In two years at Murray State, Hicks has averaged .276 from the plate with four long shots, which makes his summer with the Oilers appear as an uptick in his batting. Hicks said his ability to hit dingers is partly good fortune but also his positive mental approach, which he changed in the summer between his sophomore and junior seasons at Westminster.
After enduring a struggle period at the plate, Hicks said it seemed at the time that the hours of work he was putting in weren’t coming to fruition.
“It never seemed to carry over to the game,” he said. “I was so hard on myself because it was a lot mentally, so I loosened up and relaxed prior to junior year.”
Hicks said earlier this summer, he asked the Oilers coaching staff about trying out his arm, and they acquiesced.
Thus far, Hicks has spun a stout 2.45 ERA in 14 2-3 innings, all in relief roles.
“It’s nice to get a change of scenery,” he said. “It’s nice to be the guy striking somebody out instead of striking out for once.”
Oilers pitching coach Kyle Brown painted Hicks as an experienced teammate that has a multidimensional understanding of the sport.
“He goes out there with a game plan with every at-bat,” Brown said. “He understands the situation when he comes up. If there’s a base open, he knows he has six home runs, he knows he’s a threat in the lineup. He’s going to go up there and change his approach.”
Brown, 31, is a former Seattle Mariners draft pick out of University of California Santa Barbara, so he knows a thing or two about what it takes to make it in the pros. Brown said Hicks helps his teammates during road trips, often just by watching the game on TV and pointing out observations.
“The kid just loves the sport,” Brown said. “He loves having fun. He just got done with the college season, then he comes out here and plays another 40 games, and he keeps the pressure off, he keeps the dugout loose and relaxed.”
When asked for a major league comparison, Brown mentioned Kike Hernandez, a utility player with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the third baseman turned shortstop isn’t shy at turning double plays.
Hicks grew up in Ballwin, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, which naturally makes him a Cardinals fan. Originally a third baseman, Hicks said his high school coach asked him to take over at shortstop after a teammate tore an ACL.
“I had a decent arm so they said, why don’t you get on the mound, and throw the last inning if we were winning,” he said. “I was able to throw hard so that was what I did.”
Westminster won state four years in a row, and Hicks played crucial roles on two of those teams, helping the school become the first to win four straight 4A titles in the state of Missouri.
In his senior year, Hicks came in to close the state title game by nailing down the final three outs.
With a solid foothold in the sport, Hicks found himself with a career decision to make. Faced with the possibility of paying his way through college with his talent on the diamond, Hicks decided to go all in, in part to help alleviate the financial burden of college on his family.
“I wanted to make it a goal of mine to play a sport and get a scholarship and make it easy for them,” Hicks said. “Learning the value of a dollar growing up, I just wanted to help.”
Strahm, who can also stake a claim to the title of best hitter on the Oilers, said Hicks’ place on the team is a no-brainer. He belongs right in the middle of the dugout.
“He’s the vocal leader on our team,” Strahm said. “I think he’s one of the best hitters.”
A good fishing buddy and a better storyteller around a fire, Strahm said Hicks’ ability to calm the team down and get the most out of an at-bat has worked wonders this summer.