- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Simeon’s football coaches have attempted to recruit junior Blake Hickman countless times.
They see quarterback potential in Hickman, who is 6 foot 4 and 210 pounds with a strong right arm and athleticism.
But Hickman’s dream is different.
“I keep turning them down,” Hickman said. “Everybody loves basketball and football. I wanted to be different. Baseball, that was my first love.”
Hickman, the ESPNChicago.com Muscle Milk Player of the Week. has passed up on the lure of playing in the Simeon footsteps of Derrick Rose in basketball and Martez Wilson in football and has attempted to create his own legacy in the Wolverines’ baseball program.
“I just want people to know it’s not just basketball and football that will get you places,” Hickman said. “Baseball can get you there. Baseball is an awesome sport."
Already, Hickman can be deemed a success in the Chicago White Sox’s Amateur City Elite (ACE) program. The program was designed to promote baseball within inner-city communities and give African-American players an opportunity to play and train at a high level.
Hickman, who entered the program as an eighth grader, has developed into one of the country’s premier catchers and recently accepted a scholarship offer from Iowa.
“It’s a program that develops their baseball skills, teaches them to go about the game in the right away and, more importantly, we harp on the academics,” said White Sox crosschecking scout Nathan Durst, who is involved with the program. “We raise their level of play and give them the type of instruction and development suburban kids are able to get and other places like that.
“I’m hoping Blake is the first generation of our players. I always envisioned Blake would be the first one to achieve this. I thought it was going to be a process. My feeling was if we develop players academically and athletically, give them proper coaching and instructions and run them in front of enough people, coaches will have interest in our players. If they want to win, they’ll recruit players no matter where they’re from.”
Hickman is the type of player the ACE program and Public League teams normally lose to other sports. Durst has found Chicago’s Little League systems are full of players with size and skill, but they often stop playing baseball when they enter high school.
“With the ACE program when they get to be 13 or 14, they’re going to get peeled off by other sports, especially basketball and football,” Durst said. “I don’t want kids to give up sports. I want them to play more sports. You might be Simeon’s 12th man on the basketball team, but you’re 6-5 with a loose arm and maybe a No. 1 pitcher.
“I imagine basketball and football would love to have Blake. He could wing a football with no problem. Blake is the type of player we’re trying to get at. That first fall team I had five years ago beside Blake being 6-1, the rest of the team was 5-6 to 6-foot. That tells me a lot of the better athletes had been peeled off for other sports. We have four guys now 6-4 or taller.”
Hickman and especially his defensive game caught the eye of Iowa and other schools last summer. At some of the nation’s biggest showcase events, Hickman displayed a strong arm -- he can throw from home plate to second base in 1.8-1.9 seconds -- and an ability to maneuver quickly around the plate despite his size.
Whether he has pro potential out of high school will depend on his summer. Scouts will want to see him hit better, according to Durst.
“He’s got power potential,” Durst said. “He has good bat speed. We project he’s someone who has extra-base power and can produce in the middle of the lineup. The jury is still out on his bat. It’s why this summer is so crucial on the professional level when he goes back to the Tournament of Stars and the Area Code Games.
“I think there are scouts that have definite interest. To what degree? I don’t know.”
Hickman is out to turn heads this summer and be the Simeon baseball player others can aspire to be.
“Last summer, I could have proved myself better,” Hickman said. “I didn’t have a great summer last year. I’m going to prove myself this summer.
“My coaches at the ACE program and Simeon all stand behind. They all want to see me have success, and that rubs off on me and helps me want to be a role model to other kids.”