- Jeff Miller
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Three athletes in their late 20s -- former roommates, former pitching competitors trying to climb the long ladder from baseball's low minors toward the big leagues -- were somewhat linked again.
Eric Hacker, who appeared in three games for the Minnesota Twins early last season, was deer hunting with a buddy in the woods of Navarro County, Texas, about an hour southeast of Dallas. He came home to Corsicana empty-handed, claiming he was picky about his prey for a reason.
"I had to get home to watch Brandon," Hacker said. "I made it home right for the kickoff."
Brandon is Brandon Weeden, the senior Oklahoma State quarterback. The kickoff was the Cowboys' game at Iowa State on Friday in front of an ESPN TV audience.
Hacker and Weeden were New York Yankees draftees out of high school in June 2002, and played together through the 2003 season with the Rookie League Gulf Coast Yankees and Low-A Staten Island.
Zach Hammes was the 51st player taken in that draft, from Iowa City High by the Los Angeles Dodgers, 20 picks ahead of Weeden in the second round. They pitched together in 2004-05 for the Dodgers' Low-A team in Columbus, Ga., after Weeden was included in the trade that brought Kevin Brown to New York.
Hammes got to say a brief hello to his friend just before kickoff. With tickets in the OSU section provided by Weeden, Hammes settled in wearing the jersey of Oklahoma State's only Heisman Trophy winner, Barry Sanders.
"I'm an Iowa Hawkeye fan," Hammes said, "so it didn't do me any disservice to cheer against Iowa State."
Weeden pitched professionally in 2002-06 and never got above Low A for the Yankees, Dodgers and Kansas City Royals. He then walked on at OSU, where he'd planned to play baseball coming out of Santa Fe High in Edmond, Okla.
Weeden, now 28, and the Cowboys gave Hammes plenty to cheer about going into the early minutes of the third period. Weeden's second touchdown pass of the game built a 24-7 lead that seemed to keep OSU on pace to retain its No. 2 national ranking and keep the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Weeden at least among the leaders to win the Heisman Trophy, if not the favorite.
But the gutty Cyclones shut down OSU's high-powered offense in the rest of the second half and rallied to send the game into overtime. When a tipped ball in the top half of the second OT became Weeden's third interception, Iowa State followed with a touchdown for a stunning 37-31 victory. That capped a long day for the OSU athletic community that began by grieving the loss of women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant Miranda Serna in a plane crash the night before.
A berth in the BCS national championship game for the Cowboys? The 2011 Heisman joining that of Sanders? Both appear in jeopardy, at best, though college football allows for dramatic turnarounds even this late in a season.
Lost in Friday evening's events was Weeden adding the school career record for passing yards (8,644) to his Oklahoma State marks for completions (355) and touchdown passes (72). He has two games to play to keep compiling his impressive stats.
Weeden also ranks second among Football Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks this season in completions per game (32.27) and yards per game (373.73).
Hammes waited a day before texting Weeden to thank him for the tickets. He and Hacker are among the former baseball teammates who keep in touch with Weeden.
A few days before the Iowa State game, Weeden cited Hacker and Hammes among former baseball teammates with whom he communicates regularly but wished he'd kept in touch with more.
"A few guys text me every game day and wish me luck," he said. "I've even had some clubhouse guys or managers from my old teams send me well wishes throughout the season."
Hacker believes Weeden's maturity gets him through defeats like Friday's better than the average college football player. But he says he saw that maturity even when they were teenage rookie-ball teammates.
"That's what separates guys -- the guys that can take failure," Hacker said.
Weeden and Hacker hit it off as roommates, though Weeden was the Yankees' first draftee that summer and Hacker was taken in the 23rd round, from Duncanville High School just south of Dallas. OK, Weeden drove a new Hummer and Hacker had a Ford F-250 pickup with oversize tires.
"Who was going to drive that night depended on did we want to be cowboys or kind of cool in our Hummer?" Hacker said.
In Columbus, Hammes and Weeden were among four teammates sharing a three-bedroom apartment. "Somebody's room is the living room," Hammes said.
Hacker and Hammes noted it can be difficult for minor league teammates who play the same position to be friends.
"Do you want this guy to do really good and go up ahead of you?" Hammes said. "Minor league baseball kind of takes a lot of the fun out of the game."
Hacker also was a high school quarterback. He and Weeden constantly threw a football -- around the hotel room where the club housed the rookie-league teammates out of Tampa, Fla., across the parking lot and especially out on the sand of nearby Clearwater Beach.
"I told him the other day, 'Who would have ever dreamed from throwing the football on Clearwater Beach to doing what you're doing now?'" Hacker said. "He said, 'Man, I know.'"
Weeden, Hacker and Hammes all endured arm problems, with Hacker and Hammes undergoing Tommy John surgery and follow-up procedures. "When you throw a ball for a living," Hammes said, "injuries are just something that happen."
Hacker finally realized his dream of making the majors late in 2009, a few months after the Yankees traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He immediately received a text from Weeden.
After spending most of last season with the Twins' Triple-A Rochester, N.Y., team, Hacker is now a 28-year-old free agent. "Seeing where the apples fall," he said.
Hammes, 27, hasn't reached the majors but is still pitching, last season for the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks of the Atlantic League. His fastball is back up in the high 90s but isn't in the strike zone enough. He had to settle for independent ball last season and hopes to keep his career going in 2012 in Japan.
"I'm going to give it another year and a half, at least," he said.
Friday also was a noteworthy day for another alum of that 2004 Columbus Catfish team who keeps in touch with Weeden and Hammes. Matt Kemp, decked out in a gray three-piece suit and black velvet bow tie, appeared at Dodger Stadium to announce his new eight-year, $160 million contract.
"He's been unbelievable," Kemp said Friday of Weeden. "He's a good friend of mine and was a neighbor when we played in Columbus. Pitching didn't quite work out for him, but he used to talk about his love for football. Hopefully he's able to play it for years to come in the NFL."
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