Mariners catcher prospect John Hicks played youth baseball with Russell Wilson and saw the same skill set back then.
PEORIA, Ariz. — If John Hicks weren’t such a compelling Mariners prospect, he’d make a good Russell Wilson historian.
Hicks doesn’t just know the Seahawks quarterback. He played youth baseball with him. He can tell you about Wilson at age 13, when the now-undersized star was actually the biggest kid on the team.
On the Riverdogs, a traveling squad from Richmond, Va., Wilson was too big and overpowering. Hicks, a catcher, marveled at what a young Wilson could do on the mound. Wilson threw in the low-to-mid 80s. “For a 13-year-old, that’s pretty good,” Hicks said. And Wilson was too athletic to handle in all areas of the game. Hitting, fielding — he did everything at a high level.
“Believe it or not, he was big,” said Hicks, 23, who is a year younger than Wilson. “I think he hit his growth spurt a little earlier than everyone else. Obviously, he had a lot of talent, and I think he matured a little quicker than everyone else. He was kind of a step above a lot of people.”
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Hicks and Wilson played together for two years. Then it was time for high school. Wilson went to Collegiate School, a preparatory school in Richmond, where he became a three-sport star in football, baseball and basketball. Hicks kept track of his former teammate at nearby Goochland High School.
Later, Wilson chose to attend college at North Carolina State, and Hicks chose Virginia, a fellow Atlantic Coast Conference member. It meant their baseball teams would battle. With a grin, Hicks recalls getting two hits off Wilson during a game in 2010.
“As you can tell from football, he’s got a great arm,” Hicks said of Wilson. “He was a low-90s guy who had a good slider in college. I actually remember both hits I had against him. One was a double down the line. And I singled off him. One pitch was a fastball, and the other was a slider. He had pretty good stuff.”
In June 2010, the Colorado Rockies selected Wilson in the fourth round of the draft, even though he hadn’t been able to commit to baseball full time at N.C. State. The Rockies loved his raw talent and wanted to groom Wilson as a second baseman.
Wilson wound up playing 93 games of low-level minor-league baseball over two summers, hitting only .229 with 118 strikeouts in 315 at-bats before devoting himself to football. He transferred from N.C. State and attended Wisconsin his senior season, and he led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl while setting a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision record for passing efficiency.
Now, after an amazing and unexpected rookie season in Seattle, Wilson is the Seahawks’ franchise quarterback. He has the city dreaming of a Super Bowl. And he has Hicks shaking his head and beaming with Richmond pride.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Hicks, who still has a friendly relationship with Wilson. “I’ve always wished the best for him, and it’s awesome to see him have the success that he’s having. I always thought he was going to be a baseball player. I mean, with football, everybody said he was too small. But being the great athlete that he is, he put up good numbers in football as well. I can remember him at Collegiate dropping back to pass, running to his right to avoid the defense, then running all the way back to his left, and then completing long passes for touchdowns. He was spectacular.”
Come to think of it, Wilson does that a lot in the NFL, too.
“He’s incredible,” Hicks said, laughing.
Wilson has captivated the city that Hicks hopes to play in someday. The Mariners drafted him in the fourth round in 2011. If not for Mike Zunino, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Hicks would be talked about as the Mariners’ catcher of the future.
He has an extraordinary skill set. He’s 6 feet 2 and weighs 210 pounds, and he’s lean and athletic. Hicks looks like an outfielder and runs like an outfielder (22 stolen bases in Class A High Desert last season), but as a catcher, he brings a strong defensive presence. A year ago, he led the minor leagues by throwing out 53.8 percent of runners who tried to steal bases on him.
Hicks also hit .321 with 15 home runs and 79 runs batted in in 121 games last season, his first full year as a pro. Not long ago, the Mariners looked bare at catcher throughout the organization. Now, they have 23-year-old Jesus Montero starting in the big leagues, with Zunino and Hicks developing quickly. All of a sudden, they are loaded with high-quality catching talent.
“When I came in, I don’t think the catching depth was as strong,” said Hicks, who is 5 of 9 at the plate this spring. “It was definitely not as it is now. So I knew I was coming into a great opportunity, and now we have a bunch of great catchers, so it’s been fun to work with them.”
It would be even more fun if Hicks joins Wilson in Seattle soon. And though Wilson hasn’t grown as much the past 11 years, Hicks will still arrive expecting Wilson to be the biggest star on the field.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.