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The rain fell like big wads of spit on Saturday, the day Joe Hicks returned to Des Moines to be honored for his hitting prowess two decades ago. Hicks got used to waiting in the late 1980s, when his record-setting performance as an Iowa Cub failed to stir the interest of the front office in Chicago, who already had an offensive-minded player named Leon Durham playing first base.
So maybe it was fitting that Hicks never got a chance to throw out the first pitch or to sign autographs for the few hundred fans between games of a doubleheader on Joe Hicks Day. Hicks' career was all about waiting.
When he barreled into the press room on Saturday with his wife, Karla, and kids Michael and Jodi, nobody took much notice. The beat reporter from the Des Moines Register was watching the pro football draft on ESPN and most of the employees seeking refuge from the rain were more interested in the big tins of pasta the organization had set out than they were in Hicks.
Still, it's one of those mysteries of baseball that Hicks never even got a whiff of The Show. Hell, the I-Cub record book wouldn't be the same without him. He hit more home runs and collected more RBIs than any player in franchise history; collected the third-most hits (1661); the fifth-most doubles (85); and the fourth-most runs scored (244) in the 25-year history of the club.
When he returned to Principal Park in Des Moines last weekend, it was the first time he had been back Iowa since leaving the I-Cubs in 1989. His hair has turned to the color of steel and his waistline has expanded some, but his love for the game hasn't diminished much. Hicks was scheduled to throw out the first pitch of the doubleheader against the Memphis Redbirds and to sign autographs between games, which he would spend in a boxed seat reliving old memories.
"I loved every minute of it," he says of his time in Iowa. "When I was drafted by the Cubs in the first round I wasn't even expecting to be drafted. It was a thrill, just an absolute thrill."
Hicks started his playing career at Florida State in 1977 but was drafted after two years of college. After he signed with the Cubs, he spent his first season in rookie ball and was paid $99 a month, not even enough to cover basic living expenses.
By 1981 he had climbed to Triple-A ball, playing in Iowa for the first time during the club's last year as the Iowa Oaks. (The next season the team became the Iowa Cubs.) He was a consistent hitter for Iowa, many years one of the league's home run hitters. But the Chicago Cubs were building an offense around left-handed hitters and didn't have room for a right-hander like Hicks. At the end of the 1985 season, he became a free agent on the minor-league market. Fifteen teams offered him contracts to join their farm systems. The best offer came from Oakland, who tempted him with the promise of getting at-bats with the major league club as a pinch-hitter against lefties. But the Hankyu Braves offered him $500,000 to come play in Japan.
"It was the toughest decision I ever made," he says. "I finally had a chance to play major league ball. But league minimum was $42,000 and I thought that if I had a good experience in Japan, other opportunities would present themselves."
In Japan, Hicks hit 22 home runs for the Braves but was released at the end of the season. Japanese teams only allow two foreign players on a roster and Hankyu sent him home to make room for a relief pitcher they wanted. After drifting around baseball for two more years, he spent a final season with the I-Cubs.
When his career was over, he returned to college. Now, he and his wife operate a chiropractic clinic in Kokomo, Indiana, and are just beginning a side business selling nutritional supplements.
When the game was in doubt on his special day last weekend, Hicks offered that his departure time on Sunday was late enough that he could probably return for at least part of a make-up game the next day. But the rain fell again and the games were cancelled, so Joe Hicks will have to continue to wait for his day in the sunshine.
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