WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Players don't die when they're released, but sometimes it feels as though they do: The sudden disappearance from the clubhouse, a locker raked clean of clothes and gloves, the ghoulish way that people instantly speak of them in the past tense. Did you hear about Joe? That's what everyone says, chillingly, as if some awful accident has occurred.
Kevin Hickey got the word early yesterday. Roland Hemond sat him down at the Orioles' hotel and told him. Some players see it coming. Hickey had no idea. It was a thunderbolt. He thought he had the team made. Just the day before he had pitched the last inning without allowing a run, another good outing, his fifth this spring, and sprinted to the clubhouse all jazzed up, palpably ready to get the season started, c'mon, c'mon already.
Teammates patted his shoulder after that game, good job, hey, hey, Hick Man. "Looked pretty good out there," I said to him. He nodded, yeah, he always loved a compliment, and started chattering about getting out left-handers, throwing strikes. He was always wound up, gabbing, a beating heart. And then, just one sunrise later: Gone, an empty locker, the word spreading: Hey, hear about Hickey?
"It's a cruel game," Elrod Hendricks was saying. He is the Orioles' bullpen coach, spent most of the past two seasons with Hickey, was standing by the batting cage yesterday with his foot up on the net, a little sad. "Hick did everything we asked, worked hard, deserved better. But it's just like when he came along two years ago and took someone's job. Someone took his."
Mike Flanagan did, and will be the Orioles' only lefty to start the season. You knew Hickey would not take the news well. He could talk himself into believing he could do anything, which is what happens when scouts find you on a softball diamond in Chicago and you wind up making the major leagues. He was truly a positive thinker, vaguely out of shape, three times released, yet utterly convinced that no one in baseball was better at his job.
There was about him this wonderful and human mixture of confidence and insecurity. He was always touting himself, knew his stats, the good ones at least, yet when the club brought in another left-handed reliever to challenge him this spring, he would take a reporter aside each time the other guy got hit hard. "Kilgus not looking too good, eh?" he'd say with a small smile, the kind of self-promoting, slightly jealous comment the rest of us might make.
That was the thing about Hickey. He wasn't on automatic pilot, wasn't aloof, superior, didn't stare blankly over your head when he spoke to you, as if you didn't exist. He was built of bones, not steel. He made mistakes and hated them, wore them. He pumped his fist and shouted when the going was good. He was alive. Sometimes it is hard to tell these days.
He was playing softball and working as a hod carrier at a steel mill when he came to a White Sox tryout camp and threw a 90 mph fastball that hit the catcher in the face mask. He signed a contract, spent a couple of summers at Appleton and Glens Falls and got invited to spring training. The Sox bought him a plane ticket, he cashed it in, put the money in his pocket and helped drive the equipment truck south to Florida. Then he made the team.
He stuck for two seasons, lost his velocity and bounced around the minors for five years, Denver, Albany, Reading, Portland. The Orioles signed him in 1988 and he almost got released that July, but he got better and managed to last the season. The next spring he got invited to the big-league camp, and suddenly his velocity was back. He got Don Mattingly out in a tough situation, caught Frank Robinson's eye and, by golly, made the team.
"That night against Mattingly we'd run out of pitchers and the game went into extra innings and Kevin had to stay in," Hemond said, "and one of his daughters was celebrating her second birthday that night and she was behind the backstop yelling 'Go, Daddy!' and he got out Mattingly, it was just a terrific thing to watch."
The rest has been in all the papers. He was hell on left-handed batters throughout 1989, in many ways a symbol of that impossible season, and kept it up for a while in 1990. But then he started getting hit and wound up in Rochester, magic fading. He thought he could get it back and pitched well this spring, but Flanagan was better and the club just has too many pitchers to carry a lefty-on-lefty specialist who comes in to get one out. The club might regret it, but that's no consolation now.
The news had Hickey in tears, as you might imagine. "They might as well take a K-48 and drive it through my heart," he said, the disappointment out there for all to see, on his face like a bad dream, and in the clubhouse and around the batting cage people were shaking their heads, not because they didn't understand, but because it was just sad that it was Hickey's locker that was empty.
"I'm going to miss him, period," Hendricks said. "He appreciated what it meant to be in the big leagues. Not many guys . . . well, I shouldn't say 'not many,' but not enough appreciate what it means these days. Hick had the reputation as a joker, but what he really was was a professional. He knew what it took, that you
TC had to work to stay here. It doesn't seem right, but it happens. This is a great game, but days like this, they're bad."