Watching Luke Hochevar stand behind second base gathering balls from outfielders as the Low Class A Burlington Bees clean up after a round of batting practice, he just looks happy to be back on a baseball field and wearing a uniform.
As soon as the 22-year-old righthander sits in the dugout, the first thing he says confirms the assumption.
"This is awesome -- this atmosphere -- being part of a team is something I missed, you really become a family and it was really something I missed," he said as the grounds crew swept the infield before a game with the Kane County Cougars. "This is something you long for -- just to get back out there."
Just getting back out there took a little longer than Hochevar expected.
Fourteen months ago, Hochevar was one of the best pitchers in the draft, going 15-3 with a 2.26 ERA for the University of Tennessee and winning the Roger Clemens Award -- the college equivalent of the Cy Young. A run of poor starts in the postseason had some of the teams picking towards the top backing off of him, and then there was the Scott Boras factor. Represented by the agent who is almost singlehandedly responsible for the explosion in bonuses over the past 15 years, Hochevar was certain fall to a team willing to spend big money and having the patience to deal with what would surely be protracted negotiations. On draft day in June, Hochevar wouldn't hear his name until the 40th pick, when the Dodgers selected him.
As expected, talks between the Dodgers and Boras were slow, with the two sides exchanging highly divergent figures over the summer, and rarely communicating with each other as the 2005 season came to an end.
Over the Labor Day weekend, Hochevar suddenly switched agents, allowing Matt Sosnick to represent him in negotiations with the Dodgers. Sosnick quickly worked out a deal that included a $2.98 million bonus, and the Dodgers dispatched a scout with a contract for Hochevar to sign. By the time the scout arrived, Hochevar was gone, and the Dodgers were told that he once again was being represented by Boras. While Hochevar is uncomfortable discussing the details, his frustration over the situation at the time is clear.
"It was an emotional roller coaster, it was tough," reflected Hochevar. "You work hard all your life, and then to have it get all screwed up -- it was my first exposure to the business side of this game and I learned some lessons the hard way."
When the media found out, the ensuing circus was sizeable, especially considering that baseball's draft pales in comparison to the attention received by the NFL and NBA drafts. While Boras understandably had his client lay low during the frenzy, Hochevar admits it was a difficult to read the stories being written. "It ate at me a little bit, to see your character getting questioned," said Hochevar. "In a situation like that you find out who your real friends are."
With Hochevar still unsigned and negotiations with the Dodgers in limbo, Hochevar got through the tough times with support from his family, his faith, and his faith in Boras. "Scott was there the whole time," recalled Hochevar. "He stayed by my side when a lot of other people didn't. He promised me it would all work out in the end, and I trusted him."
Hochevar stayed in shape over the winter and into the spring by spending time with Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Brian Gearity in Knoxville and at Boras' own Sports Training Institute in Newport Beach, Cal.
As Boras has done with other holdout clients like Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew, he lined Hochevar up with an independent league team; the Fort Worth Cats. He'd return to the mound on May 8, just one month before the draft.
Going into May 8, Royals scouting director Deric Ladnier was facing a difficult decision. With his team finishing with the worst record the previous season, the Royals had the number one pick in the draft, and Ladnier and his staff had yet to identify an obvious candidate. "You are at the mercy of the talent level," said Ladnier about the situation. "You want someone who is going to be a part of the organization for a long time and I didn't see that guy out there. We had to select somebody, but there wasn't anybody I necessarily wanted to select with the first pick."
Ladnier went down to Texas to see Hochevar's debut, along with nearly every team's scouting director or top evaluator. "There were two things going on there," said Hochevar of his indy league stint. "I wanted to prove to everybody that I was a good pitcher, but I was also concerned with showing people that I'm not a flake."
The first part was easy, as while Hochevar struggled with his command at times, his fastball hit 97 mph, and sat at 92-95 mph. That was consistently harder than he threw in college, and his curveball often fooled opposing veteran hitters. "That first start with Fort Worth put him in the mix for us," recalled Ladnier.
As far as proving his character goes, that was going to be more difficult. By virtue of drafting him the previous year, the Dodgers retained exclusive negotiating rights with Hochevar until one week before this year's draft, so while teams could watch Hochevar pitch, to talk to him would be considered tampering by Major League Baseball.
Luckily, Ladnier has history on his side. "We had the No. 2 pick in the previous year, so we were able to scout and evaluate him then," said Ladnier. In addition, the Royals staff felt Hochevar's performance also said something about him off the field. "A lot of players sit out and get out of shape," said Ladnier. "But this kid was clearly on a mission and did everything he could to maintain his stuff considering the circumstances. That said something about his character to us."
Hochevar would make three more starts for Fort Worth, finishing with a 2.38 ERA in 22.2 innings with 34 strikeouts. When June 6 arrived, the Royals decided to take Hochevar with the top pick. "I told our people that we are not all going to agree but that a decision was going to be made," recalled Ladnier. "In the end we felt he was the best player available." In addition, Ladnier insists that the fiasco with the Dodgers didn't bother him.
"We knew there were a lot of things being said that were false," said Ladnier. "The one thing I've learned in this business is not to judge anyone until you walk in their shoes."
This time negotiations took a relatively quick two months, with Hochevar receiving a $3.5 million bonus as part of a four-year major league contract that could be worth as much as $7 million with easily reached incentives. It's more than twice the amount he temporarily agreed to with the Dodgers nearly a year ago. "Like I said before," said Hochevar. "Scott promised that it would all work out in the end. And here we are."
For now, Hochevar is in the Midwest League, at the lowest level in full-season baseball. On a limited pitch count, he's thrown 9.1 innings in three starts, with 10 strikeouts and an ERA still sitting at a perfect 0.00. "For all the time off he had, he's been well above-average," said Burlington pitching coach Steve Luebber.
"His command is coming around and he's shown a real good fastball sitting at 93-94 mph and a curveball that's a real out pitch."
While Hochevar credits the work he put in during his long layoff, he also insists that he's a better player and a better person because of what he went through. "I'm physically stronger than I've ever been in my life, but I'm mentally tougher too," he said. "I got through all of that stuff, so now when I'm facing the other team's number four hitter--that seems easy now."
Hochevar makes his final start for the Bees on Friday night, and then he'll likely pitch for Wichita in the Double-A Texas League playoffs before getting more innings in the Arizona Fall League. He'll likely begin next year in Wichita, and could be in Kansas City by midseason. While he has no personal timetable, he's excited to be part of the rebuilding effort for the once moribund Royals.
"[Royals GM] Dayton Moore and Deric and everyone I've dealt with have been great and I'm convinced that they're going to turn things around," said Hochevar, who also showed some solid knowledge of the Royals system. "I never played against Alex Gordon in college, but I played with him on Team USA, and he's one of the best hitters I've ever seen -- and have you seen Billy Butler? That guy is a monster."
As the No. 1 pick in the draft and the temporary poster boy for the new regime in Kansas City, Hochevar says he relishes the added responsibility. "I don't see it as pressure, I see it as another opportunity to succeed," said Hochevar.
"He's a special person with remarkable ability," concluded Ladnier. "I like that combination."
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