Long Way Back
Hancock back on mound after four-year layoff
When Josh Hamilton overcame drug addiction and returned to major league baseball after four seasons away from the game, not many people disagreed with Peter Gammons' assessment of Hamilton's path. In an ESPN segment, Gammons said, "There will never be another guy to be away from the game for three or more years and make it to the big leagues."
But not many people know Kyle Hancock's story. And unlike Hamilton, who played two minor league seasons, Hancock didn't step between the white lines the last time he put on a baseball uniform. Now, Hancock is trying to prove any doubters wrong, just like Hamilton did, using Gammons' words as his inspiration to make it to the big leagues.
"There's not a day goes by that I don't think about what he said," Hancock said. "That makes me want to work. That makes me want to get to the field early. That's my motivation."
Drugs didn't drive Hancock away from the game like they did Hamilton. He simply walked away before throwing a single pitch. Now, Hancock is trying to get his career back.
"Four years ago, he was a 17-year-old kid, he had a good fastball, or plus-plus, and he had a quality breaking ball at that time and he was very projectable," Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt said of Hancock, who will turn 22 on Aug. 20. "We thought he was going to go on to play professionally. I don't know if anyone thought any different."
Too Much, Too Soon
Both Hamilton (first overall, 1999, Rays) and Hancock (third round, 2005, Rockies) were selected out of high school. Hamilton was a five-tool outfielder, whereas Hancock was a righthanded starting pitcher with dynamic stuff. Hancock went 12-1, 0.90 for Rowlett (Texas) High during his senior year and was ranked Baseball America's 34th-best prep prospect. After being selected by Colorado, Hancock visited Coors Field on Aug. 1 for a meet-and-greet with the front office as well as a physical.
The next day, Hancock took a flight to Idaho Falls and met up with his Rookie-level Casper teammates on a road trip. Then, Hancock took an eight-hour bus trip to Orem for a three-game series, an experience that didn't sit well with the 17-year-old.
Two days and one bullpen session later, Hancock was on a flight home to suburban Dallas.
"I was on the bus thinking, 'What did I get myself into?'" Hancock said. "I needed to grow up, that's basically what it comes down to. I was ready for it physically, but not mentally . . . Leaving was the hardest thing I ever had to do."
Hancock walked away from a $460,000 signing bonus and an opportunity to pursue his dream. He hoped by not accepting money he would maintain his amateur status and be allowed to play at Arkansas, where he had committed to college. But the NCAA denied his appeal. As difficult as the decision was for Hancock to walk away, it was just as surprising for the Rockies.
"Any time you have a player with the draft and signings, there's so much feelings of anticipation," Rockies assistant general manager Bill Geivett said.
Hancock studied at North Texas during his time away from the game and is two semesters from a degree in business. He pitched in the Dallas Area Baseball Association and served as an instructor for 11-year-olds. During the same time, former Casper teammates, including Eric Young Jr. and Dexter Fowler, made it to the big leagues.
For the last three years, Hancock was forgotten—Geivett said he figured Hancock would never pitch again. Still, the decision to leave and the desire to play baseball never left Hancock.
"There wasn't a day that went by where I thought 'what if I had stuck it out?' or 'what if I went to school?'" Hancock said. "That's what I went to bed with every night. That definitely weighed on my mind, I never thought it would take me this long to get back into baseball."
A Second Chance
That desire is why Hancock started calling Colorado in October of last year, begging for an opportunity to pursue the same dream he passed up three years ago. After a relentless pursuit, including a petition to the commissioner's office and the Rockies removing him from the restricted list, Hancock was cleared to play in February when he reported for spring training.
So the Rockies gave Hancock the same opportunity they gave him four years ago: a chance to pitch for their short-season team in Casper, after he fought through the team's extended spring in Tucson, Ariz.
"Looking back, it wasn't that bad. It's the same bus, it's the same field, it's the same people," Hancock said. "Nothing has changed. It wasn't anything to make you get up and leave your dream."
But clearly something, or someone, has changed. Hancock had three years to be away from the game and mature.
"He showed up and he didn't look intimidated at all, his composure was impressive. He really opened a lot of people's eyes," Casper manager Tony Diaz said. "Just the fact that everybody knew what he had done, to show everybody in the organization what he was capable of doing was quite impressive. Then, in extended spring program he was lights out."
But it wasn't Hancock's stuff, composure or maturity level that impressed the Rockies most. It was his dedication and passion to the game. Now, he was ready for it.
"You can tell that this is a kid who was given a second chance and he's going to fight as much as he can to not let it slip away this time," Diaz said. "Young kids make mistakes—Josh Hamilton made a mistake—but this country is built on second chances anyway."
Hancock has flashed an 88-93 mph fastball that sits at 90-91 and a 12-to-6 curveball in the upper-70s. It's a similar repertoire to what he showed scouts in high school. Through two starts, Hancock was 0-2, 13.50 with six strikeouts and no walks. Though the numbers weren't where Hancock may have hoped, he's shown glimpses of dominance, including a four-inning stretch in his second outing where he did not allow a run on six hits.
All parties said 2009 would be a transition year for Hancock. He has to throw every day, pitch every fifth day and manage the game—a change for any new professional pitcher, but Hancock hasn't been intimidated by it.
"All I wanted was an opportunity to play the game," Hancock said. "I want to pitch until a doctor tells me I can't throw any more or I just find out I'm not good enough."
The challenge Hancock faces is undeniable. Schmidt said that some might identify Hancock as more of a suspect than a prospect now because of his age and experience level. But Hancock has already overcome a different, and possibly bigger, kind of obstacle.
"Every year I went through a battle," he said. "The first year I wanted to go but at the same time I didn't think I was ready. The second year I was heading into school, I had a good job, and maybe I said it was past me. The third year, I said I wanted to do it again and not look back. I didn't want to say I never gave it a shot."
Hancock is giving it a shot, just four years removed from walking away from the game. Geivett said from what he has seen, Hancock has the physical ability, stuff and makeup to make it to the major leagues, just like Hamilton did.
"No matter what we think of what happened at the beginning of it, it's never where you start, it's where you finish," Geivett said. "I think he's going to finish in a good place. At the end of all this, it's going to be a very good story."