MINNEAPOLIS — Aaron Hicks made his first rookie mistake before he even got to the ballpark for his first big league game.
Hicks, the Minnesota Twins’ 23-year-old center fielder, chose to eat breakfast at his hotel on Monday morning prior to heading to Target Field for the Twins’ season opener against Detroit. It wasn’t until he arrived in Minnesota’s clubhouse that Hicks found out breakfast was provided for all the players at the park.
“So now he knows come here early and eat breakfast,” said second baseman Brian Dozier, who debuted last season but also played in his first Opening Day on Monday. “We’re training him a little bit.”
Cut Hicks a little bit of slack, though. The Twins’ newest face is still getting acclimated to his new city and new ballpark after jumping to the biggest stage in baseball. Target Field is a bit more intimidating than New Britain Stadium, where Hicks played at Double-A last year. The Rock Cats’ park seats just over 6,000. Target Field drew over 38,000 for Opening Day on Monday.
“I’m still learning where the showers are and where all the training rooms,” Hicks said prior to his first big league game.
Before Hicks took the field in the top of the first inning Monday, he already had the admiration of a player in the other dugout — and one whose footsteps Hicks hopes to follow in.
Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter roamed center field for the Twins for 11 years and eventually saw players like Denard Span, Ben Revere and now Hicks fill his shoes. Hunter talked with Hicks on the phone two years ago when Hicks was in High-A Fort Myers.
“I told him, ‘Hey man, just believe in what you believe in and you’ll get there and do what you have to do,'” Hunter said of Hicks. “Watching him in spring training, what he was doing was very impressive. I saw the three home runs he hit in one game about two weeks ago. This guy has all the potential possible. He’s just got to put it together and get those at-bats and get that experience and I think he’ll be fine.”
As it turns out, the admiration between Hicks and Hunter is mutual. The 23-year-old Hicks said he grew up watching 37-year-old Hunter, whom he said was his favorite player. As the two center fielders were jogging on the field before warm-ups Monday, the veteran Hunter called over to youngster Hicks to share a few words.
“He was just like ‘Hey, hey, come here.’ It was fun to meet him and talk to him a little bit,” Hicks said. “Opening Day, meeting my favorite player, that’s just stuff you don’t think about when you think about your first game in the big leagues.”
Hicks’ first major league test was about as tough as he could have asked for. The Twins rookie’s first three at-bats in the big leagues came against Justin Verlander, the 2011 AL MVP and former Cy Young winner. In three at-bats, Verlander fanned Hicks three times. In Hicks’ first at-bat, Verlander increased speeds on his first three pitches before fooling the rookie with a 77 mph curveball for a swinging third strike. In the third inning, Hicks was caught looking at a 93 mph fastball, and went down swinging again in the fifth on another Verlander curveball.
It was all part of the learning curve for Hicks in his first-ever major league game.
“You’re facing one of the best pitchers in baseball, if not the best. He threw him some nasty pitches, so welcome to the big leagues,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “His first three at-bats were a little rough, but he had two really good at-bats at the end, which is what we’re looking for. He’ll be fine.”
After a groundout in the seventh, Hicks finally reached base for the first time in his career with a two-out walk in the eighth. Hicks worked a five-pitch walk against Joaquin Benoit but was eventually stranded on first to end the inning.
Despite fanning three times in three at-bats, Hicks eventually exhibited the patience he’ll need as the Twins’ leadoff hitter.
“He’s the type of guy that he’s going to be a very, very good player in his career,” Twins designated hitter Ryan Doumit said of Hicks. “It was a little bit of a tough draw (against Verlander), but I like the way he goes about his business. If you want to be the best you’ve got to play against the best. Verlander’s one of the best, so there’s not a better way for him to get his feet wet than today.”
Of the 38,282 fans in attendance Monday, none were prouder of Hicks in his debut than his parents, Joe and Jody. Joe Hicks is a former baseball player who spent eight seasons in the minors but never ascended higher than Double-A. Monday, Joe Hicks’ son made the jump from Double-A to the majors, and the Hicks family was able to share in the special day together.
“It means everything. Probably the most to my dad, since he came so close when he played,” Aaron Hicks said. “I just love being able to have my family here and enjoy this moment with me.”
Each player only gets one chance at his first Opening Day, and Hicks probably would have preferred to finish better than 0-for-4 at the plate. But he shared the field with his childhood idol and had more than a dozen family and friends in the stands to watch his major league debut.
Not bad for a first day in the big leagues.
“I enjoyed it, definitely,” Hicks said. “Unfortunately we lost, but just to be able to be out there, be around guys that love the game so much, just being where the best players are.”