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VOL. 42 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 3, 2018

Turning ‘what might have been’ into ‘what might be’

Hard-luck pro baseball player turns to coaching rising stars

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Ricky Hague works with one of his pupils at Nashville Baseball Academy on Allied Drive. Hague had to give up a promising career when he suffered a shoulder injury during his fifth professional game.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

From the exterior, the low-slung building among the industrial warehouses and the like on Allied Drive bears no resemblance to Kevin Costner’s famous Iowa cornstalk-surrounded “Field of Dreams.”

But for Ricky Hague, a Nashville-based commercial and residential Realtor, it is just that (without the corn and “Shoeless Joe” Jackson), because inside, where green turf and batting cages fill the building, he is living out his own revised dreams while creating others … one kid at a time.

“I love coaching,” says Ricky, who works with players from elementary school through high school, teaching the bat-versus-ball mechanics and sharing the throwing and fielding tips and brain-training he learned as a young man growing up in Spring, Texas, outside Houston.

The same basic skills that took him to the cusp of his youthful dreams, playing in the Bigs, are those he’s now helping instill in the hearts and minds of the kids he teaches at Nashville Baseball Academy.

“He’s great,” says Rob Roder, as he watches his 6-year-old son Andrew try to launch balls pitched softly to him by Ricky. “He’ll make a good dad once he wants to do that.”

Rob adds that he’s seen the difference in his son’s skills after just a little while working with Ricky. “Andrew has good hand-eye coordination, but he is able to swing like a baseball player now.”

“Three more balls and then we’ll go work on fielding,” Ricky says as the kid swings and misses. “You’re doing good.”

In a separate conversation, Ricky’s voice even smiles when he talks about what he’s doing to help these youngsters. It’s the same kind of help he got when he was growing up with a good glove and a slugger’s mentality.

“Every kid dreams of making it in Major League Baseball,” Ricky adds.

He almost did, hitting in the mid-.200s and even into the mid-.300s in the minor leagues after a stellar college career: He earned the shortstop’s spot on Team USA after his sophomore year at Rice University, where he honed his game while playing for one of the nation’s elite college baseball programs.

He looked to be a shoo-in when he was drafted by the Washington Nationals. A bit of dusting-off in the minors, and he was expected to, well, if not be the “next big thing” in Major League Baseball, he was at least on course to be a quality shortstop and slugger.

A torn labrum – “that’s what holds your shoulder to the socket,” is how he describes it, matter-of-factly – altered the course of his dreams.

“I was five games into my first season in the minors,” says Ricky, who admits the scouts and coaches, many of whom had been following his progression for years, were “excited about” him when he was drafted in the third round by the Nationals in 2010.

“My first full season was with the Potomac Nationals in Woodbridge, Virginia, near D.C. It was in April, freezing cold outside. I slid head-first into second base, and my right shoulder exploded out of the socket.

“That’s when I had the big-time labrum surgery,” recalls the now-29-year-old Realtor and part-time baseball coach for youths at owner Chip Cruze’s Nashville Baseball Academy, the non-descript building that houses turf fields of dreams, decorated by baseball equipment, pitching machines and batting cages.

It’s obvious from watching him cheer on these youngsters, while showing them how to shift their weight in the batters’ box, that Ricky loves these kids. It’s likely part of the tonic that keeps him from dwelling on his own shoulder-busted dream.

“Don’t look back,” as Satchel Paige advised. Ricky really doesn’t, at least not in anger, and he describes his fall easily and without a hint of the bitterness of a man whose perceived purpose in life was swiped when his base-running instincts told him to take that head-first slide.

He didn’t realize it then, but that was the end of his planned glory days in the majors.

It actually was his second labrum surgery. He had the same injury on his left arm when he was a freshman in college.

That kept him out of games at Rice and even made him just a roster name on the 2008 Team USA (he recovered in time to play in 2009), but it wasn’t a dream-killer.

“It wasn’t my throwing arm,” Ricky points out.

He turns quiet, though far from melancholy, for a few moments when he talks about the injury to his right arm.

“I was a shortstop, and that was my throwing shoulder,” he says. “The rehab after the surgery took forever. But they (his bosses with the Nats organization) were pretty optimistic.

“I still had a pretty good year the following year when I got back to high-A (advanced Class A ball). I was hitting everything.

“You could feel the excitement. There’s a momentum that goes into it when you sit out a year and a-half in the middle of your rise, though,” he says. That momentum was not in the right direction, it turns out.

“I played well, but not as well. Kind of a fade.”

He continued as a slugger in various minor league ports – high-A, AA and AAA – for the next five years before the Nationals organization cut him loose just prior to the 2016 season.

Roster spots were filled throughout the major and minor-league systems, so he played that sixth pro season with the Sugarland Skeeters, an independent, non-affiliated team that served, among other things, as a “one-last-chance” stopping point, or at least a purgatory, for stubborn major leaguers on their way down and for still-hope-filled, but battered, young guys like Ricky.

He found great joy with the Skeeters. “There was no pressure. I was having the most fun I ever had in baseball.” He still had dreams of the Bigs, but the Skeeters stint turned out to be Ricky’s last stand.

“The day after that season ended, in August 2016, when I thought my baseball career would be over, my wife (an aspiring country artist … more on her later) and I took a U-Haul, loaded it up and moved up here (to Nashville). I still had one semester of school to finish, so I went to MTSU for a semester” while she began finding her place as a singer-songwriter, chasing her own dreams of center stage glory.

His short turn at Middle Tennessee State was to complete the last 12 hours needed for the economics degree he had begun at Rice before he was drafted by the Nationals after his junior year.

“Most top-round picks go after their junior year,” adds the young man who got a $420,000 signing bonus after the Nationals drafted him as the third-round, 83rd overall pick.

Guys considered top prospects – as he was – generally enter the draft at the end of their junior seasons in college as “a negotiating tool,” he says. “You can go back to school if you don’t like the numbers and play your senior year.”

His own numbers were OK – enough so he accepted the cash – but he admits they could have been better.

“My junior year wasn’t as good as I had hoped. The summer before, I had played for Team USA and led Team USA in hitting (.373).

“Everyone (in professional baseball) was high on me … But the most important time, when the scouts are watching, is the junior year, and that’s when I struggled at the beginning of the season.

“I got off to a slow start. I was always a streak hitter. Sometimes I was hitting everything, sometimes I wasn’t doing as much. I let the pressure (the scouts’ and his own expectations) overwhelm me. It took me a while to get back” to hitting consistently.

There was a cost. Sure the $420K was nice money, but he knows he could have gotten more if his play had been better.

“It didn’t help me get the biggest number (cash), but it was enough.” And the future in the Bigs was pretty much a certainty for both him and for those who signed him.

After all, the scouts had been watching him since his starring days at Klein Collins High School in his hometown.

Big things were expected of this kid, who had turned down a “37th or 38th round” pick by the Milwaukee Brewers right out of high school in order to play at Rice, improve his game, hoping to bank good numbers on the stats charts (he did that) and in his bank account.

“I was probably a few players away” from making it to the big leagues, but after the injury he no longer was a superior shortstop, abilities abbreviated by the torn labrum in that fifth game in Woodbridge.

After that recovery, “I played some shortstop,” the infield position from which he dazzled in high school, college and on Team USA. “But I ended up playing second, short, third and left field.”

Sure, he was supposed to be a Major League shortstop, but he’d lost that sliver of an advantage because of his injury.

“Shortstop is the most action in the field, covers the most range. You have to be able to make the toughest throw from deep shortstop in the hole. If you’re not able to make that play, you’re not a big-league shortstop.”

Even though he had a solid career in the minors, his arm never regenerated into what it was before his injury. The other infield and outfield positions were less-dependent on the rapid-fire, sometimes off-balance-but-surgically-precise throwing demanded of a world-class shortstop.

Andrew Roder, 6, enjoys his sports drink as his lesson ends and he and dad, Rob Roder, speak with Ricky Hague. Little sister Ava Roder, 3, is a future star, according to her pop. “She might be even better.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

For example, he points out “The left-fielder only throws hard once in a game.”

The great shortstops “go deep in the hole and are expected to make that play” that makes ESPN highlight reels. “They are normally that back-handed play. Jump like Jeter and make the play across the diamond.”

He no longer could do that. “Not consistently,” Ricky acknowledges.

Still, he fashioned good stats as he kicked around Class AA and Class AAA for a few years before he was dropped by the Nationals and pinned his hopes on the comeback at Sugarland, where he hoped he would again catch the eyes of the scouts and get one more big-time shot.

The love of his life was along for most of that ride. Lindsay James – now chasing Music Row dreams under the moniker “L.J.” – and Ricky’s bond has deep roots.

“I met her in sixth grade at church camp,” he says of the now Mrs. Hague. “We lived about an hour apart, kind of like the distance between Franklin and Hendersonville.” Any prepubescent flames were doused by years of separation.

“We remet in college, before junior year. She was at the University of Houston. She had a friend who played on the soccer team at Rice. Through friends, we remet.

“We spent about a year and a-half dating. Nine months of engagement. We married in 2011.”

While she traveled a lot with her minor league husband, she pursued her own dreams. “She was coming back and forth to L.A. at that time, writing and recording music.”

Support for her aspirations was why she and Ricky, sensing his career was ending, moved to Nashville a day after the Skeeters’ final out in 2016.

Ricky still hadn’t given up completely. “I thought I had a shot …. In the off-season is when people get added to teams. We just would call Nashville home,” while waiting for the calls that never came.

After he finished his economics degree, he followed the advice of a lot of his old ball-playing colleagues and got into real estate, first at Priam Capital and now at Parks Realty.

“It’s been good,” he says of his new career. “It’s all about making connections and, you know, the more relationships you have, the better business you do.

“I’m hoping to grow with my relationships in Nashville. … I like being around people. People seem to trust me. It’s ‘Hey, I need to make a big life decision and I will trust you to help me do it.’”

Lindsay’s “been blowing doors open. She’s extremely talented. People are excited. They want to be onboard. It’s good.”

He goes on to proudly proclaim that her publishing company, Red Creative, is fronting the plan for her to record a single, to be released in October.

“The song hasn’t been chosen yet. She’s been writing four or five songs a week. She’s got 40 or 50 songs to choose from and they’ll narrow it down to five” before picking the one that could launch her.

He says her position is reminiscent of his baseball career. “It’s all about ‘are you a top prospect or are you not a top prospect?’ It’s the same momentum, the same energy that goes into being a top baseball prospect.

“That same excitement from a team is the same excitement from a publishing deal and a record label. It’s like the front office getting excited for you.”

Back in the cage, Ricky is working with J. Wesley, whose dad, James, asks their last name not be used.

J. Wesley – who insists he be referred to as being “9 and a-half,” demonstrates his swing a couple of times when I ask what he has learned from Ricky.

“Ricky’s great with keeping him on track,” says dad James. “He’s learned great technique for hitting. It’s improved a ton with Ricky.

“Ricky makes it fun for him. This isn’t work every Saturday.”

As for the coach, well he’s following another dream. No longer a player, but as a teacher. One thing he wants to do is give group lessons to entire teams. But he loves the one-on-one equation at NBA.

“I just wanted to coach. I know I’m good at it,” Ricky explains. “If I was in Houston, I might be a coach at Rice or a volunteer coach with the Astros ….”

Another dream is to run an off-season training center for professional athletes who live around Nashville. “I know what a facility is supposed to look like and I know how it should be run.”

Of course, right now he is proud to have the chance to work for Cruze at NBA and to be helping young folks hone the skills that had him one ill-fated slide shy of “getting his cup of coffee,” as they say, in the Bigs.

“I’m good at understanding where the kid is at … to be able to teach the right mannerisms for the player.”

He smiles. “I’ve created relationships with a whole family in a bunch of situations. Now the parents are calling me and saying ‘Hey, my son is doing this, what do you recommend?’

“I remember the coaches I liked. You remember them forever. It’s a great feeling to have that impact.”

He smiles, rather than winces, when the subject of that head-first slide is mentioned.

“I’m definitely not bitter,” he adds. “There are times when I’m watching games and I say ‘Man, I could still do it.’ I believe that had things been a little different with the Nationals, I could have helped a team in the big leagues.

“Course, you always look at yourself more favorably in the past. You think, ‘Man, I was a real stud.’”

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