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Yankees Magazine: Change Up

Ten years as a pro finally led to October baseball for Aaron Hicks. So what did he do differently to prepare for 2018? Nearly everything
Yankees Magazine

Aaron Hicks was in need of a comeback. A few miles from his home in Phoenix, the budding Yankees star -- and talented golfer -- took a break from his rigorous offseason conditioning program for a round of golf against his older brother.

Joe Hicks, who admittedly does not usually keep pace with the 28-year-old center fielder on the golf course, was actually leading his younger brother on this sunny mid-winter Arizona afternoon. On the first hole, the elder Hicks sunk a birdie putt, while Aaron followed with a bogey.

Aaron Hicks was in need of a comeback. A few miles from his home in Phoenix, the budding Yankees star -- and talented golfer -- took a break from his rigorous offseason conditioning program for a round of golf against his older brother.

Joe Hicks, who admittedly does not usually keep pace with the 28-year-old center fielder on the golf course, was actually leading his younger brother on this sunny mid-winter Arizona afternoon. On the first hole, the elder Hicks sunk a birdie putt, while Aaron followed with a bogey.

Things didn't get much better for Aaron on the second hole, where he was again outdone by Joe. This time, as Joe nailed a putt for par, the good-natured sibling rivalry began to take shape.

"You've got to bring the heat," Joe said. "I get it done when I have to."

While Joe's confidence was quickly increasing, Aaron honored his end of the bargain, dropping to the ground and doing 10 pushups for the second hole in a row.

As Joe walked to the third tee box at Wildfire Golf Club, a picturesque course ringed with mountains and filled with cacti and palm trees, he was suddenly reminded of the advantage he had over his brother.

"C'mon, Joe," yelled Abdul Sillah, a longtime trainer who Aaron recently hired to work with him throughout the offseason in an effort to help take his baseball game to the next level. "You're teeing off from the baby hole. You need to step up to the adult hole."

"Be quiet, Abdul," Joe responded through a laugh, as he got ready to unleash his fury on a golf ball from what was indeed a tee box for younger and more inexperienced golfers. "I'm going to crush this ball just like I did the last two."

Joe succeeded in hitting the ball a long way, but it didn't travel in the direction he wanted it to go and instead landed far to the right of the green. His next stroke sent the ball into a sand trap, while Aaron quickly got his second attempt onto the green.

With the tides turning in Aaron's favor, Joe provided the funniest moment of what was already a jovial afternoon. Aaron and Abdul stood in an area that seemed to be far enough from the green to ensure that they would be out of harm's way, but Joe shanked the ball, sending it screaming toward the two of them. As quickly as they dodged the ball, Aaron and Abdul began to laugh hysterically.

"There's the real Joe," Aaron said. "You finally showed up."

Although they only had time for a few more holes, Aaron, Joe and Abdul got about as much fun out of the hour they spent on the golf course as three guys could. The laughter never stopped. The good-natured jokes continued to roll, and the good and bad strokes also kept coming until the two brothers finished in a tie after nine holes.

"This was not my best day," Aaron said to his brother as the group walked to the parking lot. "And it was a career day for you."

"Whatever, Aaron," Joe responded. "Don't be a sore loser."

The two brothers are separated by 15 years in age but are rarely apart in the offseason or during the baseball season. The friendly round of golf -- a ritual that they take part in a few times a week -- was characteristic of the good times they've shared since Aaron was a child.

"When he was really young, I would come home to visit, and I was always shocked by how much better he got every few months," Joe said. "I would pitch to him when he was 10 or 12 years old, and he was already able to hit bombs off me. But as his older brother, it was always fun to strike him out."

In addition to having the support of his older brother, Aaron also benefited from the influence of his father, Joseph, who played in the Minors for seven seasons and also played professionally in Mexico for a year.

"My dad instilled a great work ethic in me, simply from watching him deal with the daily grind of baseball," Hicks said. "I feel like when I was in high school, I was approaching the game more like a professional athlete rather than just going out there and having fun. When I got drafted, nothing really changed for me."

Hicks' father, who resides in Southern California, also gave his son a directive that has had a lasting impact on his game.

"My dad didn't want me to play baseball," Hicks said. "I was winning a lot of golf tournaments when I was a kid, and he loved watching me play golf. But he told me that if I wanted to play baseball, I had to switch hit. He didn't think I would want to do that, but I did. Once I started to hit from the left side, I really caught on."

***

There's no doubt that the Hicks brothers had their share of fun this past offseason, but it was also a time when the Yankees center fielder buckled down and worked harder than at any other time since his professional debut.

Following the most productive season of Hicks' five-year Big League career, the 2008 first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins made the decision to hire a full-time trainer.

"After I came back from my second oblique injury last season, I realized that I needed a trainer in the offseason," Hicks said earlier that morning before a two-hour workout at a private Scottsdale gym. "I felt like I needed to be around someone who would really push me and guide me in the right direction. Essentially, it was all about getting the right person to train me the right way."

For all the excitement that 2017 and the Yankees' postseason run brought to Hicks, and for all that the outfielder meant to the Yankees during that time, the injuries that limited him to 88 regular season games were difficult to deal with -- especially considering all the other problems that he had dealt with in his career.

"I want to be able to be dependable," said Hicks, whose .266 batting average, 15 home runs and 52 RBI in 2017 were all career highs. "I don't want Aaron [Boone] to think that he needs to rest me in order to keep me healthy. I want to man center field."

The hiring process was far from a painstaking one for Hicks, who asked his brother to reach out to Sillah, an old friend. Hicks found out that Sillah -- who trained tennis icon Serena Williams for several years, and also 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens -- was interested in spending the offseason in Arizona and creating and instituting a diet and workout regimen for him to follow.

"I had met him plenty of times," Hicks said of the Northern California-based Sillah. "He's trained plenty of very successful athletes, like Serena and Sloane, during the prime of their careers. And he was friends with my brother, so I felt like he would fit in well with us."

The combination of Sillah's experience and Hicks' commitment made for a great partnership from the beginning.

"After speaking with Aaron, my goal for him was to get his first step faster and to get him stronger and leaner," Sillah said from the gym. "I believe the leaner he is, the more explosive he will be. His longevity for the season will be greatly improved.

"I had to figure out what type of program I should put him on to get him exactly where he needed to be," Sillah continued. "I felt that the nutritional program that I started many years ago for Serena, a shock meal program, would work best for Aaron. It basically shocks the system and teaches you how to put yourself on a feeding timeline, which most people don't have. We eat breakfast at 10 in the morning, and by 11:30, he has a snack. We have lunch at 1 o'clock, another snack at 2:30, dinner at 5 and another snack at 8. By eating this way, you're constantly maintaining rather than being at a deficit, and your energy level is always at its peak."

For Hicks, the timing of meals was easy to get used to in comparison to what was on the menu each day.

"When he wakes up, we have an apple for breakfast, three egg whites and a small bowl of plain steel-cut oatmeal, with four tomato slices on the side," Sillah said. "Then for a snack, we have half an apple and a teaspoon of plain yogurt. For lunch, he gets one baked chicken breast with Mrs. Dash seasoning on it, a half an apple and a serving of broccoli. For the mid-afternoon snack, he has the option between carrots or the other half of the apple. Then, for dinner, we repeat the same thing we had for lunch."

Sillah prefers to keep his athletes on the shock diet for up to two weeks, but he also understands the importance of tailoring the timetable for each individual.

"It was terrible when we were in the first part of the diet," Hicks said. "But it was literally life-changing. I feel a lot more energized from the minute I wake up in the morning. I feel better every day, and I don't have that fatigue I always had in the morning at all."

Even though Joe wasn't preparing for a Major League Baseball season, Sillah insisted that he partake in the diet along with his brother.

"I told him that if he's part of the team, he has to eat the same foods as Aaron and me," Sillah said. "I really have to watch him when he cooks for us, and I don't let him go to the store without me. You never know what kind of nonsense he's going to come home with."

"Abdul was like The Terminator when he got here," Joe said. "He came in and cleared out our refrigerator and everything in our pantry. There's no more soda, candy or chips in our house."

Due to the sacrifice that the diet entailed, Aaron lost 10 pounds during the "shock period."

"I took Aaron off of the shock diet after nine days," Sillah said. "He did really well, but it's too brutal to be on it for much longer than that. After we got through the shock period, I moderated his diet, and his body has slowly begun to accept what it needs.

"Now, we're able to actually get him to eat normal -- but not quite as normal as before. He's still shedding down weight and body fat while maintaining body mass at the same time."

***

Of course, in addition to the diet, Hicks' offseason workout regimen became more intense beginning with the November arrival of Sillah.

Hicks was at the gym six days a week prior to the start of Spring Training, and on the Wednesday morning prior to his half-round of golf, he began a long workout with three sets of curls, using 40-pound dumbbells.

Moments later, he took a seat on a bench-pressing station, and as quickly as he began to lift a few hundred pounds into the air, the intensity in the room heightened.

"This is when the real work begins," Hicks said in between three sets of five reps. "This is when we get after it."

From the bench press to a cable pull -- where Hicks worked to strengthen his triceps -- the morning workout moved along. After Hicks performed nearly an hour of exercises designed to strengthen his upper body, the center fielder walked to the opposite side of the gym, where there were no machines, just a large area of artificial grass and several medicine balls.

There, Hicks began a series of drills with the basketball-sized medicine ball. In one of the exercises, Hicks tossed the heavy ball against a concrete wall situated off to the side of him. He then changed direction and repeated the drill. This went on for several minutes before giving way to the next set of medicine ball exercises.

"I spend a lot of time strengthening my oblique muscles and improving my overall core strength," Hicks said. "I want to be a better player than I was last year, and to do that, I have to figure out how to stay healthy. I've been pushed a lot harder than I've ever been pushed in my life. I think this is something that I needed."

At the end of the grueling workout, Hicks grabbed a small snack while spending a few minutes with San Francisco 49ers tight end/long snapper Kyle Nelson, who also worked out at the gym last winter. From there, the trio of Aaron, Joe and Sillah took off for their next stop, Notre Dame Preparatory High School in nearby Scottsdale.

Within a few minutes of leaving the gym, the trio arrived at the sprawling and perfectly manicured campus where Hicks had been doing hitting and fielding work since he moved to Arizona from his native Southern California in January 2017.

"They have been great about letting me use the facilities here," said Hicks, who hit about six days a week in the offseason. "It's about as nice of a field as you could find."

As the group walked from a parking lot behind the outfield fence to the batting cages, it became obvious that Joe was already focused on the upcoming golf competition scheduled for later that afternoon.

"Hey, Aaron, today's going to be my day out there," Joe said. "You better be on your game today."

Unflinching, Hicks simply winked at Sillah and assured his brother that he would be ready.

"This is pretty much how I wanted the offseason to go," Hicks said. "I wanted it to be loose, but when we need to get work done, I wanted it to be intense. I wanted to enjoy the offseason while working my butt off."

When they got to an outdoor batting cage on the third-base side of the field, Hicks grabbed a bat from his bag and began to stretch. Joe got into the cage, emptied out a bucket of baseballs and took a seat on the bucket.

After taking a few dozen swings at soft-toss pitches, the real work began. Aaron got into the batter's box, and Joe fired pitch after pitch over the plate.

Aaron proceeded to drive just about every one of the pitches back toward his brother, and several ricocheted off of the protective screen set up to shield the pitcher.

Following the 40-minute hitting session, the group headed back to their home base in Phoenix.

***

Even before Aaron, Joe and Sillah arrived at the Hicks' house, the subject of lunch was discussed.

"I can run out to Chipotle and grab lunch," Joe said.

"No, you can't," Sillah responded. "Who knows what you'll come back with and what you'll eat while you're gone. I'll go with you."

And with that, Joe and Sillah headed for a local Chipotle, a spot they were at nearly every afternoon in the winter. When they got there, Sillah ordered three meals without hesitation. Three basic rice bowls, all with black beans, chicken and lettuce.

When Joe and Sillah got back to the house, the three men grabbed seats at the kitchen table along with their meals. Of course, just as they dug into their lunches, some more good-natured ribbing started up again.

"Joe and Abdul are so funny together," Hicks said. "I swear they could have their own TV show."

Soon, the conversation turned to the Yankees' 2017 season.

For Hicks, who spent five full seasons in the Minors before making his Big League debut in 2013 with the Twins and who Minnesota ultimately shipped to New York for reserve catcher John Ryan Murphy, finally having sustained success on the biggest stage was worth the wait.

"Being a part of what we were able to do last season -- especially in the American League Division Series -- was amazing," Hicks said. "Everything in those games felt magnified. Every pitch, every out and every game was important, and winning the one-game playoff against the Twins and then being in the same situation against Cleveland, where we had to win Game 5 in order to advance, made me a better player. It cemented the importance of winning in my mind. Regardless of what you do personally, winning is what matters most. Even though it was difficult to lose to Houston, that experience brought us closer together."

Although the 2017 season will always hold a special place for Hicks, his hope was that it will ultimately be the beginning of a long run of success.

"I hope 2018 is a big year for me and our team," Hicks said. "Beyond that, I want to make an impact on the game. I want to be a name that people can recognize and that people associate with playing the game the right way."

And when his baseball career comes to an end, Hicks has his sights set on playing another sport professionally.

"It would be a dream come true to be a pro golfer," Hicks said. "I know it will be a long road, but at the same time, it was a long road to make it to the Big Leagues and I did that."

Following his comments about his PGA aspirations, Sillah hit Aaron with a question he was not expecting.

"What about your brother," he asked. "Does he have a chance to make the PGA also?"

"My brother," Hicks responded through a laugh. "No."

"But if he wins today," Hicks said a few seconds later. "Then maybe I'll change my answer."

***

Video: Must C Combo: Hicks hits two home runs against Tigers

Following a successful spring, the injury bug came back to bite Hicks again in April. After playing in the Yankees' Opening Day win in Toronto, the center fielder was placed on the 10-day disabled list with strained intercostal muscles (located within the right side of his ribcage). Despite the setback, Hicks remained optimistic about the 2018 season.

"It was probably something that I could have played with," Hicks said from his locker at Yankee Stadium in mid-April. "But it was something that I wanted to take care of at the beginning of the season with rest and then put behind me. I feel great now, and I've got the whole season in front of me."

Hicks returned to the lineup on April 12 in Boston, going 0-for-4 in the designated hitter role. In just his second game back, Hicks was in center field and seemingly just as he had left off in 2017. In the Yankees' 8-6 win in Detroit, Hicks hit an inside-the-park home run and then, four innings later, hit one over the right-field wall. He became the first Yankees player to hit both an inside-the-park homer and an over-the-fence shot since Hank Bauer accomplished the feat in 1956.

"It felt great to help the team win that game," Hicks said. "It was awesome to do something that hadn't been done in the franchise for a long, long time. It was fun rounding third base and diving into home. I felt like I was back to where I wanted to be right away."

With a speedy return to health and a significant contribution under his belt, Hicks reaffirmed that he did not need to reassess his goals for the season.

"My goals have not changed a bit," he said. "Ultimately, I want to help this team win games throughout the entire season, and I want to get back to the postseason."

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Aaron Hicks