Hicks' next act: 'How can I be an inspiration?'

Cards flamethrower opens up on Tommy John recovery, 22 months spent out of the bigs

April 16th, 2021

Anyone privy to the slightest of interactions with Jordan Hicks will tell you how fierce a competitor he is, how much he’ll go to bat for his teammates and how much he looks forward to once again blowing his fastball by batters.

And they’ll tell you one more thing: how much it pained him to be apart from his team and from baseball for much of the past two seasons.

Time spent away from the game was not time wasted, though. Hicks, who underwent Tommy John reconstructive surgery in June 2019 and opted out of the ensuing pandemic-shortened season as a high-risk individual with Type 1 diabetes, is back.

And with a purpose.

“That [time away] gave me a lot of time to really think about where I'm at in life and what I'm doing and what I could be doing,” Hicks recently told MLB.com. “It's hard to explain, but my main focus was to get back healthy and come back. I was working on that every single day -- five, six days a week. And then in the downtime I was having, just the thoughts in my head were more about, like, ‘How can I be better? What can I do? How can I be more of an inspiration for some people?’”

For once in his life, Hicks -- the flamethrowing Cardinals reliever who made his Major League debut in 2018 and quickly became known for pumping in 100 mph with ease, throwing one of the fastest pitches in recorded history at 105 mph -- hit the breaks.

Over the past year, Hicks started two ventures. The first is a brand -- “Diabetic Phenom,” a nickname he picked out for his Xbox gamertag when he was diagnosed years ago -- that donates 10 percent of apparel sales to diabetic causes. The second is a partnership with Medtronic Diabetes, a medical device company that has developed technology like the MiniMed 670G system, an insulin pump that keeps him aware of his insulin levels on a more regular basis, alerting him if they track too high or too low, and automatically regulates the delivery of his background insulin based on those levels.

That means less time pricking his fingers and injecting himself in the bullpen. And it gives him more time to focus on the standard preparations a big league reliever has to go through before entering a game.

“You don't really realize how much of an effect it has until you start talking about it like this -- like really, really understand how much this thing does," said Hicks

Not long ago, Hicks didn’t know about it at all.

Hicks, now 24, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 17 years old, rushed to the hospital when he visited the nurse’s office in high school and found he was 20 pounds under his usual weight.

Hicks recalls an older gentleman with Type 1 diabetes entering his hospital room to offer advice. He was a former baseball player himself, Hicks said, but he can’t recall who he was. Interactions like that were few and far between for Hicks as he learned how to live with diabetes, though. He doesn’t want that to be the case for others.

“I just want to get my voice out there for younger kids -- [one] that I didn't really have to look up to, in a way,” Hicks said. “I think I owe that to kids.”

His message?

“You can be diabetic, and you can be a phenom,” Hicks said. “You can be phenomenal. You can do all those things. Just because you're diabetic doesn't mean you should let that take anything away from you. You could still be phenomenal. You could still be a phenom.”

But Hicks had to re-learn how to be phenomenal.

Nearly 22 months passed between Hicks’ last Major League pitch on June 22, 2019, and his next, on April 3, 2021. A key cog in the Cardinals’ bullpen who’s being eased into high-leverage situations, Hicks went scoreless in his first four appearances this season, back to hurling 100-plus mph heat, following the arduous recovery from Tommy John.

“That rehab’s a journey,” said Cardinals manager Mike Shildt. “You start it, and throughout it, there's a lot of unknowns on that journey. And there's some blind faith required with it. Our medical team did a great job. … It's really about the athlete looking in and taking advantage and mentally, physically challenging themselves to work through it. I'm sure there's some dark days, and he was able to treat it like a really professional, mature guy.”

It’s not that Hicks necessarily needed the time away to find his voice. That was naturally bound to occur as he got more comfortable in the big leagues and had an opportunity to expand his platform, he said.

But cozied up in quarantine, without competition to occupy his days and with the chance to take a step back, that route to outreach -- like many changes during the pandemic -- was expedited.

“It definitely gave me some time to think about it and think about what I wanted to do in life,” he said. “Just reflect, almost.”

Hicks has been laying the groundwork for some time, though. On a trip to San Diego in 2018, he met a young fan in the stands named Jaxon, a fellow "Type 1er." Jaxon wanted to see a diabetic phenom pitch in person. And he did. Hicks threw 1 1/3 perfect innings over the series. Jaxon gave Hicks a baseball card with himself on it.

Hicks still carries that card in his luggage.

“It was the first time another kid had given me something because he looked up to me or something like that. It’s a pretty cool moment,” Hicks said. “Obviously, I think my dream initially wasn't just to be the big leaguer that was Type 1 diabetic and everything. … [But] I saw people commenting on my name, I saw people talking about it, all these Type 1’s that wanted it more. That just fueled me, and that makes me want to help other people.

"Because I see already, without even saying anything about it, that people are inspired.”