Blake Hickman didn't realize at the time the opportunity that would come from the nagging pain in his right elbow.
It was the summer of 2015, and the White Sox had just selected the then-21-year-old in the seventh round of the First-Year Player Draft. In his first season as a full-time college pitcher, the former catcher had flashed promising stuff that spring during his junior year at the University of Iowa.
Hickman signed with Chicago shortly after the Draft. However, the sense that something was off with his arm kept cropping up.
"Going into [the Draft], I kind of had a feeling something wasn't right with the elbow," Hickman said. "I found out after the Draft that it was much worse than everybody had expected."
One month after signing his contract, Hickman underwent Tommy John surgery. The doctors told him the time frame for recovery would be 15-18 months.
By August 2016, Hickman was ready to start throwing again. The White Sox, though, wanted to handle his return with caution. He threw three simulated games -- informal scrimmages with live batters but no fielders or baserunners -- but was told he had to wait until Spring Training before he would pitch in games again.
With another offseason looming, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound hurler decided to fulfill a promise he had made to his mother, Desiree. After he had been drafted, she had made it clear she still wanted him to complete his college degree. In fact, she broached the subject fairly often in the months that followed.
"Her big thing was she always wanted me to go back and get that done," Hickman said. "My two older brothers [Justin and Christian] finished up their degrees, and I was so close. She didn't want me to go years without getting it done. She was always saying, 'So when do you think you're going to go back to school?'"
Hickman decided then that he would return to Iowa to fulfill his final semester in the fall, with the White Sox helping to cover much of the room and board and tuition costs.
"I saw all of my buddies graduating that I came in with, and I was like, 'You know what, let me see what the Sox say,'" he said. "They were all on-board for it."
Hickman moved back onto Iowa's campus in September and launched into his course load. A sports studies major, he said he chose that field because he always envisioned himself working in baseball operations if his playing career ever bottomed out.
While in school, he maintained regular communication with Chicago's training staff and a number of his fellow players. He even began throwing again in mid-December, though he carefully monitored the intensity of those sessions.
| "It was a surreal feeling. Getting drafted and everything was awesome, but walking across that stage and hearing my family yell as they called my name, it's really hard to describe."
Graduation took place later that December. Many of Hickman's family members turned out to see him walk across the stage, including his mother, two aunts, both older brothers and his sister. Nearly 18 months earlier, he had listened to his name get called in the MLB Draft. However, he said even that did not compare to the feeling when his name was announced at the ceremony.
"It was a surreal feeling," Hickman said. "Getting drafted and everything was awesome, but walking across that stage and hearing my family yell as they called my name, it's really hard to describe. It was one of the best feelings ever."
Three months after finishing school, the right-hander made his long-awaited return to pitching. After spending nearly all of the first two months of the regular season in extended spring training, he took the mound in a Minor League game for the first time on May 31 with Class A Kannapolis. Hickman allowed a run on five hits -- walking none and striking out two -- over six frames against Hickory and received a no-decision as the Intimidators went on to win, 6-4, in 11 innings.
Over his first four professional starts this season, he owns a 2.92 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and .222 opponents' batting average in 24 2/3 innings.
"It's been awesome," Hickman said. "I've been learning each time I go out. I'm around a great group of guys and I've been having a ton of fun. You kind of forget this type of feeling when you're gone from baseball for almost two years."
Kannapolis pitching coach Matt Zaleski has enjoyed collaborating with his newest pupil. The former White Sox Minor Leaguer got a look at Hickman in a side session in Chicago in January, and he liked what he saw. Seeing the 23-year-old throw against live hitting, he has come away even more impressed.
"He's been locating his fastball, changing speeds real well. He's got really good stuff, and with his ability to locate the stuff that he has, you're going to have success at a lot of levels," Zaleski said. "I think it will just come down to his ability, as he gets older and more comfortable throughout a full season, to learn what to do in different counts to different hitters and all that fun stuff.... He's going to end up learning a tremendous amount throughout the years."
Hickman's next pursuit is to secure a place in the big leagues. For the native of Chicago who grew up rooting for the White Sox, the achievement would mean a lot with his family around to witness it.
"It's something I work for every single day," Hickman said. "It's in my mind when I'm on the mound, when I'm in the weight room. That's everyone's goal, to get to the ultimate stage. For me, it's much different because I have my family there. I want to be back home one day, pitching in front of my family and those fans in Chicago."