A red crate half-full of baseballs sits in the bullpen.
The bright orange of two plastic construction fences that run down the sides to corral wild pitches, sharply contrasts with the bright green grass surrounding it.
Two rubber mounds are situated on one end of the bullpen. Grooves are worn into the spot in front of them, the result of countless pitching repetitions. The plates sit in front of a screen, 60 feet, 6 inches away. This is where Hickman assistant coach Bobby Chick is comfortable.
Chick loves baseball, but becoming a coach was not a lifelong dream. He went to Missouri on a baseball scholarship, and when he finished playing for the Tigers, he stayed in Columbia. Nearly two decades later, Chick is still on a baseball field in Columbia developing his game. But now his skills are no longer pitching and hitting, they are teaching and motivating.
Chick grew up in Rifle, Colo., where he was a three-time all-state player. He went to Oral Roberts to pitch, but after his sophomore season, he transferred to Missouri and played for the Tigers in 1988 and 1989.
A self-described “average” player, Chick began a transformation in college. He was injured his senior season, and he spent time watching from the bench, where he started noticing baseball’s subtleties.
Then-coach Gene McArtor made a casual comment to Chick, telling him he would make a good coach. It was foreshadowing.
Although at the time, Chick hadn’t thought about coaching, his mind changed in 1998 when his oldest son Ehrich Chick began playing baseball at age 6. His son asked him to coach and Chick said he changed from a player to a student of the game.
He started coaching his son’s grade school teams, and became an assistant at Harrisburg High School in 2003. Then, before the 2005 season, an assistant coaching position opened up at Hickman. Chick applied because of Hickman’s athletic reputation. For a high school baseball coach, the position at Hickman was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Hickman head coach Dave Wilson said the first time he met Chick, they talked about baseball for two hours. He got the job and when the Kewpies players responded well to his coaching, Wilson’s worries about the pitching coach position were relieved. He had someone to oversee the five sophomores on Hickman’s seven-pitcher staff.
At practice, Chick perches on a cinder block between the two mounds. Clad in his Kewpies jacket with his name embroidered on the sleeve, his posture resembles Auguste Rodin’s statue, “The Thinker.”
He asks his pitchers about their arms, making sure they don’t throw too much and risk injury. He watches and explains the nuances of throwing to a focal point with a curveball. The focal point is the imaginary target where the pitcher wants the curveball to break. It is different for different pitches and pitchers, he said, but for the curveball, he wants a hard break.
Wilson said Chick has excellent knowledge of the game, drawn from his experience on the mound.
Sophomore pitcher Chris Pfau said Chick’s experience helps him with his mental approach, like his pitch selection.
At Hickman’s game against Smith-Cotton on Wednesday, Pfau said he remembered a bit of advice Chick had given him. When runners are on base, throw off-speed pitches. Pfau had a man on first, and he threw a changeup that resulted in a double play.
Chick knows when and what mechanics to fix. A slightly unorthodox delivery doesn’t warrant an instant change, he said. Unless the pitcher isn’t throwing strikes or is walking batters, Chick tries to avoid an overhaul.
“It may be just be a couple things here and there that will get everything else in line,” he said.
Chick said changing a pitcher’s delivery completely is detrimental to the player’s confidence level. Tweaking little things in a pitcher’s motion doesn’t do damage, and for Chick, there is not one way of getting the job done.
“I sit back and look at what we’ve got, and just go from there,” Chick said. “You can’t have two pitchers that are the same. Pitchers are like snowflakes, there are no two alike. You don’t have two identical guys when they throw. They may look the same, but there are little things they do differently.”
Pfau said most of the changes Chick makes in his teammates’ throwing motions are designed to make them smoother.
At the Smith-Cotton game, Chick walks out to the baseline to talk with Pfau and catcher Bart Steponovich. His arm rests on Pfau’s shoulder. He talks to Pfau about how his arm feels. He tells Pfau to concentrate mentally on a different aspect of his game each inning, such as the release point on his pitch. Then, he turns his attention to his catcher, asking Steponovich how Pfau’s velocity is, how he’s hitting specific parts of the plate. It gives him a chance to gauge the pitcher’s composure.
“It started last year,” Chick said. “I think I was so excited that I would just run out and be the first one to talk to them, and it stuck. It probably is annoying to them, but I just like talking to the kids and seeing how they feel. You can tell when they’re mad.”
Pfau said the impromptu conferences help calm him down, and he isn’t afraid of Chick yelling at him if he makes a mistake. Chick’s style gives him confidence, he said.
Wilson said the most important aspect of Chick’s coaching is his attitude.
“He has a lot of passion,” he said. “And he instills it in his players.”
At the Smith-Cotton game, Chick yells encouragement to his players. He runs in from his first-base coaching position to congratulate senior Casey McIntosh on a 2-run home run. And when Hickman turns a double play, Chick jumps up in the air, his clenched fist thrust upward in victory.
A self-described “old-school” player, Chick said he knows when to get on a player’s case. But he frequently lightens the mood of the Kewpies at practice. The trick, he said, is timing and knowing when to crack a joke. The players respond to that, he said, and humor helped bring him closer to his players throughout his first season with the team. He likes to have fun, but he also wants the team to stay focused while doing it.
At practice Monday, Chick is bunting. He alternates between making contact and tossing a ball. He gets into batting, tapping the head of the bat on the plate and bending his knees as he gets into his stance. The pitch comes. He strains, but the ball is too far outside and he manages only to foul it off to the backstop. Without missing a beat, he gently tosses the ball he was holding onto the grass of the infield. The stunned Kewpies infield reacts, but the runner reaches base before the throw. Chick looks toward Wilson, with a grin splitting his face.
At first, Wilson chuckles, smiles and shakes his head. Then he comments.
“It’s pretty hard to get outs on two-ball bunts.”