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Curve coach has fascinating past combining sport with ministry

Bryan Hickerson played on teams that included Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Larry Walker and Will Clark, so he undoubtedly has some great stories to tell about life in the major leagues.

Those are not the stories, however, that make Hickerson one of the more fascinating people you’ll find coaching in minor league baseball.

The Curve’s new pitching coach has spent the past decade and a half visiting American troops around the world and helping them cope with their daily grind through friendship, trust and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Hickerson worked for 14 years with Unlimited Potential Inc., a ministry made up of former baseball players who work stateside and abroad with a mission to “reach, teach, and train baseball players for the purpose of sending them out into the world to make disciples of Jesus who love God passionately and love others radically.”

“We all had a common responsibility of reaching back into the game, whether it was players, coaches, front office, staff, anybody involved in professional baseball,” Hickerson said. “My responsibility outside of that was, how could we be used to help our military.”

Hickerson was perfect for the role, said Mickey Weston, UPI’s executive director and a former major leaguer.

“Knowing Bryan’s heart, he really went to bless the men who are serving our country,” Weston said. “He went to thank them for what they’re doing and let them know there are folks who appreciate what they’re doing.”

Hickerson often found himself in very dangerous places, visiting Iraq, Kosovo and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border spending time with troops.

“I have a story of being outside the wire with a group in Afghanistan to go on a mission with them, and the goal of that mission was to serve food to soldiers who hadn’t had it in two weeks and missed Thanksgiving,” Hickerson said. “Because we went and did that, the group that was on that mission came back and wanted to know, ‘Why the heck are you guys over here? Why did you go out there and do that with us?’

“All I had to ask them was a simple question of, ‘What’s the greatest asset on your team when you guys hug the wire?’ And they said, ‘Trust.’ So we started talking about trust and what I trust. It just built that relationship by being with them instead of just being in front of them. And then you get invited to just sit and talk.”

It takes a special kind of person to handle such a role, and by all accounts, Hickerson is a special kind of person.

“Hick’s one of my favorite people in the world,” Weston said. “He is a man of integrity. What you see is what you get. We would call him an animal because we really think he could have been special forces, just with his discipline and his mentality.”

UPI has an excellent reputation throughout baseball, with several members serving as team chaplains in the major leagues. Along with their services in the game, the ministry’s former players conduct baseball clinics around the country, while also establishing relationships and spreading the gospel.

For Hickerson’s role, he would be invited by military commanders or chaplains to visit bases, and he made more than 75 trips all over the world.

“We were invited just to build relationships with soldiers,” Hickerson said. “My goal there was to facilitate the ministry already happening by the chaplains and commanders and to be used by them in the best way they felt we could help encourage the ministry they already had.

“Most of the places I went were not places where MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) and USO let celebrities go,” he added. “They took us to places where soldiers didn’t expect to see us. I think that in itself — coming unannounced, coming without some entourage and some big plan or presentation — our plan was to go be with them, not in front of them. That’s what I think had the impact, we just want to be real with you.”

Hickerson pitched in the major leagues from 1991-195 with the Giants, Cubs and Rockies, compiling a 21-21 record and 4.72 ERA. A lefty, he appeared in 209 games (36 starts) and provided versatility on those pitching staffs.

He later served as a minor league pitching coach with the Giants in 1997 and ’98, then left the competitive part of the game and has spent most of the past two decades devoting his time to ministry work. That’s how he came in contact with Pirates officials about eight years ago, while working with UPI.

“We met through a staff member who had known Hick,” Pirates assistant general manager Kyle Stark said. “So we got connected, and UPI has some guys that will go visit organizations, spend time in spring training or whatever else. We hit it off and said, ‘Hey, the doors are open, whatever you want to do in terms of spending time with guys.’

“From there, the relationship built, he influenced a ton of guys, just as men, helping them grow on and off the field. So we stayed in touch and continued that relationship.”

The connection between the Pirates and Hickerson is a natural fit. He has spent much of his adult life helping reach people, and the Pirates’ front office during the Neal Huntington era has been dedicated to not just developing ballplayers, but developing the overall person.

“That’s what we’ve been about since day one, building championship men on and off the field,” Stark said. “I think Hick has a similar passion, has been doing that his whole life.”

What Hickerson has not been doing for the last 19 years, though, is coaching. Baseball at least. So for the Pirates to hire him as their Double-A pitching coach despite that lengthy absence shows how highly the organization thinks of him.

“We felt good because we’re betting on people, and at the end of the day, we’re betting on a guy that has been coaching,” Stark said. “We start talking about coaching, the actual, technical part is certainly part of it, but there’s a lot more than just that. He’s been coaching people the last how many years.

“It’s just betting on a guy who’s hungry, who’s passionate, a guy who’s smart and wants to learn and grow. Yeah, we’re betting on Bryan Hickerson, and it’s been a good bet.”

Curve manager Michael Ryan had nothing but glowing remarks about a man he will spend a lot of time with this season making key decisions that affect the team.

“Hick has been out of the game for a little bit, and you can’t tell. That’s how good he is,” Ryan said. “He has great relationships with our pitchers. I have a lot of respect for the man. I’m truly honored to work with him. He’s got really good information that he passes along, and he wants to be a part of this, which is so important. It’s been a blessing for me to be able to work with him.”

The question for Hickerson is, why now? Why, at 53 years old and after all these years serving a very valuable purpose in a different walk of life, has he decided to come back to baseball as a coach?

He’s remained associated with the sport all these years, just in a different capacity, and said baseball has always been part of him. But as for the “why now” part, well, that has a lot to do with the Pirates.

Hickerson went into great detail on that subject.

“My passion was I want to be working with a group of men who are committed to the same thing, the same reasons,” he said. “That’s not easy to find. What’s most important to me is who you get to do it with. Baseball is baseball. Who you get to do it with makes the difference. It’s not so easy to find an organization that’s cultivating and encouraging that unity, that really, we’re here for each other to work with each other instead of competing against each other. It’s not easy to find an organization that says, ‘hey, we’re in this together.’

“Historically, there’s been a lot of boys in men’s bodies playing baseball, and the Pirates and myself are trying to see men in men’s bodies playing baseball. What I mean by men is having that — the Pirates are big about their why. Even for me, why am I here, what am I doing, why am I doing this job? So we ask the players all to answer that question, as well. It gives them something to work for to help know who they are.

“I’m here to facilitate and be part of what the Pirates are building as a culture and to work with that and enhance that.”

The game of baseball has changed substantially in a lot of ways since Hickerson played and coached back in the 1990s. There are now detailed analytics and new ways to use the volume of data that’s available, and the way pitchers are used is different, with greater reliance on specialization than ever before.

But in the simplest terms, baseball is a game played by people, and a big part of any successful coach is having an ability to work closely with people, find out what makes them tick and try to help them achieve their personal goals.

That’s what Hickerson has been doing for the past two decades in his ministry, and now he’s using those same interpersonal skills to help develop young baseball players.

“Bryan will be able to take an individual approach to each of the guys he’s working with,” Weston said. “He’s a student of the people he’s working with, he’s a learner. He is going to be a great asset to them in their mental approach to the game.”

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