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Kevin Hickey, a long shot who fulfilled a neighborhood dream, dies at 56

 KevHickey (seen here 2003) former pitcher for White Sox was current batting practice pitcher for team. He died Wednesday

Kevin Hickey (seen here in 2003), a former pitcher for the White Sox, was a current batting practice pitcher for the team. He died Wednesday, May 17, 2012. | Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

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Updated: June 29, 2012 9:03AM

Kevin Hickey never quit.

Not in a bar fight. Not on a ball diamond. Never.

He epitomized South Side toughness. He took no guff.

He wasn’t afraid of anything. Especially not big league hitters.

How do I know? Hickey told me.

Repeatedly, in fact, over the last few months in a series of interviews that would be his last. The folks who know the former major league lefty best — his family, his teammates, big league coaches, Jerry Reinsdorf and Roland Hemond, a guy who gave Hickey more chances at realizing his major league baseball dreams than anyone else — backed up every word of it.

Maybe you’ve heard about Hickey. He’s the street tough from Brighton Park, the stud at 16-inch softball who got laid off at Ryerson Steel and got signed by the White Sox, his favorite team, after throwing just few dozen fastballs at a open tryout at Old Comiskey Park.

And after a long, arduous journey — shoulder injuries, five years in the minors, a big league resurrection with the Orioles, more injuries, retirement, a movie role alongside Charlie Sheen, divorce, poverty, diabetes and eight long years selling used cars — Hickey made it back to the White Sox bench as a batting practice pitcher who was beloved by players.

He died Wednesday from complications of an April 5 seizure that left him in a coma. He was 56.

You wouldn’t know it, but Hickey was such a big part of the 2005 World Championship team that the players voted him a “full share” of the spoils.

Even at 56, Hickey was still a bull in his 9th season throwing batting practice.

He could, and did, pitch to Sox hitters every day. The only time he missed practice were those few days after former Sox slugger Joe Crede lined a ball off the back of his head.

Hickey liked to say that he had the “better stuff than anyone from 40 feet.” And if he got the chance to get back on the mound in a real game he’d bet serious cash he could get “at least two or three” batters out. I saw his slider. The old guy might have been right.

It shocked everyone when Hickey was found unresponsive in his hotel room the day before the White Sox opener in Texas. It was heart breaking when the top brain doctors in Chicago told his family that the seizure — or whatever it was that Hickey suffered — cut oxygen from his brain for so long that he would never wake up. Still, Sox captain Paul Konerko and catcher A.J Pierzynski visited Hickey, a guy they admired.

“Ask anyone in our clubhouse, every person here appreciated what Kevin did to help the White Sox win baseball games,” Konerko said. “No one wanted to win more, no one was more optimistic, no one cared more and no one took more pride in his job. He made all of us better.”

I last saw Hickey on Monday in a Rush Hospital bed in a 13th floor room with a view of Sox Park. His daughter Sarah and his long-time girlfriend Anna D’Agata were there when he opened his pale blue eyes and moved his left arm. The nurse reminded us that his movements were involuntary and probably meant nothing.

I thought about the last time we spoke. Hickey sat on a tall stool by a Glendale, Ariz., hotel pool with a cigar in his fist and wide grin on his face during the first week of spring training.

“Whaddya think?” he asked after another of our long chats that could turn into a movie some day. “We really got something good here, don’t we?”

I put down my notebook, turned off the recorder and told him what he already knew.

“You’ve got a great story, Kevin. You’re the Pride of the South Side.”

‘Wanted to be the best.’

Kevin John Hickey was born on Feb. 25, 1956, on the South Side of Chicago.

His late father, Donald Hickey, was a tough Irish guy who worked for the telephone company by day and drank at the tavern by night. His mother, Kathleen Hickey, stayed home to raise five kids.

They lived in a brick three-flat near 36th and California in Brighton Park, a few miles away from Comiskey Park.

“The five of us grew up in Burroughs Playground,” Kevin said. “I jump the fence, run through the alley and I’m in the playground, same playground my dad and his brothers played in. … I always wanted my dad to be proud of me. Baseball, softball, hockey, football, whatever, I wanted to be the best.”

And he was, even in grade school.

“The older guys would buy a rubber ball for 25 cents and yell for Kevin to come out and pitch to them against the brick wall,” Kevin’s older brother Jimmy Hickey said. “The couldn’t hit him. No way.”

Hickey had natural talent, but was a horrible student. He got a scholarship to play basketball at St. Rita High School, but skipped class to play poker, drink beer and run numbers for the neighborhood bookie so often that he got kicked out and had to go to public school, Kelly High.

Hickey said his father told him he’d “never be nothing.” And after high school, even Hickey thought the old man might be right. Hickey got a tavern owner’s daughter pregnant with his first daughter, Samantha, did the right thing and married her, and they had a second daughter, Elizabeth.

He worked at a gas station, made extra cash running numbers for a bookie and played 16-inch softball at an elite level. The only “good job” he ever had was working the night shift at Ryerson Steel for six bucks an hour.

“On my first day they made me sign a paper that said I acknowledge that I could die working there,” Kevin said. “The guy showing me around pointed to the dented steel ceiling. ‘That dent’s from the body of a guy who lit up a smoke near a bunch of gas.’ ”

After 30 days, he got laid off. He also got divorced and moved back home with his parents to look for a job.

“I was a dead end kid. Nothing,” Kevin said. “What was I gonna do, keep running numbers?”

He killed time playing center filed for the legendary Bobcats at Kelly Park. In one game, Kevin hit four home runs in consecutive at-bats off legendary Chicago newsman Mike Royko. They won the 16-inch National Championship in 1976.

“Royko thought he was so good,” Hickey told me at Lawler’s Pub. “He wasn’t nothing.”

All Natural

A couple of Chicago cops asked Hickey to try out for the Markham Cardinals, a semi-pro baseball team in the South Suburbs. In his first two starts, Hickey hurled two no-hitters in a row. White Sox scout Joe Begani — who Hickey hurled a steel chair at during a basketball game a few years before – invited the untamed lefty to the open try out at Comiskey Park.

“There were 250 long-hairs in bell bottom jeans and Kmart gloves lined up with numbers on their back like it was the stockyards. I said, ‘F--- this,” Hickey said. “But Joe spotted me and got me to throw second.”

Hickey’s first pitch was like lightning — fast, powerful, all natural.

“I threw it so hard the catcher didn’t get his glove up in time and the ball knocked his mask off his head,” Hickey said. “Scouts started writing on their clipboards.”

The next morning, the phone rang. “Kevin,” mom said. “It’s the Sox.”

“The whole f----- neighborhood was on my front porch,” Hickey said. “The Sox come from Comiskey and they gave me $500, a contract for $500-a-month, a pair of shorts and a book called ‘How to Speak Hillbilly.’ Two weeks later I was in Paintsville, Ky.”

At his first practice, a pitching coach asked him to throw a curve ball.

“I said, ‘What’s that,’ ” Hickey said. “The guy laughed. What was I doing there?”

In an instructional league game in 1979, Hickey went head to head against Dennis Leonard, a big leaguer on the Kansas City Royals doing a minor league rehab stint. For five innings, he matched Leonard pitch for pitch. After the game, Sox manager Tony LaRussa told Hickey the words he longed for, “You’re gonna pitch for me some day.”

“Holy f---. I’ll never forget it.”

Hickey got invited to spring training in 1980, but didn’t make the team. The next spring training, Hickey threw 22 scoreless innings.

“At the tail end camp, LaRussa told me, ‘You’re going North with the White Sox,’ ” Hickey said. “I was so f------ excited I was like Clark Kent in the phone booth. Spinning around, I had no change. I called my Mom collect. I came out of the booth like Superman. That’s how I felt.”

At the 1981 home opener, Jerry Reinsdorf’s first as owner, Kevin Hickey pitched a perfect 9th inning to finish off the Milwaukee Brewers before a packed house. Kevin’s family, neighborhood folks and the guys from his favorite tavern waved signs he’d never forget — “Mr. Mikes loves Kevin Hickey.”

“We were all freaking out,” Jimmy Hickey said. “This was a dream for everyone in the neighborhood to play for the Sox. We were going nuts. We were so f------ proud of him.”

‘I was done’

Hickey pitched three years with the Sox. He bought himself a Lincoln Town Car, met Terri Witt, a beautiful gal who worked at an insurance agency. They got married in Tony LaRussa’s law office. They had three daughters, Kristen, Jessica and Sarah. Near the end of the 1983 American League West Championship season — the “Winning Ugly” season — Hickey fell apart.

“He was warming up and after every pitch his arm just hung there. … He insisted on going in the game to face two lefthanders. They both hit homers off him,” former Sox bullpen coach Art “Cave” Kusyner said. “The only thing Hick had on the ball was his hand. His shoulder was gone.”

So were Hickey’s White Sox dreams. He didn’t make the playoff roster and was cut the next year.

“It was like someone sticking a knife in me,” Hickey said. “I thought that was the end. I was done.”

But former Sox GM Roland Hemond re-signed Hickey to a minor league deal.

He labored in Double A for a few years and spent an offseason working as the maitre d’ at Mike Ditka’s restaurant. He considered giving up.

A couple cop buddies pulled some strings to get Hickey a job on the force if he agreed to play centerfield for the 9th District softball team.

“All I had to do was take the physical exam,” Hickey told me. “The written test was taken care of, if you know what I mean.”

But Hickey passed on the police job and resigned from Ditka’s.

“Leon Spinks, the fighter, he took my job when I left Ditka’s,” Hickey said. “Unbelievable.”

Hemond, then GM of the Baltimore Orioles, signed Hickey to another minor league deal. In 1988, he was pitching for a Baltimore farm team when his manager broke the bad news: The “big club didn’t have any plans for him.”

“My wife told me to come home. She said I didn’t have to be ashamed. I gave my best,” Hickey said. “F--- that.”

He spent an entire year living in the clubhouse of the Rochester, N.Y. Triple-A team.

“There were three of us. We worked out every day and drank beer every night,” Hickey said. “A couple lefties got hurt. All the sudden I had a shot.”

At spring training in 1989, the Orioles ran out of fresh pitchers in an extra inning game against the Yankees. Hickey was running sprints in the outfield with no shoes on.

Manager Frank Robinson called him to get his spikes and take the mound.

“I through three scoreless innings and we won,” Hickey said. “That’s how I made the team, from my socks to the spikes to a spot on the roster.”

Times with Charlie

Hickey pitched for the Orioles until 1991, when he was cut midseason.

“I had big league bills and no big league paycheck,” Hickey said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I felt like a failure.”

He swallowed pride and took a job working as a greeter at Camden Yards. That’s where he met the casting director for the movie “Major League II.” Kevin taught actors how to throw like a real ballplayer. He landed a speaking role in the movie as “Schoup” and spent his off time hanging with Corbin Bernsen and Charlie Sheen. Money was tight, so Hickey sold two minor league championship rings to Sheen, a well-known baseball memorabilia collector.

“Charlie would always ask for me: ‘Where’s Hickman at?’ It was the Heidi Fleiss excursion. … He was the Wild Thing. I’m not going to get into what I seen and all that,” Hickey said. “To pay the bills I sold him my Triple-A Governor’s Cup ring for a couple grand. I sold him my Columbus Clippers Triple-A ring, too. We hung out, became pretty good friends. At the end of filming he gave it back to me and said, ‘Never sell this again.’ I still got it.”

After that, life got dark. Hickey sold his Baltimore condo and moved the family to his in-laws’ house in Columbus, Ohio. He got a job selling used cars out of a trailer. His wife left him and took the kids. He continued to live with his in-laws, hoping against hope that one day his wife would come back.

He drank a lot. He was diagnosed with diabetes. For a while he was homeless, living in the used car trailer until his boss found out and a buddy let him crash in a basement apartment.

A ‘foxhole’ guy

After his father died, Hickey’s brothers Jimmy and Thomas Hickey rented a U-Haul and drove to Ohio with plans to drag their brother back home to live with their mom and start a new life.

“When we got there, he had nothing. I think he just had a duffle bag,” Thomas Hickey said.

A local concrete company offered Kevin a job if he agreed to play on their softball team. He declined. In 2003, the White Sox held a golf outing reunion for players on the 1983 team.

“Greg Walker asked me what I was doing. I told him that I was selling used cars, but now I’m unemployed living with my mom and I have diabetes and no health insurance,” Kevin said.

Walker talked to Sox GM Kenny Williams, who gave Kevin a tryout as a batting practice pitcher. The players took to Hickey, who was a workhorse and clubhouse cheerleader. He agreed to travel with the team for $30,000-a-year.

“The Sox, Jerry Reinsdorf, Kenny Williams, they welcomed me back into the family. Rolled out the red carpet,” Hickey said. “For them to stick their necks out and give me the opportunity … I wasn’t going to let them down. I wasn’t a coach. But I told them I’m the guy you want in a foxhole with you. Through thick and thin. Never give up. That’s me. That’s the neighborhood in me.”

For nine seasons, Hickey was the Sox pre-game workhorse and team cheerleader.

“He brought energy every day. You never had to worry about the bench being dead,” Walker said. “ ‘Chatter box’ would be a nice way of putting it. He ran his mouth every game. Rah, rah stuff.”

As the Sox celebrated the World Series in 2005, backup catcher Chris Widger told Hickey exactly how much the players appreciated him.

“Widger said, “You’re gonna get the biggest check you’ve ever had in your life,” Hickey said. “The players voted me a full share. I cried. Two weeks later, my checking account went from about $1,200 to like $325,200.

“Without that check I’d be dead. I had nothing. Nothing to take care of my kids, take care of my mom, make sure they had what they needed,” Kevin said. “I worry more about other people than myself.”

Hickey has always been that way, his sister said.

“He was our protector,” Karen Hickey said. “The last time I saw Kevin, it was Feb. 19, a party for his birthday, he said, ‘Karen, we don’t need money, we don’t need nothing. We have it all right here, sister.’ Those were his last words to me.”

Hickey’s friends saw that loyalty, too. The guy absolutely refused to give up. Not on his family. Not on his team. Not on himself. Never.

“He’s a South Side Chicago kid who ends up playing for the team he grew up watching, and coaching and being part of a World Series team. If South Side Chicago people can’t identify with Kevin Hickey, then who can they?” Walker said. “It’s a great story. It’s just a shame it had to wind up like this.”

Hickey is survived by his mother; daughters; brothers Jimmy Hickey and Thomas Hickey; sisters Karen Hickey and Kathy Hickey; and three grandchildren.

Visitation is scheduled for Monday at Damar Funeral Home in Justice. A funeral mass will be said at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago.

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