CHICAGO -- Aaron Hicks is in his sixth year out of high school, yet there he was last winter, playing center field for his old team in Long Beach, Calif.
Woodrow Wilson High was having an intra-squad game and invited the Minnesota Twin to play. He had so much fun, he did it again.
"I played in a couple intra-squad games,'' Hicks said. "They enjoyed having me out there. It's fun for me to go out there, even though I'm nowhere near in the shape I need to be in, my swing's not feeling that great, but for them it's fun to compete against a guy who knows the strike zone and plays in the big leagues. It's fun for them, fun for me.''
Following a disappointing rookie season, Hicks went back to basics. When he wasn't on the field with high school players, he made a 40-minute drive to MLB's Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., where he honed his game before being selected by the Twins in the first round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
"It's fun to be around those guys, take a round of BP, just relax,'' Hicks said. "Enjoy the weather, just taking some BP. We'll take ground balls and fly balls, take BP. It's always a good place to be.''
Hicks hit 2-for-4 with two walks in the Twins' 7-6, extra-inning loss to the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday. He either reached base or advanced a runner in each of his first five plate appearances against Felipe Paulino and White Sox relievers, essentially duplicating the success he had against Chris Sale on Opening Day, when he went 2-for-3 with two runs scored.
Few players need a solid start more than the 24-year-old. Hicks suffered through a 2-for-49 slump last April when he opened the year as the Twins' leadoff man, and never really dug himself out of the hole. He wound up hitting .192 in 81 games, with stints on the disabled list and in Triple-A.
A game that seemed to come easy for Hicks no longer did.
But if that looked like a wasted year at one time, it no longer does. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire saw him growing as a player as he took his lumps.
"Hicksie's attitude, the way he's gone about it through spring, is different,'' Gardenhire said. "He knows the game can slap you upside of the head now, can beat you around a little bit. He's a little bit more prepared. He's kind of on a mission, which is a good thing, along with some other guys.
"We have to see some people do things this year. There are a lot of good young prospects on the way, incoming, and guys in this room know that. They have to produce.''
Hicks wasn't a lock for a job on the 25-man roster. He shared time in Spring Training with Alex Presley, who was acquired from Pittsburgh in the Justin Morneau trade, and 20-year-old Byron Buxton, baseball's top prospect. Buxton wasn't going to make the team regardless, but Hicks needed to hit .327 to take the job from Presley.
"I feel really good,'' Hicks said. "It's a lot easier when you know what to expect. Being in the big leagues last year showed me, made me more prepared for this year. I learned how to prepare for each game, get ready.''
There were times last year when Gardenhire almost felt sorry for his center fielder. Hicks lost his confidence as a hitter but remained a plus fielder in center, covering ground and slowing down runners with his arm.
"He was going about his business,'' Gardenhire said. "He was frustrated, yes, but we really got stuck in a situation [where] we didn't really have many options. He's such a good outfielder, controls the defense out there, the center field area, can throw, the whole package. He played so well defensively for us that offensively we just said, 'Do the best you can right now.'"
Hicks, who played more golf than baseball until his teenage years, has been challenging himself since he stumbled into Compton's Urban Youth Academy as a 15-year-old, shortly after it opened.
"I went there for a scout league game to play against their team,'' Hicks said. "They liked me. They said, 'If you ever want to come here and work out, talk to some of the guys that have been to the big leagues, played some pro ball, come by any time.' My dad really liked that about them. One day we went out there, worked out with a couple of their guys, there were a lot of pro guys out there. It was fun for me, not just to enjoy playing the game but learn from those guys that are in the pros.''
Hicks is among a handful of prospects from the Urban Youth Academy to reach the Major Leagues. But with five locations operating and five more in the pipeline, a lot more are coming.
The Twins hope Hicks is there to greet them, firmly established as a part of the outfield surrounding Buxton.
"You get slapped around a little in the game, it's a little of a wakeup call as to how tough this game can be,'' Gardenhire said. "Some of those players go through the Minor Leagues and never really feel that. Maybe it was a good thing for him. We'll see as we go along this year.
"I think he's definitely a little different attitude-wise, the whole package. I think his eyes are open now to what can happen in this game and he's just moving forward. He's a very confident young man, and that's what we want to see out there -- confidence.''
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less