From Victoria to Korea to Chicago...it's been an interesting road for Victoria's Jesse Hodges.
Courtesy of Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
You all know about the Cubs' heralded No. 1 Draft picks like Brett Jackson, Javier Baez and Albert Almora, and the top prospects like Anthony Rizzo and Jorge Soler. They've received plenty of attention and headlines, and will need to win multiple MVP Awards to live up to the hype.
Let me tell you about Jesse Hodges.
The 18-year-old third baseman from Victoria, British Columbia, thought he was going to be drafted last June. Scouts from Major League teams, including the Red Sox, told Hodges he would be picked in the 23rd or 24th rounds. Hodges, who prepped at Lambrick Park High School, followed every round of the Draft. His name was never called.
"I told him to just prove them wrong," said Hodges' grandfather, Lowell Hodges.
Disappointed, Jesse chose school. He received a full scholarship to play baseball at Grayson Junior College in Texas. However, he was picked for the Canadian Junior National Team, which was playing in an international tournament in Seoul, South Korea, beginning in late August.
"I had all my eggs in that basket and thought I was going to get drafted," Jesse Hodges said of the June Draft. "It didn't happen, so I focused on the college part of it.
"I went there to visit, set up my room [at Grayson] and all that, and then this happened."
What happened is that Cubs scout Steve Wilson, the team's Pacific Rim supervisor, saw Hodges in Seoul, and signed the third baseman to a Minor League contract. You never know where you'll find the next superstar.
In Seoul, Hodges carried the Canadian team in the first game against Japan, hitting a game-tying, two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth, and scoring the winning run in the 10th. He went 2-for-4 in Canada's 1-0 win over Team USA.
"My first game [for Team Canada], we were playing Japan and it was 5-3 in the top of the ninth, and there were two outs, and I hit a home run to tie the game," Hodges said. "We ended up winning. [Wilson] heard about me after that, and he came out to watch me, and after the next game, he started talking to my parents and started working things out.
"My parents wouldn't tell me, they wanted me to keep playing baseball," Hodges said. "After about three or four days, they finally introduced me to him. They said, 'You've got an offer from the Chicago Cubs.' I was pretty excited -- maybe more motivated to play."
There's more to the story. Wilson, who also is from Victoria, and Hodges' father, Steve, were teammates in the Minor Leagues.
"Small world," Jesse Hodges said.
Baseball is in Jesse's blood. Steve Hodges, who was in the Braves organization, started hitting grounders to his son when he was 3 years old. His grandfather played semi-pro baseball in Canada. Jesse didn't follow his friends and play hockey while growing up.
"I was basketball, baseball," Hodges said. "I wasn't a big hockey guy. I just didn't want to play hockey. It wasn't my sport. And my grandpa and my dad are from America, and they're baseball guys."
Team Canada lost to the U.S. squad in the Seoul tournament championship game, 6-2, but Hodges was named to the All-World team at third base. He went from there to home for three days, then to Mesa, Ariz., to play in the Cubs' Instructional League in October. There, he was teammates with Almora and Soler and the Cubs' other top prospects like Daniel Vogelbach, Trevor Gretzky, Duane Underwood and Dillon Maples.
"Everyone here was drafted, except for the Dominican guys and me," Hodges said after a game in October.
And that motivates him even more. Being in a Major League team's camp is what he's dreamed about.
"I love it -- it's the greatest feeling," he said.
Hodges showed how much fun he was having in one of the last instructional league games, when he connected on a two-run home run. Sure, the extra pitchers outnumbered the fans in the metal bleachers at Fitch Park, but it was his first home run as a professional ballplayer, and he was beaming as he sprinted around the bases. All the disappointment of not being drafted was erased with one swing.
"It was a tough year, ups and downs for sure," Hodges said. "But in the end, everything was worth it, and it all worked out for the best."
His grandparents were there to watch, but his grandfather missed the moment. Lowell Hodges had snapped pictures of the first two pitches to Jesse, who fell behind 0-2 in the count. Lowell then put his camera away, thinking he was jinxing his grandson. Jesse launched the next pitch over the fence. No worries -- the Cubs captured it on video.
"He's living my dream," said Lowell Hodges.
On Jan. 12, Hodges and the Canadian national team will be honored at a banquet in Toronto. Other Canadian players expected to attend include former Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster, Justin Morneau, Russell Martin and John Axford. Dempster was to become the fifth member of Baseball Canada's "Wall of Excellence."
There is one more little dip in Hodges' roller-coaster year. When he went to Grayson, he took most of his clothes and personal items to his dorm room in college. He arrived in Mesa with the shirt on his back, and not much else.
"It doesn't matter," Hodges said, smiling. "I'd rather play pro ball any day."