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Watching Luke Hochevar stand behind second base
gathering balls from outfielders as the Low Class A Burlington Bees clean up
after a round of batting practice, he just looks happy to be back on a baseball
field and wearing a uniform.

As soon as the 22-year-old righthander sits in the dugout,
the first thing he says confirms the assumption.

“This is awesome–this atmosphere–being part of a
team is something I missed, you really become a family and it was really
something I missed,” he said as the grounds crew swept the infield
before a game with the Kane County Cougars. “This is something you long
for–just to get back out there.”

Just getting back out there took a little longer than
Hochevar expected.

Fourteen months ago, Hochevar was one of the best pitchers in the
draft, going 15-3 with a 2.26 ERA for the University of Tennessee and winning
the Roger Clemens Award–the college equivalent of the Cy Young Award. A run
of poor starts in the postseason had some of the teams picking towards the top
backing off of him, and then there was the Scott Boras factor. Represented by
the agent who is almost singlehandedly responsible for the explosion in
bonuses over the last 15 years, Hochevar was certain fall to a team
willing to spend big money and having the patience to deal with what
would surely be protracted negotiations. On draft day in June, Hochevar
wouldn’t hear his name until the 40th pick, when the Dodgers
selected him.

As expected, talks between the Dodgers and Boras were slow,
with the two sides exchanging highly divergent figures over the summer, and
rarely communicating with each other as the 2005 season came to an end.

Over the Labor Day weekend, Hochevar suddenly switched
agents, allowing Matt Sosnick to represent him in negotiations with the
Dodgers. Sosnick quickly worked out a deal that included a $2.98 million
bonus, and the Dodgers dispatched a scout with a contract for Hochevar to
sign. By the time the scout arrived, Hochevar was gone, and the Dodgers were
told that he once again was being represented by Boras. While Hochevar is
uncomfortable discussing the details, his frustration over the situation at the
time is clear. “It was an emotional roller coaster, it was tough,”
reflected Hochevar. “You work hard all your life, and then to have it get
all screwed up–it was my first exposure to the business side of this game and
I learned some lessons the hard way.”

When the media found out, the ensuing circus was sizeable, especially
considering that baseball’s draft pales in comparison to the attention received
by the NFL and NBA drafts. While Boras understandably had his client lay low
during the frenzy, Hochevar admits it was a difficult to read the stories being
written. “It ate at me a little bit, to see your character getting
questioned,” said Hochevar. “In a situation like that you find out
who your real friends are.”

With Hochevar still unsigned and negotiations with the
Dodgers in limbo, Hochevar got through the tough times with support from his
family, his faith, and his faith in Boras. “Scott was there the whole
time,” recalled Hochevar. “He stayed by my side when a lot of other
people didn’t. He promised me it would all work out in the end, and I trusted
him.”

Hochevar stayed in shape over the winter and into the spring
by spending time with Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Brian Gearity
in Knoxville and at Boras’ own Sports Training Institute in Newport Beach, California.

As Boras has done with other holdout clients like Jered
Weaver
and Stephen Drew, he lined Hochevar up with an independent
league team; the Fort Worth Cats. He’d return to the mound on May 8, just one
month before the draft.

Going into May 8th, Royals scouting director
Deric Ladnier was facing a difficult decision. With his team finishing with
the worst record the previous season, the Royals had the number one pick in the
draft, and Ladnier and his staff had yet to identify an obvious candidate.
“You are at the mercy of the talent level,” said Ladnier about the
situation. “You want someone who is going to be a part of the
organization for a long time and I didn’t see that guy out there. We had to
select somebody, but there wasn’t anybody I necessarily wanted to select
with the first pick.”

Ladnier went down to Texas to see Hochevar’s debut, along with nearly
every team’s scouting director or top evaluator. “There
were two things going on there,” said Hochevar of his indy league stint.
“I wanted to prove to everybody that I was a good pitcher, but I was also
concerned with showing people that I’m not a flake.”

The first part was easy, as while Hochevar struggled with
his command at times, his fastball hit 97 mph, and sat at 92-95 mph. That was
consistently harder than he threw in college, and his curveball often fooled
opposing veteran hitters. “That first start with Fort Worth put him in
the mix for us,” recalled Ladnier.

As far as proving his character goes, that was going to be
more difficult. By virtue of drafting him the previous year, the Dodgers
retained exclusive negotiating rights with Hochevar until one week before this
year’s draft, so while teams could watch Hochevar pitch, to talk to him would
be considered tampering by Major League Baseball.

Luckily, Ladnier has history on his side. “We had the
number two pick in the previous year, so we were able to scout and evaluate him
then,” said Ladnier. In addition, the Royals staff felt Hochevar’s
performance also said something about him off the field. “A lot of
players sit out and get out of shape,” said Ladnier. “But this kid
was clearly on a mission and did everything he could to maintain his stuff
considering the circumstances. That said something about his character to us.”

Hochevar would make three more starts for Fort Worth,
finishing with a 2.38 ERA in 22.2 innings with 34 strikeouts. When June 6th
arrived, the Royals decided to take Hochevar with the number one pick. “I
told our people that we are not all going to agree but that a decision was
going to be made,” recalled Ladnier. “In the end we felt he was the
best player available.” In addition, Ladnier insists that the fiasco with
the Dodgers didn’t bother him. “We knew there were a lot of things being
said that were false,” said Ladnier. “The one thing I’ve learned in
this business is not to judge anyone until you walk in their shoes.”

This time negotiations took a relatively quick two months,
with Hochevar receiving a $3.5 million bonus as part of a four-year major
league contract that could be worth as much as $7 million with easily reached
incentives. It’s more than twice the amount he temporarily agreed to with the
Dodgers nearly a year ago. “Like I said before,” said Hochevar.
“Scott promised that it would all work out in the end. And here we
are.”

For now, Hochevar is in the Midwest League, at the lowest
level in full-season baseball. On a limited pitch count, he’s thrown 9.1
innings in three starts, with 10 strikeouts and an ERA still sitting at a
perfect 0.00. “For all the time off he had, he’s been well
above-average,” said Burlington pitching coach Steve Luebber.

“His command is coming around and he’s shown a real good fastball sitting
at 93-94 mph and a curveball that’s a real out pitch.”

While Hochevar credits the work he put in during his long
layoff, he also insists that he’s a better player and a better
person because of what he went through. “I’m physically stronger than
I’ve ever been in my life, but I’m mentally tougher too,” he said.
“I got through all of that stuff, so now when I’m facing the other team’s
number four hitter–that seems easy now.”

Hochevar makes his final start for the Bees on Friday night,
and then he’ll likely pitch for Wichita in the Double-A Texas League playoffs
before getting more innings in the Arizona Fall League. He’ll likely begin
next year in Wichita, and could be in Kansas City by mid-season. While he has
no personal timetable, he’s excited to be part of the rebuilding effort for the
once moribund Royals. “[Royals GM] Dayton Moore and Deric and everyone
I’ve dealt with have been great and I’m convinced that they’re going to turn
things around,” said Hochevar, who also showed some solid knowledge of the
Royals system. “I never played against Alex Gordon in college, but I
played with him on Team USA, and he’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen–and have you seen Billy Butler? That guy is a monster.”

As the number one pick in the draft and the temporary poster
boy for the new regime in Kansas City, Hochevar says he relishes the added
responsibility. “I don’t see it as pressure, I see it as another
opportunity to succeed,” said Hochevar.

“He’s a special person with remarkable ability,”
concluded Ladnier. “I like that combination.”