Monday, April 05, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Fast-pitching Hokie cashing in on his promise

When Jesse Hahn arrived at Virginia Tech, he was throwing a baseball hard. Now as a junior, he's showing signs of...

What happened last week wouldn't have happened last year.

Jesse Hahn would have felt the pain, looked in the stands, seen all those scouts and asked not to pitch. And his coach would have understood. After all, no matter how much your team needs you, it's hard to take the mound when you're passing a kidney stone.

But this is a different year. A different Hahn. So in the Virginia Tech bullpen, Hahn cut the hospital band off his wrist, popped some pain meds and went to work.

Jesse Hahn can throw a baseball 100 mph. It's a gift that has drawn scouts and national media attention. It's a fact that will make him very wealthy someday soon. His right arm is a once-in-a-generation blessing, a tall tale all its own.

But the success story that has developed in Blacksburg during the past three years has as much to do with Hahn's head -- and his heart -- as his arm. On a campus that was once so foreign to him, with an academic demic that was once so jarring, with a mature approach to pitching that he long shunned, Hahn has become more than a baseball prodigy. He's become a man.

***

Fred Hahn noticed it early. His boy would pick up a rock and fling it, and off it soared.

What an arm!

"I tell you, I used to sit on a bucket and catch him all the time," Fred Hahn said by phone from his home in Groton, Conn. "I wouldn't even think about it now."

Hahn worked two decades as a carpenter at a submarine plant, one of the linchpin industries in his blue-collar town. He never went to college. Nor did anyone else in his family.

"I used to dream of going to college," Fred said, "when I was sleeping through high school."

Jesse was the same way. Even as he blossomed into a three-sport athlete early in his high school career, he didn't take academics seriously. College wasn't even a consideration.

"I just didn't see it in my future," Jesse said. "I thought I'd just be working around there or something, just playing sports for fun."

But then all of a sudden, he shot up to 6-foot-3. His fastball began to sizzle in the mid- to high-80s. College scouts started talking to him about playing basketball at their schools.

Tech's pitching coach, Dave Turgeon, also hails from Groton. He went to see Jesse often, returning to head coach Pete Hughes with glowing reports about a kid with a lean, projectable body, clean arm action and command of three pitches.

"With that profile right there," Hughes said, "I'm surprised he wasn't more heavily recruited."

But the academic profile troubled Hughes, so he decided to take a recruiting visit to the Hahn home. Hughes watched how Jesse took such great care of his severely disabled older sister, who is confined to a wheelchair, and he was sold.

"He never skipped a beat when he was taking care of his sister while I interviewed him about Virginia Tech," Hughes said. "I knew I was getting a tremendous kid who just needed some structure."

If only he could get him on campus.

***

Jesse Hahn's first visit to Blacksburg was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

"I hated the place," he said. "On my recruiting trip, I was driving onto the Virginia Tech campus and I just see cows and farms. I was like, 'Dad, I don't know if I can do this place.'

"Then I met the team, and they were all rednecks. I wanted to go home."

But then he went to a Tech football game. Then another. The son of a die-hard Penn State football fan, Hahn began to think the place wasn't so bad after all.

So he enrolled, even though the adjustment period was just beginning.

"When I first got to school here, I walked by someone on the sidewalk and they said, 'Hey, how are you?'" Hahn said with a smile. "And I just kept walking. I didn't say anything back, because I didn't realize how friendly people were here."

ACC competition? Not quite as friendly.

***

A key member of Hughes' first recruiting class at Tech, Hahn was thrust into action immediately. He got pounded in his first start at Coastal Carolina. Outings against several powerhouse teams of the ACC -- Florida State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech -- went poorly for the freshman.

"He'd call every day," Fred Hahn said. "He didn't sound happy. We just kept telling him, 'Stick it out, Jesse. It'll get better. Stick it out. Stick it out.' And he did."

Not without plenty of lectures from his coach, though.

"My freshman year, all I did was get ripped by him," Jesse Hahn said. "He'd call me in the office and yell at me every week, whether it was missing class, getting in trouble socially, stuff like that. Missing a lift here or there and not thinking anything of it, failing classes, all that...

"He always said one of the main things that makes you a good baseball player here is character. And he said if you don't have character in the classroom you won't have it on the baseball field. One leads to the other. And it's true."

Hahn finished that season 3-7 with a 4.64 ERA. The following year, Hughes moved him to the closer role, where Hahn battled injuries and saw his ERA balloon to 6.00.

That was the same year he hit 100 mph on the radar gun for the first time. Although scouts had to like what they saw, Hughes didn't.

The coach could tell Hahn worried about all the wrong things, asking all the wrong questions. How hard was he throwing? Was he maintaining his velocity late in games? What team did that crosschecker behind the plate represent?

"When he pitched with those intangibles at the forefront of his mind, he didn't pitch for me," Hughes said. "I wouldn't put him in, because he couldn't get anyone out."

But deep down, Hughes understood. A guy who reaches the high-90s has a chance to make millions on draft day.

"With Jesse's background," Hughes said, "it means a heck of a lot to have a chance to change your family's life by throwing a baseball."

It's even better when you learn how to pitch one.

***

Hughes could tell the difference the minute Hahn arrived on campus this fall. Turgeon had introduced a new arm-care program, and the pitcher embraced it immediately.

Hahn was coming off a strong summer in the Cape Cod League, the premier summer circuit for college players. Baseball America ranked him the No. 8 prospect in the league, noting he was the only pitcher to throw 98 mph. Another credible scouting Web site compared the 6-foot-5, 201-pound Hahn to Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Another predicted he would be in the big leagues in a few years.

But Hahn chose to tune out those interests and trust Hughes instead.

"I know I could light up the radar gun, but there's no need for me to do that," Hahn said. "The word is out that I can throw hard, so I'm just focused on winning now, and the best way to win is just pitch. I took a little velocity off my fastball so I could command it better. I'm commanding all my off-speed pitches. I'm keeping the ball real low, so I think that's a big part of why I've had success so far."

Hahn has been a big factor in the Hokies' surprisingly strong start in the ACC. Hahn is 4-2 with a 2.23 ERA. Sitting comfortably in the 93-95 mph range, he'd struck out 45 batters in 44 13 innings.

That includes his gutsy effort against Wake Forest last Saturday, when he labored through four innings in the first game of a doubleheader, just to help the team. He lost the game, but he gained even more respect from his teammates and coaches.

He passed the kidney stone the following night.

"I give him credit for realizing it, making the adjustment, maturing on the mound," Hughes said. "And he'll never go back. Because he's not good enough to pitch in this league when he thinks about those other things, and he knows that. When he doesn't think about them, he's as good as anyone in the country."

The accolades continue to come. Baseball America and mlb.com already have featured Hahn this spring. He projects as a first-round pick in June, when he'll have to make a tough decision.

You see, the first kid in his family to go to college now wants to be the first to graduate.

Besides, he actually likes this place now. A lot.

"I have real good friends down here," Hahn said. "Everyone's real polite. No trouble. Nothing to worry about. No friends to worry about getting in trouble. You basically just focus on school and baseball."

Meanwhile, you pen your own success story -- about a lot more than an arm.

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