BOISE — It had been more than two and a half years since Jacob Hannemann picked up a baseball bat and took a swing when he stepped into the cages at BYU for his first workout in January.
Predictably, the first few hacks didn’t go very well.
“I would swing and hit the tee and the tee would pop up and the ball would fall straight down,” Hannemann said. “That happened to me a lot as I was getting into it.”
Five months later, Hannemann is beginning his professional career with the Boise Hawks after being drafted in the third round by the Chicago Cubs and signing for a lucrative $1 million bonus soon after.
And his first week on the job has been another rude awakening of the challenges that lie ahead in his quest to reach the major leagues.
Hannemann was drafted in the 48th round by the Kansas City Royals in 2010 out of high school but decided against signing to play football and baseball at BYU. But first came a two-year LDS mission to Little Rock, Ark.
“It just didn’t feel right to me,” Hannemann said of starting his baseball career earlier. “I obviously prayed about it and it felt right to go on a mission at the time and to go to college first and see how it worked out.”
On the mission he went to bed each night at 10:30 p.m. and woke up each morning at 6:30 a.m. He would try to stay in shape by running a mile or two and doing push-ups and sit-ups when he could, but the majority of his time each day was spent, “teaching people the gospel of Jesus Christ. We try to bring happiness. We serve the people that live there. If they need their lawn mowed or if they were moving, we would help. It’s like a service thing, trying to be Christ-like.
“It was a great experience. I look back at it all the time and the people I taught, the relationships I built and especially with Jesus Christ, it’s been great.”
So Hannemann finished the mission and returned to BYU to join the football team last fall. He redshirted due to his layoff but was expected to compete for a starting spot at defensive back this fall.
He began working out with the baseball team in January after the football season ended. And it took a lot longer than he expected to regain his feel at the plate.
He struggled mightily early in the season and had a hard time looking at his batting average on the scoreboard. At one point he even questioned whether or not baseball was the sport for him.
“When you’re hitting .120, you think a lot like, ‘Well I’ll just stick with football,’” Hannemann said. “But I love baseball and I knew it would take some time. I stuck with it and fortunately my coaches stuck with me too and I ended up having a great year. From the point that it started clicking I think I hit over .400, so it was good.”
Hannemann ended up hitting .344 with five home runs and 29 RBI for the season and was named the 2013 West Cost Conference Freshman of the Year. He led BYU with a .380 average in WCC play and had 14 stolen bases, earning a spot on the Louisville Slugger Freshmen All-American team.
He finished the year so strongly that thoughts of playing football were long gone. And when the Cubs drafted him in the third round, he knew it was time to begin his professional career.
“I thought I would at least be in college for two years, maybe play a year of football and start for a year,” Hannemann said. “But I always wanted to go pro in baseball. I never had the desire to go pro in football. I knew football at the college level was great, but baseball was where it was going to be for me.
“When I heard my name called, it was a no-brainer. I would have signed that day but they signed a few other guys first, but I signed and now I’m up here.”
Baseball America reported that Hannemann received a $1 million signing bonus, four times what the Royals had offered him to sign for three years ago.
“It ended up working out a whole lot better,” Hannemann said.
After working out at the Cubs spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz., he flew to Boise last week to meet his new teammates. But he quickly got his first taste of life in the minor leagues when he got off the plane and immediately took a nearly eight-hour bus ride for a road trip in Spokane.
“I said, ‘Welcome to the Northwest League, because we’re going to get on a bus for seven and a half hours,’” Hawks manager Gary Van Tol said. “Everybody was on the bus waiting for him. He got off the plane and we just threw him right on the bus. Welcome to minor league baseball.”
His welcome didn’t go quite as well as he would hoped once he got on the field, either. He got a hit in his first at-bat but went 0-for-12 in the next three games. He was just 2-for-18 before recording two doubles and three hits Monday night in the series finale in Spokane.
In addition to trying to regain his timing at the plate and adjust to life as a professional baseball player, he’s also using a wooden bat for the first time in his career.
“Those first three games were pretty bad,” Hannemann said. “That wood bat was a lot different than I thought it would be.”
Even though it’s only been five games and the production hasn’t been what he would like, Van Tol can already see why the Cubs were so high on him when they drafted him in the third round.
“It’s pretty exciting because you talk about a guy with a unbelievable ceiling who has not even come close to reaching his full potential,” Van Tol said. “He’s what you would call raw and green skill-wise, but you can see the projection, and when you look down the road, I’m excited to work with him. The sky is the limit. He has some natural athletic ability and it’s untapped.
“He’s never done this in his life. Baseball, every day, this is his job now and he’s going to be able to put 100 percent into the game, which he’s never had the chance to do. It’s a unique journey for him to get to this point and because he’s a little bit older, I think he’s going to make some quick strides.”
It’s been a rough first week with the Hawks for Hannemann but he’s already made the most of one slow start and figures to do it again.
The journey he took to reach this point was one not others would have attempted. But he wouldn’t change a thing if he had the opportunity to do it again.
“I have been blessed in a lot more ways than just baseball from serving that mission,” Hannemann said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody else believes, that’s what I believe and it’s been working for me and that’s why I do it. It felt right for me to go on the mission and now I’ve come back and I’m having a heck of a year.
“It’s been a great journey so far. I’ve been loving it.”