By Kevin Glew
It was the swing that changed his life.
Snubbed by major league clubs in the 2012 amateur draft, a resilient and determined Jesse Hodges walked to the plate for the Canadian Junior National Team in the bottom of the ninth of their first game at the under-18 World Championship in Seoul, Korea last August.
With Canada trailing Japan 5-3, shortstop Daniel Pinero was on first after a single, but the Canuck squad was down to its final out.
"It was a 1-0 count and he (Japanese pitcher Takahito Otsuka) threw a fastball inside and I was waiting on it," Hodges recalled Saturday prior to Baseball Canada’s annual national teams awards banquet. "I was ready to jump on it and I got all of it."
The ball cleared the left-field wall for a game-tying home run, sending the contest into extras where in the 10th inning the Victoria, B.C. native Hodges scampered home to score the winning run on a wild pitch.
Hodges’ clutch, two-out homer caught the attention of scouts in attendance.
Chicago Cubs’ Pacific Rim supervisor Steve Wilson, who also hails from Victoria and coincidentally had played proball with Hodges’ father Steve, was particularly impressed.
Following Hodges’ performance in the first game, Wilson began speaking with the 6-foot-1, 210-pound infielder’s parents. As the tournament progressed and Hodges piled up 15 hits – including four doubles – in 31 at-bats, Wilson could be found talking to his parents more frequently.
"I looked over and I saw my parents talking to this guy in the crowd all the time, so I was thinking that something was up," recalled Hodges. "So I asked my parents, ‘Who’s that guy you were talking to?’ And they said, ‘It was a scout. He’s just talking.’ And I said, ‘Well, what’s he saying?" And they told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just keep doing what you’re doing and good things will happen.’"
His parents eventually relented and told him that the Cubs planned to offer him a contract and two days before the championship game (that Canada lost 6-2 to the U.S., but still won a silver medal), Hodges signed with the Cubs.
Thanks in large part to his dramatic, game-tying homer and his all-star performance at the world championship, Hodges was named Canadian junior national team MVP and was presented with the award during Saturday’s banquet.
Hodges also received a $1,500 cheque from longtime national team pitcher Chris Begg, who presented it in honour of his father, who passed away in March.
The award was a nice way to close the book on a rollercoaster 2012 for Hodges. A shortstop with Lambrick Park Secondary School and with the Victoria Mariners of the B.C. Premier Baseball League, Hodges had been widely scouted prior to the draft this past June and had been told by talent evaluators that he would be selected in the 23rd or 24th round.
Hodges, who has always dreamed of becoming a pro baseball player, followed the draft closely, listening to round after torturous round without hearing his name called.
Born in Victoria in 1994, Hodges has baseball in his blood. His father, Steve also pitched for Canada’s national teams and professionally in the Atlanta Braves organization, while his grandfather Lowell was an excellent semi-pro player.
Both of them have had a tremendous influence on Jesse, but the talented teen is also quick to credit his mother Sharon for her unconditional support.
"She taught me right from wrong. She has always been there to keep me on the right track," he said.
Hodges’ father began hitting him ground balls when he was three-years old, but the now charismatic 18-year-old was primarily a pitcher growing up. In fact, as a 10-year-old, he pitched his local team to a provincial title.
It wasn’t until he was in Grade 7 that he became a shortstop – a position that he would man for his high school squad and for the BCPBL’s Victoria Mariners.
He hadn’t played third base until he joined the JNT in 2012.
"Jesse is a ball player. He knows how to play. He’s heady on the field. He competes hard and he grinds it out," said Greg Hamilton, JNT head coach, adding that Hodges is a solid defender with gap-to-gap power.
Hamilton also marvelled at Hodges’ poise during the JNT’s silver medal-winning performance at the world championship.
"It’s funny, you go to a world tournament and every time you go, you see a player or two really, really elevate their games," said Hamilton. "They really embrace the environment they’re in. Jesse was one of those guys. He was one of those guys who went over there and immediately got it. He loved being in the moment. He loved being in the environment where he had to produce every day and he did a great job. He was tremendous in that tournament."
After being passed over in the draft, Hodges decided to accept a scholarship to Grayson College in Denison, Tex.
Prior to the world championship he had visited the campus and dropped off some personal belongings in his dorm room. But after signing with the Cubs, his plans changed and six days after returning from the tournament in Korea, he was off to the Cubs’ training facilities in Mesa, Az., to participate in the team’s instructional league.
Hodges expects to hear from the Cubs shortly about their plans for him, but he’ll likely be back in Mesa in late February or early March.
"I always give myself goals so I have something to work towards," said Hodges. "I want to get to low-A next season. If I get to low-A by the end of the year, I’d be really happy with myself. But if I have to go to extended spring training, I want to make short-season A. I don’t want to be in rookie ball for the entire season."
Hamilton believes that Hodges has the grit and desire to advance in the pro ranks.
"He’s earned everything he has and he’s got a chance (to advance)," said Hamilton. "He’s going to grind his way through and the competition is going to need to be ready because he’s the type of kid that will be ready. He’s not going to be intimidated."
Accepting the JNT MVP award at Saturday’s Baseball Canada banquet had to be a great feeling for Hodges, who seven months earlier was forced to endure the heartbreak of not being drafted.
"The first thing on my mind starting the year off was, I was just hoping to get drafted," said Hodges. "But that didn’t happen and I went to the worlds, played really well and the Cubs signed me after I hit that home run. It was literally the swing that changed my life."