O's draftee plays for memory of father

O's draftee plays for memory of father

BALTIMORE -- On June 9, the day of the First-Year Player Draft, Becky Hobgood sat nervously on the couch, waiting for her son, Matt, to arrive home from school. It was nearly 3:30 p.m. PT out in Norco, Calif., minutes before the start of the 2009 Major League Baseball First Year Player Draft.

She knew he would be home soon. After all, she had personally driven the 18-year-old to school the past few days, simply to make sure he went. As one of the top high school baseball prospects in the country, it would've been easy to blow off a few days of school.

With family, friends and those who accepted the Hobgood's invitation of "Come on over! Be a part of this!" gathered around the living room, it was nearly time to see where Matt, the eldest of five kids, would start his path to the big leagues.

By the time Commissioner Bud Selig strolled to the podium to announce the start of the Draft, Matt was home, seated on the couch, right next to mom. The first pick? Everyone knew that. The second? More than likely. But where would Matt end up?

Four picks had come and gone. Becky was still sitting on the couch, waiting like everyone else for her son's name to be announced. Sure enough, as Selig approached the microphone to share the fifth selection, it was the news the Hobgood family and friends had been waiting for, the next chapter in a journey that started long before that summer day in the living room.

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Matt was just 8 years old when his father, Rick, first gave him a ball and glove. He had never felt a real leather baseball mitt, nor the laces on the ball before. It was a whole new experience for him.

He headed out to the driveway in front of his Arizona home and created a makeshift strike zone out of duct tape. Then, Matt began to throw. He went outside to throw so often that one day his father walked into the house and said to Becky, "You know, maybe we should get him into baseball."

It was Matt's father who first noticed his son's ability to throw a ball. Before his ninth birthday, Matt was playing baseball.

"He started out in a Studio League in Glendale, Ariz.," Becky Hobgood recalled. "He was just as pleased as punch. I think it was a thing where he just had a love for the game. He never said he didn't want to go to practice."

There was never any intention for Matt to play baseball, much less make a career out of it, Becky said. He was too big to play football at the age of 9, so he stuck with baseball. Matt's talent continued to grow, and scouts in the area began to take notice.

As he finished high school, Matt salivated at the thought of his realistic shot to play in the Major Leagues. Typical of a high school phenom, Hobgood was teenage royalty. Everyone knew who he was, and wanted to be friends with him. He was a true high school superstar.

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Matt Hobgood was fortunate enough to get to know his dad well before he was diagnosed with cancer. Rick Hobgood had been battling the disease for eight years, and for Matt's younger siblings, they only knew their father as the man who, though always loving and compassionate, was hampered by his illness.

But Matt knew his dad as the man who got him started down the path to baseball stardom. He knew him as the guy who would sit and watch his son's baseball games, never talking up his son to the other parents, but still as proud as ever. Now the high school senior, still wearing braces, was constantly garnering accolades, including projections that he would be a first-round pick in the upcoming First Year Player Draft.

He was pitching in a Martin Luther King Day tournament in late January when his uncle pulled him aside during the game.

"We need to go home," he told Matt.

His coaches knew what had happened and Matt too quickly realized what was wrong. Rick Hobgood, the friend who gave him his first ball and glove, the mentor who watched him play his way through Little League, and the father that had loved and cared for him, was gone.

Two days later a memorial service was held for Rick, but Matt wasn't there. He was back on the field, right where his dad would've wanted. As Matt came to the plate during the game, he connected on a pitch and there was never any doubt that it was gone. The scene was fit for a movie, but the exhilaration from the home run blast and the waves of grief still rushing over Matt were real.

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In the months leading up to the Draft, Matt Hobgood thought he would like to play baseball on the West Coast, hopefully for a National League team. Matt was an exceptional hitter and wanted the opportunity to showcase his skills on the mound as well as at the plate in the Majors.

But that was before a visit to Baltimore. As he met with Orioles scouting director Joe Jordan, the idea of playing baseball in Baltimore became more appealing.

"What was interesting was before he got to Baltimore, he said he'd like to stay on the West Coast," high school coach Gary Parcell said. "But he took the trip, and when he came back, he really liked what he saw."

With his visit to Baltimore, where he met the Orioles staff and pitched for them, another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place. Should the Orioles take him with the No. 5 pick, he knew Baltimore would be a place he could call home.

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The Hobgoods didn't always know their son would end up playing baseball for the rest of his life. But when the signs started to show, it was clear this was the right choice for Matt. Whether it was telling him to stop swinging the bat inside the house, or the fact that Matt couldn't sit through an entire game on television without getting the urge to go outside and start playing, baseball was his passion.

Matt has yet to sign a contract with the Orioles, his mother said. But they are planning to travel out to Baltimore soon to undergo a physical and then "go from there."

Until then, however, Matt Hobgood can enjoy his accomplishment, and look back at all of the people who helped him achieve his dream. It's certainly common for young people like Matt to look up to their parents for inspiration. It's his mother who looks after him, who helped set a good example in his home life and who is always there to put an arm around her son.

But it was Matt's father who saw the potential in his son to do great things with a baseball. And it's his father he plays for every day.

"Matt knew his dad was proud of him," Becky Hobgood said. "He was the most humble dad, and I think Matt uses his talents to honor his dad."

Brian Eller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.