Jim Hickey’s dad once went toe to toe in the ring with heavyweight boxing legend Joe Louis.
It was one of several exhibition bouts the champ fought with U.S. Navy sailors in Japan near the end of the Korean War as he mulled another comeback.
“He said he did well until he caught him with a good shot,” said Hickey, the Cubs’ new pitching coach, “and then he said he thinks he pissed him off. And all of a sudden things got real quick.”
Not exactly the ending the elder Hickey might have chosen to script for that family story.
But if having the brass to take on heavyweights — and take an occasional punch — run in the family, Jim Hickey might be the right guy at the right time for the championship-minded Cubs and a pitching staff in transition.
To be sure, he has a tough act to follow in Chris Bosio, who helped Jake Arrieta turn a career corner that led to a Cy Young Award, and helped develop Kyle Hendricks into a Game 1 playoff starter, before being fired after last season in the first of six coaching staff changes.
In fact, during a winter with at least one or two major pitching moves left to make, Hickey might be the Cubs’ key pitching acquisition of the offseason so far.
All-Star closer Wade Davis is gone, and the Cubs haven’t replaced him with anything close to a proven ninth-inning ace. Arrieta and three-time World Series champ John Lackey are free agents (though the Cubs remain in contact with Arrieta), with only Tyler Chatwood added to the rotation. And Jon Lester, 34, is on the back half of his six-year contract, coming off an up-and-down season that included a lat injury.
Hickey, who reunited with his old Tampa Bay manager in Joe Maddon when he turned down multiple offers before taking the Cubs job, said he doesn’t know what the front office will eventually do to fill out the staff.
“I would expect like they’re doing right now, kicking the tires on Alex Cobb and Yu Darvish,” he said of the Cubs’ top free-agent pursuits. “That’s pretty attractive to me also, and also pretty foreign to me. I haven’t had the pleasure of pursuing high-end free agents personally.
“But if we had to go to war right now with what we had, I’d certainly take my chances,” said Hickey, 56, who spent the last 11 seasons with the penny-pinching Rays. “If there’s another piece that’s added, that’d be great. If not, I’m very comfortable trying to win the division with what we have.”
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been involved with some of the offseason pursuits. He was among the team officials who wined and dined Cobb in Chicago last month, and both he and his former Rays starter have publicly expressed mutual admiration.
Hickey also has studied video of potential targets as needed for the front office.
And he still may have a chance to retain Arrieta for his staff, though a long shot. A source close to Arrieta said he has offers from six teams, including the Cubs, for three- and four-year contracts at “overpay” annual values.
The Brewers and Cardinals are among those teams.
The source suggested one team might be close to making a five-year offer but wasn’t sure which team.
Regardless, Hickey has built a strong reputation for communication skills and an ability to develop much of the good young pitching that carried the Rays to four playoff appearances in a six-year span during his eight years with Maddon.
“He’s good with mechanics. He’s good with game planning. He’s good on a lot of different levels,” Maddon said. “He’s going to be extremely relevant. The pitchers will rally around him.”
Hickey, a native Chicagoan, said his relationship with Maddon and the hometown connection were factors in taking the Cubs job, but the move was never as imminent as the media and public seemed to believe it was.
“Those were factors, don’t get me wrong, but it was not a slam dunk,” said Hickey, who also was pursued by the Cardinals, Red Sox, Giants, Nationals and Twins. “What really sold me was when I physically came to Chicago and met Theo [Epstein] and met Jed [Hoyer] and got to go to the office next to Wrigley Field and walk around and meet the people, and just get a sense how dedicated everyone was and how committed they were to winning.”
He never knew Maddon before joining the Rays staff. And while they have a “great relationship,” they’re not constant lunch pals or drinking buddies. The biggest thing they seemed to have going was that when they got together at the ballpark, it worked.
“I’m looking forward to it working again, too,” Hickey said.
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