By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Jun 24, 2013 at 1:06 PM Photography: David Bernacchi

In the early spring of 2000, Jerry Flowers was sitting in the bleachers at a high school game in Florida, "snow birding" so to speak. It was cold in the Midwest, so Flowers, a cross checker with the Cincinnati Reds, went down to help out area scouts and see West Orange High School outfielder Mark Folsom.

What he didn’t expect to see was a spindly Lake Brantley High School outfielder send a baseball off the head of the West Orange pitcher’s head.

Oh my God.

Flowers watched the batter shoot out of the box to first base.

Something ain’t right here.

He checked the name of the kid again, looked around. There were about 50 scouts in the stands – to see Folsom – but no one batted an eye.

Nobody’s paying attention to this kid?

He started working the bleachers and found the kid’s parents. He wondered if they heard about their son’s chances of being drafted. They told him he didn’t even have a college scholarship.

Flowers picked up the phone.

Roger Cador, coach at tiny Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., answered.

I just saw a boy hit a line drive off a pitcher’s head. You need to get him.

"That was the first word on how I knew Rickie existed," Cador said.

Like ‘Whoa’

There was a reason why few people knew Rickie Weeks existed, even though he played for a powerhouse program in Lake Brantley, a school that produced future All-Stars Jason Varitek and Felipe Lopez, Weeks’ former teammate drafted No. 8 overall by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1998.

First, he was about 5 feet, 10 inches, weighed around 170 pounds. There were several Division I prospects already in the infield, so Lake Brantley head coach Mike Smith moved Weeks to center to utilize his speed and arm.

He hit third in that talent-rich lineup, but as an outfielder he didn’t fit many scouts', or college coaches', eyes.

"It’s not like nobody (saw him)," Flowers said. "He wasn’t under a rock somewhere. He played at a high profile school. For some reason Rickie was what they call pigeon-holed – they only like what they like instead of looking at the player. What I saw, it was easy to see."

What Flowers saw were the hands. The wrists. The speed.

"You have it or you don’t, and he has it," Flowers said. "He’s had it since I saw him in high school. If I was there to see Rickie, it’s easy. But when I didn’t go to there to see him and I saw him, it was amazing. I’m figuring out, what am I seeing that nobody else is looking at it because nobody thought about him. At all. It was even hard convincing the coach at Southern. He was like ‘he’s that good?’ and I was like, 'Yes!'"

Smith knew he was that good.

During batting practice, Weeks would have to hit first. Always. It wasn’t by his own choice, but for organization purposes.

Smith had to send several of his players behind the 6-foot wooden wall of the stadium, a barrier 325 feet down each line, 375 feet in the power alleys and 400 feet to dead center. Then, the rest of the would be scattered in the outfield.

None were allowed in the infield.

Then it would start. First, the ping of rawhide meeting aluminum. Then the thump, a sound Smith likened to a bass drum. No one caught the balls Weeks hit in batting practice. They would ride a string from the batter’s box to the wall.

Or, they would skirt right over it, his teammates trying to knock them down before they rolled into a lake.

Smith would watch, and laugh.

"We would take BP before teams got here and I’d always have him hit first so they couldn’t see him," he says now, still laughing. "When I’d see him here at school he’d always have a big ‘ol smile on his face on game day because he knew he was going to hit something somewhere."

Fortunately, Cador was an early bird.

"When I first saw him in May of 2000, the first time, and no one liked him, I saw," Cador said. "I saw him take batting practice and I saw how easy he was hitting the ball. A lot of people missed his batting practice. I was there early to the park and I saw it and I was like, ‘Whoa.’"

The Lightning

Courtesy Naville J. Oubre, III

Cador offered Weeks a scholarship, and the little kid nobody wanted went to Louisiana and hit the weights – and the buffet table. Cador says good Louisiana cooking helped Weeks pack on 15 pounds before his freshman season even started, which led to the development of something no one – even Fowler – could project.

"I remember early in his freshman year in 2001 we are playing LSU and he hits a line drive to centerfield, which looks like a routine line drive that the centerfielder is going to catch, and he’s coming in and the ball is hitting off the top of the centerfield wall," Cador remembered. "That was something I saw when he just stepped into it.

"You could really see how he had lightning in him."
Suddenly, everyone knew about Rickie Weeks.

"He was playing at a different gear from year one," said Flowers, who scouted the southern region of the country during Weeks’ college years. "If he was drafted eligible his freshman year would’ve went in the top five picks in the country. Every year. Some guys you project, oh, this guy is going to be good, every year he was the best player in the draft if we went out."

Weeks wasn’t as sure, however.

"No, that would’ve been if I was drafted in the first round out of high school and gone from there," he said. "I knew I had talent obviously but I really didn’t have the pub coming out of high school. Back then, knowing you had the talent and knowing you had that the quick hands or whatever it was, I was trying to perfect it. There were some growing pains there. I was probably a little bit smaller. There were spurts where I knew that wow, I have some power here, quick hands, something like that."

An American League scout dropped a fork into his plate in the dining area inside Miller Park, and laughed. He wiped his face and laughed some more. In his decades of scouting, no college player he had ever seen hit a ball as hard as Weeks.

"It was a freak show," he said, still laughing, as he picked up his fork again.

His sophomore season at Southern, Weeks hit .495 with 20 home runs. He won the NCAA batting title. As a junior he hit .479 with 16 homers. He won his second straight batting title and ended his career with a .473 career average – highest in NCAA history.

The only question became if he would be the No. 1 pick in the 2003 Major League Baseball amateur draft or not.

"The guy could just flat out rake," said a second American League scout. "I mean, I thought he might hit 1.000. It was bat speed. It was good fundamentals. It was the whole package. He could run. He was just kind of a fringe-y, average fielder but who cares? That was going to play. He was just … it was a freak show.

"You figured he would go 5-for-5 every game. How were they going to get him out? He had tremendous hands, tremendous bat speed, good plate discipline, good knowledge of the zone. And he was in one of the toughest leagues in the country. When he made an out it was like, ‘Wow, he made an out.’"

He laughed at the memory.

Cador was a born and raised Louisiana ball player who watched Hank Aaron play in Atlanta in the 1970s, and was eventually drafted by the Braves himself out of Southern in 1973. He then got to watch Aaron hit up close spring training his last two years with the Braves in ‘73 and ‘74.

"I don’t want to compare Rickie to Hank Aaron, but he was the one with the wrists," Cador said. "And Hank Aaron’s balls didn’t get out that quick. He was a pleasant home run hitter for the pitchers. They barely cleared the fence. But he had the great wrist action. So that’s the thing I remember. I’ve never seen anyone else like that, to be honest with you.

"I’ve seen guys who can hit balls far but his are different with that short, compact swing and how quick the ball comes off the bat."

Back in Miller Park, the first American League scout finished up his dinner. He was with a different organization at the time he scouted Weeks, and he lived near many of Southern’s opponents. He took his son to watch Weeks hit.

And, for the first and only time in his scouting career, he said he feared for the safety of not only the pitchers, but the infielders.

"If anybody had a chance to hurt somebody, it was Rickie Weeks," agreed the second AL scout. "He definitely could’ve hurt somebody – the old saying ‘Get the catching gear for the third baseman when Rickie Weeks is up at the plate.’"

The legend continues

Weeks was not drafted No. 1 overall in 2003 – the Tampa Bay Rays took an outfielder by the name of Delmon Young out of Adolfo Camarillo High School in Camarillo, Calif. The Milwaukee Brewers didn’t even have to think twice about what to do next.

Weeks signed a major league contract for $3.6 million in June and made his debut with the Brewers three months later.

"The ball came off Rickie’s bat with a different sound, there’s no doubt about it," said Butch Wynegar, Weeks’ first hitting coach in Milwaukee. "Pound for pound Rickie is strong. His short, compact stroke generates a lot of power with it. Tremendous hands. Strong in the hands, wrists, forearms. He whipped the bat through the zone just as good as anybody."

Wynegar, now the hitting coach for the New York Yankees' Class AAA affiliate in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, worked with Weeks through 2006. He was a two-time All-Star in his 13-year career and played with future Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson.

"Rickie always had tremendous bat speed and that’s something I think is just God-given," Wynegar said. "You might be able to increase it a mile or two, but to try and increase somebody hat’s a little bit of a slower swing – slow twitch fiber I guess you’d call it – and try to increase it to a bat speed like Rickie has? You can’t do it. That’s God-given."

In the visiting dugout at Miller Park, Dale Sveum looked up from under the bill of his Chicago Cubs hat at the suite windows high above the left field seats. He lifted his eyebrows at them, cocking his head.

"You want him to really catch one of those swings on his pull side and see if he can get up above those windows," the Cubs manager said. "Not now of course."

He smiled.

"He always hits such hard, hard line drive home runs. He doesn’t hit those monster long ones very often. It’s about the top five bat speeds I’ve ever seen in the game."

Sveum coached Weeks as the Brewers bench coach (2006); third base coach (2007-08), interim manager (08) and hitting coach (09-11) before taking over the Cubs managerial spot. He enjoyed a 12-year career and played with Hall of Famers Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Rickey Henderson, future Hall of Famers Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey, Jr. and power hitters like Gary Sheffield, Mark McGwire and Ruben Sierra. He coached Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in Boston.

No matter.

"There was definitely, definitely a different sound, definitely a different – the ball came off his bat different than most anybody you’d been around," Sveum said.

"I used to always say the ball comes off his bat like Dale Murphy’s did when I played with Dale Murphy. Dave Winfield. Kirby Puckett. Guys like that where the ball was just different. It got through the infield. It was scary some balls he would hit in batting practice. You were just amazed because it was so, I wouldn’t say effortless, but effortless throughout his body because his hands were so strong. He throws his hands so fast. It’s incredible bat speed he generates."

Johnny Narron replaced Sveum as the Brewers hitting coach last season, and saw Weeks up close for the first time in the spring of 2012.

"That’s the first thing that jumps out at you – his bat speed," said Narron, who coached MVP Josh Hamilton in Texas. "He’s got strong hands. He’s got a strong body and he knows how to utilize his lower half with his upper half. His bat gets through the zone very quick, as good as anybody’s, and the ball jumps off his bat as good as I’ve ever seen. He’s unique.

"He hit it so hard. It has tremendous carry on it and like you said, the outfielder’s see a line drive but the ball just keeps on carrying. When he hits the ball that hard it’s scary sometimes."

Put it on the board

On July 29, 2012, Weeks squared up a 94-mile-per-hour fastball release by Washington Nationals right-handed reliever Ryan Mattheus in the seventh inning of an eventual 11-10 Nationals victory.

The ball was dead center, and Weeks unleashed the lightning.

"One of the wow moments was he hit what appeared to be a line drive off that scoreboard," Narron said, turning to look out at the 5,940-square foot, 105-foot high board some 443 feet away. "That was pretty impressive because when you look at a hard line drive, that ball came off his bat line drive, and it climbed and hit that scoreboard, you’re thinking if that scoreboard wasn’t there how far would it have gone?

"That was pretty impressive."

That power is there, has been since the spring of 2001, but it rarely manifests itself in that that fashion. Lightning is quick, compact, here and gone.

That is what Weeks has, and is what leaves a mark.

Like a solo home run off current Cubs reliever Kevin Gregg on April 12, 2009. The Cubs won the game 8-5, but Weeks took the right-hander deep on a 2-1 offering in the ninth inning.

"I thought it was just a line drive over the shortstop’s head and it ended up being in the bullpen over here," Sveum said looking out to left field at Miller Park. "It was one of the hardest balls, if not the hardest ball, I’ve ever seen hit. It got out in like two seconds it seemed like."

Weeks sat in front of his locker in the Brewers clubhouse, and was preparing for a turn in the cage. He pulled on his batting gloves, wrapped Velcro tight around his hands, sheathing the lightning. He squeezed his hands closed.

"I don’t know. It’s God-given, I guess," he said. "It’s one of those things where you just kind of knew that you had it."

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.