On a breezy early May afternoon in Fargo, North Dakota, Jon Hechtner stood in against IPFW’s Evan Miller for his third at-bat. Miller was 6.2 innings into a shutout, completely unsuspecting of the two run rally in the eighth that would not only break that shutout, but cost his team the last game of their series at North Dakota State. He delivered a pitch a little too high and a little too tight - and it hit Hechtner square in the face, effectively ending his junior season.
“That was just kinda bad luck,” he said with a smile.
Spoken like a hockey player.
As natural as it seems for someone from Omaha - the epicenter of college baseball - to play the national pastime, Hechtner very much could have gone with skates instead of cleats. He was a winger for the local AAA hockey team - the highest level of youth hockey before a player makes the jump to the junior ranks. He faced off against a number of future draft picks and National Hockey League prospects, including 2013 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, now of the Colorado Avalanche, who played his AAA hockey at powerhouse Shattuck St. Mary's.
"I got to the point where I had to decide, do I want to play hockey or baseball?" said Hechtner, now a rising senior at North Dakota State. "I decided baseball because of school, and it's really tough in hockey. If you get hurt, you're left with nothing."
It’s not an unfamiliar path: Nyjer Morgan followed a similar one all the way to the Major Leagues, one that brought him to Walla Walla Community College after a stint with the Regina Pats at the turn of the century. Hechtner, however, was left with plenty of lessons that have carried over from one sport to the other, specifically using the word "determination" to describe what he gained from his time on the ice.
"This is not a guy who's 6'3", 210 pounds," said Sweets manager Frank Mutz. "I'm sure he's had to play his entire career to prove to everybody that he can play with anybody. I'm telling you right now, he can play with anybody at the Division I level. He is determined. He works really hard. He is a guy that will lead us through most of this year in the lead-off spot. The way he grinds out at bats and the way that he approaches the game, it's not too high, not too low."
It’s true smaller athletes like Hechtner, who stands 5’10” and 175 pounds, often find themselves needing to do more to find success when competing for playing time against bigger athletes, but that added challenge has shaped Hechtner into a player who can lead his team without big, boisterous gestures.
"He's not gonna be a guy that talks a lot or is really loud, but he goes on the field, and he makes sure the guys know the right way to do things," said hitting coach Jimmy Milkovich. "When guys see him play, they know that's what they need to do, and that's how they need to follow."
Unfortunately, the outfielder didn’t get many opportunities to set an example in Fargo this year. He dealt with arm injuries for much of the season, taking just two at-bats from March 15 to April 24. When he came back, he hit .476 with eight RBIs in seven games before getting struck by a pitch on May 3 against IPFW.
It’s very much to the benefit of the Sweets that Hechtner was able to fight through the bad luck and nagging injuries to come back at the tail end of NDSU’s season, playing in the final game of the year against IPFW at the Summit League Tournament then coming to Walla Walla less than two weeks later, ready to play and showing no sign of permanent damage from being struck by an errant baseball.
“We have a lot of young guys on this team, a lot of kids coming from high school going to Division I programs” Mutz said. “[Hechtner] is a guy that, when we go on the road, is going to have younger guys rooming with him. That’s a guy in the dugout that’s walking around talking to guys, and he’s a winner. If I'm going to go out and recruit guys to play in my program, I'm going to go watch and look for the guys that come from winning programs. The reason he's such a good leader, is he has learned how to win and do it the right way with the right attitude.”
Hechtner, one of three rising Division I seniors in the field for the Sweets, has found success at every level in some shape or form. At Creighton Prep, he was an All-Nebraska selection in 2012, leading his team to a Class A state title. That summer, he went to the American Legion World Series with an Omaha Post No. 1 team that won 51 games. As a sophomore, he was part of a Summit League championship with the Bison, along with Sweets alumni Jon Skrbec, Michael Leach, and Jay Flaa. Hechtner grabbed a spot on the Summit League’s All-Tournament team en route to the title and the NCAA Regionals.
But the hardware and accolades aren’t the only things that make Hechtner stand out. He has, at times, sported a bold mustache, which added handlebars this year but didn’t make it to the baseball season, and one locked social media account made him into something of an on-campus Twitter celebrity.
It’s quite frequent that high-level coaches, athletes, and other famous people of all sorts end up with fake Twitter accounts parodying them which are generally innocuous and used for humorous ends. Rarely did the target previously have control over the account, but such is the case with Boring Jon Hechtner, the outfielder’s parody handle on Twitter.
Hechtner explained he got locked out of his old Twitter account, but one of his friends had gotten hold of the password. Rather than delete the account, his friend insisted on keeping it and having some fun with it.
“I said, ‘Just don’t do anything to get me in trouble,’” he said. With that, Hechtner had what amounted to a fan-run Twitter account, profiling "his" adventures of walking into Wal-Mart through the out door and other assorted deeds. That account has gone quiet for some time, not tweeting anything since the end of January, but it’s still out there. If he continues to play like he has, Boring Jon Hechtner might be a little more lively.
“If he does have a fan club,” said Mutz, “I want to know what the password is so I can join.”
Sounds like the real Jon Hechtner has some new fans already.