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O's top pick Hobgood a man among boys

He strode toward the plate, a California schoolboy with a resolute look and a chance to win the game. But before he stepped in, Matt Hobgood looked skyward, knelt and, without a word, wrote his late father's initials in the dirt.

R ... L ... H.

Then he waggled his bat, swung from the heels and drove the first pitch 400 feet for a home run.

The crowd went nuts. Circling the bases, Hobgood raised both arms toward heaven and whispered, Thanks, Pops.

For the first 18 years, Matt Hobgood's life has played out like a movie. Born with a rare blood infection, he nearly died on the spot. At 14, his dad died of colon cancer, leaving behind the youngster along with his mother and four sisters.

Two weeks ago, in his last game at Norco (Calif.) High, Hobgood hit the walk-off moonshot, a salute to his father. And Tuesday, the Orioles made Hobgood, the nation's leading high school home run hitter, their No. 1 draft pick. As a pitcher.

A fastball clocked at faster than 98 mph settled that.

Wednesday found Hobgood driving his Ford F-150 pickup to school wearing an Orioles cap he had just bought at the mall. He would have driven clear to Camden Yards, if asked.

"I'd like to get to the pros as quick as I can and help the O's start kicking butt in the American League East," he said. "Striking out A-Rod would be a nice way to start."

Brash talk for a kid who still has braces on his teeth. But Hobgood isn't one to make idle, ego-driven boasts, those who know him say. Off the field, he is selfless and humble, grounded in an old-school morality and possessing a maturity born of one thrust into manhood at an early age.

On the field? Look again.

"When Matt goes out there, it's to take you down," said D.J. Wood, his best friend.

The Orioles know what they're getting.

"Why should we draft you?" amateur scouting director Joe Jordan asked the 6-foot-4, 245-pound right-hander during a sit-down last week.

"Because I hate losing more than I like winning," Hobgood said.

Away from baseball, he's unabashedly polite, a throwback to a different era. Hobgood once asked a girl's father for permission to take her to the homecoming dance. At school, he is fiercely protective of his three younger sisters.

"Any guy who wants to date one of the Hobgoods knows he has to go through Matt," Wood said. "When it comes to family, you don't mess with him."

A conservative Christian, Hobgood was home-schooled by his mother until seventh grade. A "B" student, he is steadfast in his faith and adamant in his efforts to follow his father's wishes.

"Dad always called my right arm 'the golden arm' and my left arm 'the Jesus arm,' " Hobgood said. "My right arm is for pitching, and the other is for God because he gave me all of the talent. I'll use both as a tool for God."

He sipped his first brew in high school and spit it out.

"Didn't like it," he said. "I go to parties and guys say, 'Have a beer, man, you're going to the majors.' I say, 'Don't pressure me because I've got a real opportunity.' "

His peers respect that, he said.

"Matt doesn't drink or smoke, and he has no tattoos, earrings or piercings. In today's world, he's kind of boring," said his grandmother, Sylvia Madruga.

Until he takes the mound.

"Between the lines, there's an intensity in him that's not there in the everyday person," said Gary Parcell, Norco's baseball coach. "There were times when Matt was almost bored on the mound because it was so easy. Then someone got a hit off him and he took it to another level. In tough competition, Matt gets amped."

In the California state playoffs last year, Hobgood battled another hard-throwing pitcher, Gerrit Cole, whose 100 mph offerings had pro scouts drooling. Hobgood's best had been clocked between 92 to 95 mph.

"Everyone came to see Cole throw 100, and he did," Parcell said. "But Matt touched 98 that day."

His curve, a thing of beauty, was unhittable. Norco won the game, 1-0.

"Call it my alter ego," Hobgood said of his competitive streak. "I'm a nice guy off the field, but out there that'll get you run over. Nolan Ryan once said he was an SOB on the mound, and if it works for him ... "

Hobgood plans to sign with the Orioles on June 27 for about $2.5 million. Before the draft, when the Orioles asked his plans for the money, he replied, "Buy a new truck, take care of my mom and sisters and put the rest in the bank."

"Great answer," Jordan said.

Hobgood's mantra: "Stay consistent and you'll be good, both in life and in baseball. Just stay off the roller coasters - not too many ups or downs."

He has seen enough of them already.

Born in Glendale, Ariz., Hobgood weighed in at 11 1/4 pounds. He was very big and very sick with strep pneumonia. Doctors gave him a one-in-10 chance to live and whisked the infant by air to a children's hospital in Phoenix.

"Before he left, we were told to stroke Matt gently and to tell him goodbye," said Becky Hobgood, his mother. His only chance was a blood-cleansing procedure that carried its own risks, including blindness and brain damage. The parents agreed.

"By God's grace, Matt turned out perfect," his mom said.

He grew fast and weighed 30 pounds within a year.

"He was a beast," Becky Hobgood said. "Whenever my husband and I took Matt out somewhere, we had to take turns holding him because he was so heavy. Solid, too, like a tank."

At 8, he got a ball and glove for his birthday. The youngster's eyes lit up. Outside, on a wall of the house, he fashioned a strike zone out of duct tape and taught himself to pitch.

"I'd stand out there and throw for hours," Hobgood said. "Never got burned out. Maybe that's why I'm able to pitch deep into games."

Youth leagues beckoned, and his father attended games when he could. Stricken with cancer when Matt was 6, Rick Hobgood battled for eight years before his death in January 2005. Once a bear of a man at 240 pounds, he weighed 100 at the end.

"Rick hung on until there was absolutely nothing of him left," Becky Hobgood said. "He did it for the kids. He said, 'If it was just me, I'd go to be with Jesus.' "

Matt and his sisters have coped well, their mom said.

"I told Matt that it wasn't his job to be the new man of the house, and that a 14-year-old kid deserved to be a kid," she said. "But, living in this sea of estrogen, I guess he took on that larger role himself."

In high school, Hobgood homered 39 times - including 21 this past season - and on each occasion, he raised two fingers to the sky. No one at Norco had to ask why. But only on the last one did he squat and draw Rick Lewis Hobgood's initials in the dirt.

The blast put a huge dent in Matt Hobgood's bat, which had to be replaced. The old one, he will keep forever.


Matt Hobgood Hometown: Norco, Calif.

Age: 18

Size: 6-4, 245

Position: RHP-1B

2009 high school statistics: Won 11 of 12 decisions with a 0.92 ERA, 101 strikeouts and 26 walks in 68 1/3 innings for Norco High. Batted .475 with a nation-high 21 home runs and 55 RBIs.

Awards: 2008-09 Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year; 2008 Los Angeles Times Player of the Year.

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