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A career ready to take flight

Hart graduate signs with new club after beginnings laced with adversity

Posted: July 26, 2009 10:10 p.m.
Updated: July 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Hart graduate Jeff Icenogle pitches for the Lancaster JetHawks. Recently cut by the Astros affiliate, Icenogle signed with a club in North Dakota.

 
It’s 6:55 p.m. in Denver on a Tuesday night in July.

Jeff Icenogle, a 2002 Hart High graduate, is sitting on a plane waiting for takeoff.

The destination is Fargo, N.D. — a place Icenogle has never seen.

He’s going to Fargo after turning down offers from teams named the “T-Bones,” “Toros” and “Beach Bums.”

“Baseball comes first so I’ll go anywhere to play it,” he says, moments before takeoff.

The 25-year-old is resurrecting his baseball career again.

It has been two weeks since Icenogle was cut by the Lancaster JetHawks — a Single-A affiliate of the Houston Astros.

On Wednesday, he signed with the independent Fargo-Moorehead Redhawks.

Perseverance like this isn’t new for him.

This is just a different kind.

Icenogle, who had a decent but undistinguished baseball career at Hart High, pitched at Pasadena City College before an injury seemingly ended his career.

He was working at a local Vons supermarket when a former teammate encouraged him to keep pitching.

He joined a Los Angeles Dodgers scout team, a team that exposes players to Major League Baseball scouts, then joined an Astros scout team because it was shorthanded.

Chuck Stone, who managed the Astros team, ended up getting Icenogle signed to the Astros organization in 2006.

Stone says one person high up in the Astros organization compared the left-handed throwing Icenogle’s potential to future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine.

Icenogle had a stellar debut in 2007 for the Low-A Tri City Valley Cats, going 3-4 with a 2.36 ERA.

Last season, though, Icenogle was struck by a line drive in the calf during the final spring training game.

The muscle would swell, he says, to the size of his head.

A doctor even told Icenogle that the muscle was in danger of dying and if that happened, he would have to get it removed.

He bounced back to finish the 2008 season with the Single-A Lexington Legends, and he went 3-10 with a 4.58 ERA.

Despite the injury and the numbers, he was promoted to High-A Lancaster.

His baseball career again fizzled.

He struggled out of the gate and says the organization tried to change his pitching philosophy.

Icenogle was one of the Astros organization’s best strikeout pitchers in 2008, striking out 116 batters in 106 innings.

But he says the Astros wanted their pitchers to pitch to contact more.

His earned run average skyrocketed.

In May, he was demoted to the bullpen.

“I felt it coming, like they were pushing me out,” Icenogle says. “The way they talked to me and treated me, it was different than past years. It almost felt like they weren’t working with me as much mechanically.”

Multiple attempts were made to reach the JetHawks coaching staff for this story to no avail.

But even when he reached the bullpen, the results weren’t better.

On July 1, Icenogle pitched three innings, allowing an earned run against Lake Elsinore.

He was satisfied with the outing.

Icenogle sat in the bullpen for eight days, unused, before he was released.

“He’ll be an awesome success story given a little more adversity. Now it’s about timing,” says Stone, who was a scout for the Astros between 2005 and 2008.

Stone now works for Christian Athletes Perfecting Sports, a nonprofit sports agency.

He saw Icenogle, who he helped sign in 2006, pitch a couple of times this season.

Stone says he has a lot of belief in the pitcher.

One, because he is left-handed and throws hard, and two, because he doesn’t quit.

Icenogle was his own agent after his release from the JetHawks.

He e-mailed some independent teams, knowing that there weren’t many, if any, spots available with Major League-affiliated teams in the Minor Leagues.

Icenogle received multiple responses, but decided to go to Fargo.

“I don’t take the easy roads anywhere, but I’ll get to where I need to go,” he says.

Where he hopes to go is the Major Leagues and Icenogle still believes he will get there.

The plan is to keep in shape with Fargo, get an invite from a Minor League team for spring training, then work his way up.

He’s challenged the odds before and won.

Stone believes he will win again.

“I don’t think the story’s ended yet,” he says.

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