Rutgers-Camden coach: Christian Hackenberg’s baseball dream ‘not a joke’
The text message on baseball coach Ryan Kulik’s phone read like a mistake.
Hey, can you get a catcher for Hackenberg? He needs to throw a bullpen.
“I’m like, ‘Christian Hackenberg?’ ” Kulik recalled Saturday for The Post. “What do you mean?”
The former Jets quarterback — a second-round draft pick who flopped out of the NFL after three seasons and lost his starting job in the short-lived Alliance of American Football — is pursuing a professional baseball pitching career, as first reported by NBC Sports Philadelphia.
For the last month, Hackenberg has been training with Kulik, coach at NCAA Division III Rutgers-Camden and trainer at All Pro Baseball Academy in Williamstown who is working out of his backyard during quarantine. They talk every day and get on the mound once or twice per week.
“It’s not a joke,” Kulik said. “He’s all-in. He wants to do whatever it takes to reach his goal. And I think he can.”
Rutgers-Camden catcher Tommy Gosse is Hackenberg’s bullpen batterymate. He mixes in fastballs, changeups and curveballs.
“He hits the mitt,” Gosse said. “No dirt balls. I’m not blocking every pitch, by any means. I set up a spot and right now he is hitting it. Sometimes I have to take a step back, like, ‘Wow, he is making this transition and learning so quick.’ ”
Hackenberg, 25, was playing slow-pitch softball in South Jersey with a friend of Kulik’s when the idea to switch sports materialized. He was a standout high school baseball player at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, but the side gig ended when he arrived at Penn State as a five-star quarterback in 2013.
Baseball is a sport unforgiving of seven-year layoffs, but Hackenberg was clocked at 92 mph. Kulik sees room to grow the fastball to 95 when a consistent throwing program and arm-care routine are in place.
“He knows it’s going to take some time,” Kulik said. “But, physically, he’s got the body and the arm strength for it. It’s a little different, with your lower-half mechanics, throwing a football than a baseball. Once he figures that out, he is going to be pretty damn good.”
Hackenberg’s NFL career was one bad experience on top of another. The Jets buried him on the depth chart over accuracy concerns (among other reasons) and he was traded without playing a regular-season snap. He later was cut by the Raiders, Eagles and Bengals.
Baseball offers a clean mental slate.
“My biggest takeaway is he loves to compete,” Gosse said. “I’ve been lucky enough to catch a couple big-leaguers over the years, but I for sure never thought I’d be catching an NFL QB.”
Hackenberg’s next step is to sign with a major league organization at a time when franchises are cutting minor leaguers en mass. Or he could try the independent minor league route — as former Giants quarterback Danny Kanell once did — if and when those seasons resume.
“Do I think he could pitch in the big leagues one day? I really do,” Kulik said. “Because he is just scratching the surface with what we’re doing now, and I’m already seeing results and improvement. If he continues to do this for another year, there’s no reason he can’t be 95-plus. He wants it.”
Kulik is an Eagles season-ticket holder and a Penn State fan, but football only enters their discussions on Hackenberg’s call.
“There’s a little bit of a chip on his shoulder,” Kulik said.
Hackenberg is making up for lost time by sponging up coaching, not afraid to ask an elementary question.
“I’ve been around a lot of big leaguers, been around a lot of very talented pitchers, and he’s just different in that he wants to be good,” Kulik said. “He just has that drive and mentality. You can tell by the look in his eye that he wants to get there.”
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