Sometimes people seem destined to wind up in certain places and specific jobs that fit together like gloves and hands on a cold winter morning. New Missouri State baseball assistant coach Joey Hawkins meets that description to 20/20 vision.
Flashback 13 years to when a then-15-year-old Hawkins, the starting shortstop for an elite high school touring baseball team called the Ontario Blue Jays, rolled into Hammons Field.
“Walking in here that first time, I felt like it was the big leagues,” Hawkins said, noting that his eyes probably were bigger than batting-practice fastballs before the Blue Jays faced Missouri State in an autumn exhibition game.
Hawkins has little memory of exactly how he played that day or details about the game. He does remember an instant connection he felt to a place some 1,100 miles from his home in Whitby, Ontario.
Between that first impression in the Ozarks and the start of Missouri State’s 2022 baseball season, Hawkins became one of the most popular players to wear a Bears jersey on perhaps the best team in program history.
And he found a home for much more than baseball, meeting his wife at Missouri State and making lifetime friends and a professional opportunity to work at the very place he knew so little about on that initial visit.
“This is where I want to be; it’s like it was meant to be,” said Hawkins, the hitting coach and recruiting coordinator for a program led by 40-year head coach Keith Guttin.
‘I haven’t moved out of Missouri since I came here.’
It all began with a routine exhibition game a baker’s dozen years ago that launched Hawkins on a path to a career as slick-fielding shortstop for Bears teams that reached the NCAA Tournament his freshman year (2012) and senior season (2015). A two-year team captain, Hawkins was Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior for arguably the best team in school history.
Missouri State finished 49-12 with a school-record 19-game winning streak. The Bears were ranked in the top 10 and played host to and won an NCAA Tournament Regional before a heartbreaking one-run defeat in the deciding game of a Super Regional at Arkansas.
But Hawkins has more than memories, now intent on making new ones in a new role just seven years removed from playing for Guttin.
“You know, I haven’t moved out of Missouri since I came here,” Hawkins said. “It’s home to me. I love Missouri State and this community.”
That’s why Hawkins gave up a minor-league coaching job with the St. Louis Cardinals, where he was on the fast track as a coaching prospect when Guttin called him last summer when he had the opening.
“I don’t think it was an interview as much as it was a conversation,” Guttin said, noting that the decision to offer Hawkins the job was easy.
It wasn’t quite as easy for Hawkins. Or maybe it was. While there were good reasons to remain with the Cardinals, where he already was coaching top prospects at High Class-A Peoria, he felt a gravitational pull to trade red for maroon. He and wife Ashley (Brentz), a former Missouri State softball standout, had just welcomed their first child, daughter Kinsley, a few months earlier.
The couple had a home in St. Louis, just a couple of hours away from Peoria (and three from Springfield). Turns out, it didn’t take long to give Guttin a yes.
“I had a very good job with the Cardinals, but we had talked about if the opportunity presented itself to come here, to come home, that is where I wanted to coach and where we wanted to live. You sometimes have to act quickly when opportunities are presented. We felt it was the right time and I’m so happy to be here.”
Guttin said Cardinals’ on-field staff members raved about Hawkins’ organizational skills, knowledge and enthusiasm “and Joey certainly has brought those same qualities to us.”
‘I always had the mindset of being a coach’
Coaching was something that first appeared on Hawkins’ radar while he was playing at Missouri State and continued to intrigue him during seasons playing professionally after the Cardinals drafted him in the 40th round in 2015. His playing career peaked at Double-A Springfield.
“I think I always had the mindset of being a coach and it really started taking off when I got into the minor leagues,” he said. “I enjoyed playing at that level and being around that level of talent. But I knew that the playing part was going to end at some point and that the jersey was going to come off my back. So it becomes what do you want to do after?
“For me, I’ve always tried being an extension of the coaching staff, to help the younger guys, to help the young Latino players who aren’t from here. I enjoyed that. And then, once I got released, it was right into coaching.”
First came a stop at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, as recruiting coordinator and hitting coach, and in 2017 he was hired as an assistant at Saint Louis University, where he helped the Billikens reach the NCAA Tournament in his first season. He went to work for the Cardinals in 2019, beginning as a hitting coach in the Gulf Coast League.
During the pandemic season of 2020, Hawkins returned to Hammons Field as a hitting instructor for the Cardinals’ alternate training site. He worked with some of the top prospects, including Nolan Gorman.
“I still stay in touch with Nolan and follow his career,” Hawkins said. “I’m always a phone call away if he has a question about his swing.”
‘I’m here to help them create their own identity’
Guttin said Hawkins has a personality and intellect that connects to young players. Knowledge of modern technology and offensive analytics is helpful, with the ability for his teaching to resonate as the biggest key.
“He’s not that far removed from playing,” Guttin said. “It’s easier to demonstrate the game and I think he’s done a really good job of building relationships with players where they are comfortable going to him and initiating conversations.”
Senior outfielder Dakota Kotowski said Hawkins is relatable to the players because of his youth and his teaching qualities.
“It wasn’t long ago he helped lead a Missouri State team to a regional,” Kotowski said. “Also his perspective is great. Whether you have a bad if it’s live (hitting) or in the cages, he’s trying to make a negative into a positive. You’re looking at the smaller wins and getting better each day.
“He’s very approachable and has been around many different players and cultures, like in minor-league baseball, he really does have a fit for every single person. One of his best traits is to be able to adapt to everybody on an individual basis.”
Guttin said Hawkins’ zeal for recruiting, the lifeblood of any athletic program, is equally impressive.
“He has the ability to make relationships and keep relationships,” Guttin said. “For a guy his age, it’s remarkable how connected he is with coaches, professional people, scouts, you name it. I mean, he has a network of people. It’s impressive.”
Hawkins smiled when asked about recruiting.
“I love getting out there and trying to see who would fit into our program,” he said. “If you want to be a good college coach you better love recruiting.”
Hawkins said it’s easy for him to recall when he was 15 and how important it was for college coaches to shoot him straight when he was being recruited. Now, it’s like things have come full circle as he is the one showing recruits around Hammons Field and the Missouri State campus.
Perhaps surprisingly, one thing Hawkins refuses to do is bring up his past as a Missouri State player — at least to the current roster.
“The easy thing for me would be to come back here and constantly talk about my experiences, but I choose not to,” Hawkins said. “They already know what I did and what our group did. They want to write their own story. I’m here to help them create their own identity.
“I do share with recruits and their families that there is no better place to experience college baseball and how it’s possible to host a regional in front of 8,000 people. It’s possible to play at Arkansas in front of 12,000 and not be a bit scared. Those are the experiences that you should want.”
Missouri State baseball at a glance
Season opener: Feb. 18-20 at Central Arkansas
Home opener: Feb. 25-27 vs. Cal Poly
MVC opener: April 8-10 vs. Dallas Baptist at Hammons Field
MVC tournament: May 24-28 at Hammons Field
Ticket info: Season tickets $100, $50 MSU faculty and staff, $20 for students. Single-game tickets $6 general public, $3 MSU faculty and staff, $2 students. Call (417) 836-7678 or visit MissouriStateTIX.com.
For more information: MissouriStateBears.com