Catching a Dream
Panthers catcher, math whiz draws attention of Major League scouts
By Trapper Schoepp
When UWM junior Paul Hoenecke was five-years-old, he was asked at a family member’s funeral what he wanted to do with his life.
“I want to play in the Major Leagues,” he declared. Paul’s Michigan relatives told him he would have to think of a real job someday.
Twelve years later, Michigan’s MLB team, the Detroit Tigers, drafted him. Although he rejected the $40,000 signing bonus for a college degree, he found the attention gratifying.
“I wanted to prove people wrong,” Hoenecke said. “I didn’t think anyone thought I could do it.”
Now 20, Hoenecke receives letters from MLB franchises like a high school senior does from luring colleges.
Still, though, the catcher and utilities player for the Milwaukee
Panthers remains doubtful about his chances of getting to the big leagues.
“It’s every kid’s dream to, so you want to say yes. But realistically the odds say no,” Hoenecke said.
“Worst case would be that I’m done playing baseball next year and that’s it,” he said. “But that’s really not that bad, either. I get to play for four years division one baseball and then I’m done.”
In high school, Hoenecke won a state championship with West Bend West and was awarded the Journal Sentinel Player of the Year award two years in a row.
In college, he’s been a member of the Horizon Academic All-League baseball team and was named Horizon League Player of the Week last March.
In addition, he made the Horizon League’s academic honor roll and jokes that his 4.0 GPA last semester is only because of his distant relation to mathematical genius, Carl Friedrich Gauss.
“He was one of the great mathematicians of his time, and I’m directly blood related to him, so I definitely have some of those genes in me,” he said with a laugh.
His relation to the German descendent (who is often called the Prince of Mathematics) is traceable through a family tree that hangs in his dad’s basement.
Hoenecke, a marketing major at UWM, said that if it weren’t for baseball, he’d want to be crunching numbers or engineering.
“He invented the degausser, which the TV wouldn’t work today without it,” he said, staring at a TV screen playing “Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies.”
After a long day of physical conditioning and practice, making it to the next level of this virtual game is a natural progression for the competitor.
Hoenecke cites his father, Andy, as a major influence. Wherever Paul is playing across the country, his Dad is sitting right behind home base watching.
“For the most part, he’s at every game. He gets free flier miles and hotels, so he makes every game,” he said.
And while some young athletes get anxious with the presence of their parents, Hoenecke appreciates it.
“He’s just watching his son play ball,” he said. “You never know how long you’re gonna’ be playing. The more games your parents get to watch, the more enjoyment they’re going to get.”
Andy Hoenecke doesn’t say too much to Paul while he’s on the field, but does give the ump beside his son a hard time.
“When I hear that, I just can’t help but chuckle,” he said. “That’s probably the best part about having him there, just ripping on the umpire a little bit in between innings and stuff.”
Like many of his coaches, Hoenecke said his dad wasn’t the type of guy that pats you on the back. Paul learned this the first time he pitched in little league, giving up ten runs in three innings.
“I got in the car and he just went off on me and I bawled the whole way home. But you know what? It really does toughen you up and definitely makes you better now.”
Andy Hoenecke played baseball in the Land O' Lakes Baseball League in West Bend and took his son to games two hours before and after each game. That’s where Paul learned the game.
His earliest baseball memory wasn’t with his dedicated father, though.
When he was four, his mother Shelly had summers off as a teacher.
“We’d go in the backyard and she’d just underhand me balls for hours on end and I just hit.”
“That’s all I asked to do in the summer.”
Live to win
“I always just want to be the best and it can be bad and good,” Hoenecke said.
His roommate and childhood friend, Mitchell Keller, sees both sides.
Keller said: “Today I owed Paul three pizzas at one point during a game of basketball, but our wager was off after I hit a half court shot.
The higher the stakes, the more fun we’re supposedly having with me usually being on the losing end.”
“I think he gives me a few more breaks than I should get,” Keller added.
The two grew up attending parochial grade school together and had a love-hate relationship because of their constant competition.
“If we had a chair and a beach ball, we invented a game,” Keller joked.
Hoenecke’s teammate and freshman year roommate, Nick Lingvay, said Paul’s best quality on the field is his perseverance.
“He never will settle for anything but the best,” he said. “You can really see this stand out when he comes in to take extra batting practice, or get a lift in even after a long 4 hour practice.”
Hoenecke’s passion for competing also led him to the golf course in high school. His season ended though when his baseball and golf practice times conflicted and he had to choose between the two.
Hoenecke handed in his golf bags the next day.
He says he can hit up to 300 yards, but that his short game needs some work. One of his dreams outside of baseball is to play in the PGA tour.
Keller also noted his personal aspirations.
“My dream in life is for Paul to get drafted by someone somewhere, preferably somewhere warm. I tag along, clean up after him, maybe get a job at the ballpark and make a living that way.”
Both Keller and Lingvay agreed that off the field Hoenecke has an eccentric personality and has achieved somewhat of a legendary status amongst their social circles.
“Paul is a goofy, happy-go-lucky kind of guy that will always get a good laugh out of you,” Lingvay said. “Paul has been my best friend since getting on the baseball team and it has truly been a pleasure getting to know the man, the myth, the legend: Paul Hoenecke.”
With ten major league teams interested in Hoenecke, this June’s draft could leave Paul with a decision like the one he made when he was 17.
He could play one more year with the Panthers and finish his last three semesters at UWM or go play in the minors with hopes of making it to the show.
The L.A. Dodgers are particularly interested and he said “he’d definitely think about going.”
Why? The weather.
“It wears on you playing in this garbage. It’s windy, cold, and rainy.
Our game got cancelled again today,” he said. “I think everyone just gets depressed in the winter.”
He said his best memories are those playing at the ballpark in the summer.
“The smell of the concessions, running around in the dirt, the smell of the leather. I like to bite my glove, so the taste of the leather. The feel of the bat and that pine tar smell.”
Regardless of his future on the field, he said: “That’s the kind of stuff that stays with you forever.”