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Auburn’s ‘Thicc King’ has a heart bigger than his swing

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Auburn’s ‘Thicc King’ has a heart bigger than his swing

Published: Jun. 10, 2022, 12:47 p.m.

Auburn teammates celebrate with slugger Sonny DiChiara (17) after a home run against Arkansas at Plainsman Park. (Jacob Taylor/AU Athletics)Jacob Taylor/AU Athletics



By Joseph Goodman | jgoodman@al.com

Sonny DiChiara has hit 61 home runs through four years of college baseball. The story about his first one is my favorite.

It tells you everything you need to know about a player whose personality and fun-loving style turned Auburn home games into a party this season, and elevated the Tigers to a level no one was expecting. The affable slugger is one of the best hitters in the country. More importantly, though, he’s a great person with a heart bigger than his enormous swing.

And they call him “Thicc King” for a reason. His 6-foot-1, 263-pound frame hits bombs like the Sultan of Swat.

Auburn begins its NCAA baseball tournament super regional at 9 p.m. CT on Saturday out in Corvallis, Oregon, and DiChiara was a major reason for Auburn getting there. He obliterated opposing pitchers in Auburn’s regional sweep of Southeastern Louisiana, Florida State and UCLA, going 9 of 15 at the plate with two home runs, seven RBI and eight runs scored. It’s all pretty incredible considering how often teams try to pitch around “SonnyDi.”

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The NCAA baseball tournament super regionals feature 16 teams, and games begin on Friday and run through Monday. The eight winners of the best-of-three super regionals advance to the College Baseball World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. This is Auburn’s third appearance in a super regional in the last four years, and Auburn has played in the College Baseball World Series five times in school history: 1967, 1976, 1994, 1997 and 2019.

Auburn has never won it. Maybe this will be the year. Playing in the SEC prepares teams well for the postseason. Three of the last four national champions were from the SEC: Mississippi State (2021), Vanderbilt (2019) and Florida (2017). The College Baseball World Series was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oregon State, a traditional baseball powerhouse, won it in 2018. The Beavers’ famous baseball coach, Pat Casey, retired after that championship. Mitch Canham, who was a star catcher for Casey at OSU, is in his third season as coach of his alma mater. Baseball is a big deal for Oregon State, so the stadium will be buzzing for a super regional against an SEC opponent.

The SEC has dominated college baseball in recent years, which is what makes the run by Auburn coach Butch Thompson so impressive. Thompson is from Mississippi and played baseball for Birmingham-Southern. After that, he received a master’s degree in sports administration from UAB.

Five of the eight super regionals feature teams in the SEC. Tennessee, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are the others and future SEC members Texas and Oklahoma are also in the field. No.1 Tennessee (56-7) hosts Notre Dame beginning on Friday and the swaggering Volunteers have to be considered the favorites to win it all. No.3 Oregon State (47-16) is also a favorite. Auburn is an underdog, but this team plays that role well.

Auburn (40-19) wasn’t picked to do much this season in the loaded-down SEC, but DiChiara’s addition to the roster helped change the dynamics of the Tigers’ lineup. DiChiara is from Hoover, and played his first three seasons at Samford before transferring to Auburn. Entering the best-of-three super regional at Oregon State, DiChiara leads the NCAA in walks (66) and on-base percentage (.565). He is fourth in home runs (20), second in batting average (.397) and second in slugging percentage (.804) among players competing in the eight super regionals.

DiChiara’s ability to go deep into counts allows the batters behind him in the lineup to see everything the opposing pitcher has in his arsenal. He changes the game in other ways, too. His teammates say DiChiara’s carefree personality keeps the dugout grounded. When the pressure is on, like it will be in Corvallis, that can be a big X-factor for a visiting team that wasn’t even supposed to make it this far.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that DiChiara could one day be a star in Major League Baseball.

Auburn’s coach, being so familiar with the Birmingham baseball scene, knew all about DiChiara’s reputation as a slugger before this season. After starring for Hoover High School, DiChiara went to Samford and quickly became a notable pro baseball prospect. He hit 21 home runs in his first season, which set a school record for freshmen.

DiChiara’s second home run that season came in the sixth inning of a game against Kennesaw State. The slugger kept that ball as a keepsake. The first homer of his college career came an inning earlier, and DiChiara gave that ball away to a close friend.

DiChiara grew up with former Hoover High standout Ben Abercrombie, who played football and baseball for the Buccaneers. DiChiara and Abercrombie began playing baseball together in seventh grade. Abercrombie went to Harvard to play football in 2018 and, in a freak accident, suffered an injury in his first football game that left him paralyzed.

Over a year later, DiChiara texted Abercrombie after hitting his home runs against Kennesaw State and asked if he could stop by the house.

“When he came by he presented me with the ball and told me that he wanted me to have it and that he was always thinking about me and praying for me,” Abercrombie said. “I remember asking if he was sure that he wanted me to have it and he insisted that I take it. That is just an example of who Sonny has always been. He has always been a really nice, selfless guy and a great friend.”

Abercrombie’s paralysis deeply affected the Hoover High community. Teammates knew him as the hardest working player in the school both on the field and in the classroom. It’s that same level of willpower by Abercrombie that inspires people who know him to this day. He returned to Harvard after his injury and works to regain his ability to walk every day.

DiChiara, the baseball player with a heart somehow bigger than his massive swing, gave his first college home run to Abercrombie. The ball is dated March 8, 2019. “All for you,” it reads. Abercrombie’s influence on Auburn’s team goes beyond DiChiara, though. Another Auburn senior, Garrett Farquhar, wears Abercrombie’s high school baseball number, No.11, in his honor.

Abercrombie, who helps me pick college football games in the fall, is a big fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide, but he’s pulling for Auburn baseball this weekend. I imagine he won’t be the only college fan to cross over for the Tigers this once.

The spirit of DiChiara and Abercrombie’s story inspires hope and love. Its impact will be felt this weekend in Corvallis when “Thicc King” Sonny DiChiara steps to the plate. The smart thing to do would be to pitch around him. Hopefully Oregon State picks the other option.

Note to readers: The Ben Abercrombie Fund allows supporters to help with the cost of his care.

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