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"Who I am? My name is Rich Hill, I grew up in Milton, Mass. I'm married with my wife Caitlin, our sons Brice and Brooks ... "
This is how Rich Hill begins to introduce himself.
"We're currently right now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, so I guess that's my job title: pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers," he says.
For much of his career, however, Hill had precious little job security. And, a year ago, it didn’t seem like he’d find any.
"There’s a couple points in our career — and I say our career because my wife has been there every step of the way, and it's been an incredible journey. And when we talk about perseverance it's really just, you know, not trying to be perfect as we're going through this life. Because when we look back on the journey it is ... it's a mess," Hill says.
Over 12 years, Hill has played for eight different Major League teams, moving from Chicago to Baltimore to Boston to Cleveland to Anaheim to New York to Oakland to LA. And there have been many minor league stops in between.
When his Major League career began with the Cubs in 2005, he was a promising, young starter with a wicked curveball. But soon control issues and injuries set in. Shoulder surgery in 2009 dramatically altered his future.
"You think when you go in for surgery, you come out, 'OK, I'm fixed,'" Hill says. "Well that wasn't really the case. So that's what led to me dropping down and actually throwing sidearm, you know, for those five years, out of the bullpen."
Hill went from prized starter to journeyman reliever.
But the hardest part came with the birth of his son Brooks in December 2013.
"Yeah, so, a little tough to talk about, but, yeah, it was an amazing day, going in on Christmas night to the hospital. We were both excited," Hill says of Caitlin and himself. "We had left our son at home with, actually, my brother. So he was, you know, very excited about seeing his new brother. When he was born we knew that something may not be right."
Difficult Times For Hill Family
Brooks was born on Dec. 26, 2013. At first glance, he looked normal. But his arms and legs stayed unnaturally contracted, hinting at major health issues.
"And as the days and the weeks unfolded, we found out that he had lissencephaly, which is a smoothness of the brain and polymicrogyri[a] in the back of the brain where his neurons didn't fully form to where they should have connected in his brain, and also congenital nephrotic syndrome, where his kidneys were failing when he was born, right from day one. So that was, when we found that out, that was extremely difficult."
Doctors said Brooks needed a kidney transplant. And Hill talked with his wife about what their son’s quality of life would be.
"He was in so much pain every single day, and with the underlying issues of lissencephaly and the polymicrogyri, knowing that he is going to have an extremely difficult path for two to five years of the rest of his life if this kidney transplant was successful, you know, who are we doing this for?" Hill asks. "Are we doing it for ourselves to hold onto somebody? Or are we doing it really in his best interests? When I look back on it, there is no right answer. But for us we decided to take him home on hospice, and he ended up spending the last three days of his life at our house with us and it was great."
Rich and his wife tried to help their son Brice understand what was happening to his baby brother.
"It wasn't easy, because you're telling a little kid at 2 years old that his brother isn't going to be here," Hill says. "He was in the hospital with us, with everything, all the way through, through to the end, and he was amazing."
Brooks passed away when he was barely 2 months old.
Ten days later, Hill reported to spring training with the Boston Red Sox.
"The Boston Red Sox organization was amazing, saying, ‘Hey, look, take your time,’" Hill says. "But I think my wife and I, life keeps moving forward, it doesn't matter. People die, daily life continues, but with a different view on life, an understanding of time and how precious life is. We live for our son Brooks and with his memory on an everyday basis."
Hill began the 2014 season with Boston’s AAA affiliate, the Pawtucket Paw Sox. In July, he was traded to Anaheim. Less than two weeks later, Hill was released. Unsure of what the future held, he returned home to Boston.
"I just found a brick wall, and I'd throw off the brick wall. Or I'd go over to BC High in the parking lot and they have a — off the side of their gym, and I'd just throw the ball off the wall there and play long toss. Anyway, two days goes by and the Yankees call me back and say, 'Hey, come on back to New York.' And I don't know," Hill says, laughing. "So, two days later, I'm back in the big leagues facing David Ortiz with runners on second and third, after playing catch off the wall the day before. So it's crazy when you look back — those are the things, the little things that happen along the way."
"Life keeps moving forward, it doesn't matter. People die, daily life continues, but with a different view on life, an understanding of time and how precious life is. We live for our son Brooks and with his memory on an everyday basis."
Still, when the 2015 season started, Hill found himself with the Syracuse Chiefs, the AAA affiliate of the Washington Nationals. And he decided to opt out of his contract. He thought he might find a spot in the Majors with another organization. He didn’t.
He was no longer a prized, young starter. He was a 35-year-old reliever with two major surgeries and multiple minor league stints on his resume.
Hill knew he was a risky investment. So, he made a risky move, deciding to play for an independent league team. Because independent league teams don’t have any affiliation with Major League Baseball, they’re often a last resort for pro players.
And as long as Hill was making that move, he wanted to make one more.
"I said, 'If I'm going to go to independent ball and pitch, I want to get back into starting. Because this is my opportunity right now.' You know, I felt healthy enough to be able to take that opportunity in Long Island," says Hill.
And so he entered the colorful world of independent league baseball.
"Walking down through the tunnel to get to the dugout, I looked over, I saw a bucket. Well, there’s your bathroom," Hill says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, on the mound, he embraced the opportunity the Long Island Ducks offered.
"I felt good, I felt strong, I felt healthy, my shoulder felt great for the first time throwing over the top in six years," Hill says. "I remember talking to Marty, the pitching coach one day, and he said, 'What are you doing here?' Because the ball was coming out great out of my hand. And I said, 'Well, I would look at it the same way if I was in the front office. I can't just release a guy to let some guy start for us who hasn't started in six years. You know, we have to see something.'"
Hill made his Ducks debut on Aug. 2, 2015, pitching against the Bridgeport Bluefish. The left-hander threw five innings of no-hit baseball. In his second start, he struck out 14 batters in six innings, tying a franchise record.
"I knew that the way the ball was coming out of my hand, the way the spin for my breaking ball was presenting itself out of my hand, I knew there was going to be an opportunity to get to the big leagues," Hill says.
Hill was back in the Major Leagues by mid-September.
In four starts for the Red Sox, he went 2-1 with a 1.55 ERA and 36 strikeouts. The Red Sox wanted to bring Hill back. But the Oakland Athletics offered him more certainty of starting. Hill signed with the Athletics during the offseason, then landed with the LA Dodgers after an August 2016 trade.
During the Dodgers playoff run, Hill earned a win over his first team, the Cubs. And barely six weeks later, the Dodgers showed how much they valued the veteran.
Hill earned the first long-term, big-money contract of his career. At the press conference announcing the deal, both his sons came to mind and he said, "I’d like to thank my family who is here today and my wife Caitlin, our sons Brice and Brooks. You know this is a great day for us."
But it was about more than his new three-year, $48 million contract.
"I think about our son, and it's always something that for me it's extremely emotional," Hill says. "We made the decision to live for Brooks, so, and with our son, Brice, and keeping Brooks' memory alive not only for us and everyone else but also for him, so he understands that he had a brother. He had a brother and he has a brother. He'll always bring up baby Brooks, and he'll mention he knows that he's in heaven, and if he finds a feather, he always thinks, he says baby Brooks is leaving him little messages and stuff like that. He may not be with us physically, but we believe that he's with us every single day."
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