Unfortunately, No. 44 is not in Dodger Blue, because the club hasn’t gotten around to imbobblizing him just yet. He is in Duck Orange, wearing the No. 32 he was given when he showed up to pitch two games for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League in August of 2015.
“I had no idea he was coming,” says Kevin Baez, the former Mets infielder who’s been managing the Ducks for seven years now. “But when I saw him pitch, I knew he wasn’t going to be with us for very long.”
At the time, Hill was a 35-year-old lefthander with mileage and injury issues, a one-time overhand starter who had become a side-arming reliever who had become an afterthought. He had 197 games in the majors, but also a 4.72 ERA, and he had just opted out of his minor league contract with the Nationals — his eighth big-league team.
But Red Sox scouts still loved his curveball. To stay in pitching shape until they could find a place for him, he signed with the Ducks. “If you’re really passionate about something, if you really enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll play anywhere,” Hill says now.
In this case, anywhere was Bethpage Ballpark on Long Island. The most distinguishing feature was the co-owner who attended every home game: Bud Harrelson, the shortstop on the 1969 Miracle Mets. The least distinguishing feature was the bucket in the tunnel between the locker room and the clubhouse. As Hill remembers, “You see a lemonade-filled bucket and ask, “What’s that?'”
“Ohhh, please don’t write about that,” Baez says. (Sorry.) “It just so happens that the bathroom was upstairs in the clubhouse building, and some of the guys couldn’t wait.”
Baez’s first impression of Hill was far more auspicious. “Very classy guy, not a big league ego at all. As nice as can be… until he took the mound. I could tell right away how competitive he was. He’d strike out his mother if he had to. And his stuff was great.”
In two starts with the Ducks, Hill threw 11 scoreless innings, gave up two hits, two walks and struck out 21. In his second start on Aug. 9, he set a Ducks franchise record with 17 strikeouts. The next day, the Red Sox signed him for their Triple-A team in Pawtucket, and by September, the Milton, Mass., native was pitching lights out at Fenway for his hometown team: a 1.55 ERA with 36 strikeouts and five walks in 29 innings. “He called me after he got to Boston,” Baez says. “He thanked me for giving him the opportunity. Not everybody does that.”
After that month in Boston, Hill signed with the A’s, who traded him to the Dodgers, who gave him a three-year deal and will give him the ball tonight to try to stave off the end of a season — a season that began with the Ducks giving away a Rich Hill bobblehead for their Opening Day.
Watching Game 6 from a neighbor’s house in Oakdale, Long Island, will be Hill’s one-time, two-game manager. “They’re having a Halloween party,” Baez says. “I hope I can get my kids settled down after trick-or-treating. I want to be able to tell them that the Dodger pitcher on the mound used to play for me.”
He can tell them one of the great stories in baseball, a fairy tale about a Duck who became a swan.