PORT CHARLOTTE — The raw intensity, the fierce competitiveness and the colorful invectives new Rays pitcher Rich Hill shows are entertaining in all kinds of ways, especially in contrast to the playful, gregarious and benevolent nature he otherwise provides.
The fits he throws, on the field and between innings in the dugout, have become epic. Video clips of his outbursts, the marvel from teammates, the nicknames bestowed — such as Psycho Rich and Dick Mountain — are all appropriate markers.
“He’s really awesome (the) four days around him (between starts). That fifth day, you probably want to stay away from him,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.
“When he gets on the mound, he turns into a different guy.”
But this is a not a show Hill, 41, puts on, some manufactured persona or made-for-TV alter ego. This isn’t a different guy, but actually the guy Hill has become.
His perspective is shaped by the failures and frustrations through a 20-year pro career that several times was teetering. And by the staggering 2014 heartbreak of losing a child two months after birth due to rare brain disorders and kidney failure.
“That just reaffirmed the concept of time and how valuable it is,” Hill said. “Part of that with the loss of our son is just understanding that every time you get the opportunity to go out there and pitch, it could be your last time. So you want to make the most of it. Every single opportunity.”
Hill wasn’t always that way, coming up with the Cubs in the late 2000s, acknowledging that he dealt with what he thought were tough times by “just kind of like floating through, thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to have another start in five days.’ ”
As he got older and more mature, and as he started to deal with the injuries and issues that would threaten to derail his career, he started to change, realizing where his intense focus should be.
But what Hill — plus wife Caitlin and oldest son Brice — went through for two months following the Dec. 26, 2013, birth, and Feb. 24, 2014, death of Brooks had a massive impact.
Hill shared remarkably personal feelings and details in an April 2019 essay for the Players Tribune, including how they brought Brooks home from the hospital on hospice care, held him and softly sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame before he died.
Brooks remains part of their lives. The Hills have launched a campaign, Field of Genes, to raise $1 million to support research into rare diseases and plan a future scholarship program in Brooks’ name.
Six days after Brooks died, Hill went to spring training with the Red Sox, deciding being back to baseball would be best.
“That was something that changed the total definition of day-to-day, really, life,” Hill said. “That was something that … fed into kind of molding what I do now.”
On a much lesser scale, there were other setbacks.
Injuries have been an issue throughout his career. Blisters that sidelined him frequently, Tommy John surgery in 2011, then a procedure using a brace to repair another ligament tear in October 2019.
He has had to re-invent himself and his delivery to fit different roles, from starter to side-arming reliever (with Cleveland in 2013, with Cash as his bullpen coach) and back to starter.
He has bounced among 10 teams, including three trades. A June 2015 release by the Nationals, after 2 ½ months languishing at Triple-A, was a key juncture. He stayed active by throwing with an American Legion team near his Massachusetts home, deciding he wanted to go back to starting. At 35, he joined the independent Long Island Ducks, and two solid outings got him re-signed by the Red Sox.
Since then, he has been an impressive 43-22 over 95 games (94 starts), with 584 strikeouts in 505 innings, hitting the jackpot of a three-year, $48 million contract from the Dodgers in 2017, then spending last year with the Twins and joining the Rays on a one-year, $2.5 million deal.
Not bad for a guy who was first drafted out of high school in 1999, overlapped in college at Michigan with Tom Brady, started his pro career in 2002, first reached the majors in 2005, ended 2020 as the majors’ oldest active pitcher and second-oldest player (behind Albert Pujols).
Yes, Hill said, you can call him a survivor. One who navigated a circuitous path to get here.
“You look at and it’s like this big squiggly line,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Okay, what happened here?’ Then, ‘Can we go over this?’ Then, ‘How did you get back here?’ Then all of this happened.
“But it was always getting back to like neutral, or whatever. Always getting back to here. I think that’s something that’s realistic with everybody, that they can resonate with as opposed to all, ‘Yeah, of course, they were going to be a Hall of Famer, they were talented.’ Not everybody’s a straight line.”
That journey and the attitude necessary to make it allowed Hill to not really care how he is judged, such as his alpha-level competitiveness, his view “that you’re not going out there to make friends or be cordial,” his intense focus on each pitch, the emotions he bares on the mound.
“The survival thing is real, and you want to continue to keep fighting,” he said. “Letting go of what other people will think, or what other people will say, is some of the most valuable things that you can put in your life. …
“If you intensely love something, continue to keep working. And that’s what I do here with baseball. I love it. No matter how good it goes to how bad it is, I love playing.”
At some point, maybe soon, Hill will have to decide for how much longer to play — such as pulling a Brady and aiming for age 45 — in pursuit of the World Series championship he hasn’t yet won. Or to go home to New England, where Brice, who is 9 now, will be playing baseball this summer.
“I want to be part of that and see that,” Hill said. “But at the same time you can’t do this forever either. You can’t leave and come back. Once you kind of move on, you have to understand that you have to be okay with that. For me, it’s hard right now to even think about because I’m throwing the ball really well. So why would I entertain anything else?”