Rich Hill is MLB’s oldest player, and maybe its most colorful

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BRADENTON, Fla. — “F—— s— f—!”

This is the biggest man in baseball yelling at no one in particular.

It’s mid-morning on a changeable Florida day in late February at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ spring training facility. And there’s Rich Hill, the 43-year-old left-hander with perpetually tired eyes and a wisp of gray hair poking up from under his Pirates cap, cursing up a storm.

Hill’s bullpens have been a cult classic for years, a not-exactly-PG-13 event worth a front-row seat—just don’t bring your kids. On each offering, Hill sinks into his plant, tipping his front end toward the sky, before lunging forward toward the receiver. As her torso sways around her and the ball flies out of her hand, Hill lets out a throaty growl, one that would make Serena Williams proud.

If the throw is to his liking, Hill takes the rock from his catcher and repeats the process. If the pitch is lower, well, that’s why a Hill bullpen requires a parental advisory notice.

Throw in a plate warmer. The following sentence from his mouth is not fit for print.

These are the true sounds of spring: the snap of a maple tree being struck, the thump of a John Deere mower, the mediocre country-pop blaring out of stadium speakers and the curse of Rich Hill.

A big-league camp in February is a low-effort preparation environment, which means Hill’s guttural screams and four-letter cannon shots stand out. His manic energy is a departure from the composure typical of a Florida/Arizona backfield. But that irrational intensity, that commitment to precision, is a big reason why Hill is preparing to play another season of major league baseball, instead of filling out a real estate license application or coaching football junior or anything else respectable after the race. persecutions

Surviving the great past of the 40s is not simply believing in the delusion, but respecting it, making it your code.

Pitching on the mound next to the man known as “Dick Mountain” is Mitch Keller, a 27-year-old pitcher from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who has never chewed tobacco in his life and will likely start on Opening Day from Humble Pirates. Keller met his new teammate just a week earlier, but already has an admiration for the singular level of focus Hill brings to his craft. This is Keller’s first time pitching alongside him.

A whimsical slider Hill kisses dirt: “S— f—!”

Keller steps back, startled by the outburst.

“Sorry,” Hill offers, realizing he’s startled a fellow pirate.

This interaction is the epitome of Hill: a bemused outburst, followed by a genuine apology. A man of intensity and grace. A competitor An odds-beater. a teacher a maniac A friend”. And now, after 21 seasons of professional baseball, the oldest active player in the MLB.

The arc of Hill’s career is the stuff of legend: a nine-year run as a mediocre late starter turned often-injured lefty reliever; an unceremonious release from the Nationals’ Triple-A roster in 2015; a humble but dominant stint with the Atlantic League Long Island Ducks; a rebirth for the ages as a 35-year-old on the back of a majestic rainbow curveball; and then, inexplicably, seven years of MLB success in his 40s.

Quite simply, the boy gets away with it. Dodge danger with cunning, bravery, fastball command and sheer desire. For Twins skipper Rocco Baldelli, who led the crafty bullpen in 2020, there is one specific start to that year that he will always remember as the richest of the mountains.

It was the first week of the reduced COVID season. Hill was scheduled to make his first start for Minnesota at home against St. Louis despite a lingering case of shoulder tendinitis that had limited the then-41-year-old to the club’s post-lockout promotion camp. During warmups that evening, Baldelli tuned into Hill’s bullpen before the game on the dugout TV and saw something he would never forget.

“He was fighting for the shoulder.” Baldelli remembers. “And after every third or fourth pitch, he was kicking the wall behind him in the bullpen, kicking him. And we’re watching him on the little monitor in the dugout, just going to town, MF— on it. , MF-ing it.”

A typical pre-start bullpen for a pitcher is usually 20-25 pitches, 30 at most. But that night, unable to get his arm loose enough for his liking, Hill kept throwing and throwing and throwing. Wes Johnson, the Twins’ pitching coach at the time, saw what was happening but stood back and let the veteran pitcher stew. By Baldelli’s estimate, Hill’s bullpen finished around 95 pitches.

“Before the first pitch, Wes came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know how long he’s going to be on this one.’

Somehow, Hill got through five scoreless innings on just 68 pitches. He allowed just two hits, walked just two batters and didn’t throw a single pitch over 89 mph. The Twins won 3-0.

“He’s one of the most memorable people I’ve spent time with in this game.” Baldelli said. “Every person who knows Rich, who has spent time around Rich, has stories that they will never forget about Rich.”

Four days out of five, Hill has a reputation as a supportive teammate, a calming presence, a hilarious conversationalist. Their start day, however, is a different story. That’s when their intensity turns to fury and one bad tackle can lead to a tsunami of tantrums, outbursts and thrown equipment. But even though these four-letter bullpens seem like manic behavior, Hill himself will tell you that his approach has a purpose.

“It’s not pure insanity, running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” Hill explained to FOX Sports after his profanity-laced pen in Bradenton. “[The swearing] it’s a concerted effort to focus on that particular moment.”

Baldelli agreed that while Hill’s fiery persona grabs the headlines, he’s much more than just an angry old pitcher with a foul mouth.

“Yeah, he’s going to break some things,” Baldelli said, “Yeah, he’s going to yell some things. But he cares. He cares about his craft and he cares about people.”

That sincerity toward his teammates and genuine desire to pass on his baseball knowledge to the next generation played a big role in the Pirates securing Hill an $8 million deal for his age-43 season . And while general manager Ben Cherington has reiterated that he and his front office still believe Hill can pan out, he acknowledged that even if he puts up a sky-high ERA, he’ll still be a positive presence for the younger pitchers in the team, and they We are all much younger than Hill.

Chase De Jong, a 29-year-old Pirates pitcher who, like Hill, was forced to venture into the wilderness of independent ball before struggling back in the MLB, is inspired by Hill’s story.

“It’s adapted and adapted and adapted. The game has changed four times since it debuted. There’s a lot to learn from it.” De Jong said. “This guy is immortal.”

While there’s obviously a lot to learn from a Justin Verlander or a Jacob deGrom, the supernatural can’t always communicate greatness to mere mortals. Ted Williams was a horrible manager; he just wanted the boys to get to the damn thing. Hill’s winding path and cerebral approach to pitching are highly relevant to all major leaguers and waiver workers.

And while there’s a limit to his knowledge — Hill can’t clap, show a few pitching grips, throw a few insults and turn every Pirates pitcher into an All-Star — he can encourage improvement, incrementally. day after day. Hill has seen it all and done it all. From the ins and outs of a curveball catch to tips for enduring the heat of life off the diamond, Hill has a unique perspective to share. It’s one he and the Pirates hope leaves a lasting impact.

On that sunny day in Bradenton, after his obscene bullpen, Hill faced three innings of batters in the outfield. Only a few made solid contact. At one point he blasted a mid-’80s stove by Carlos Santana, another veteran addition, and let a wide grin spread across his face. When a particularly witty sequence left a certain Pirates batter flailing in the air, a few young pitchers outside the fence watching the spectacle, some of whom throw 15 mph faster than Hill, laughed and shook the head in disbelief.

“This guy rules, man,” joked one. “I would go to war behind him.”

Once the live BP session was over, all the Pirates went back to the locker room. Another day of work done, one step closer to the Opening Day. Hill headed to the gym for a post-pitch workout, then to the locker room to talk to the media.

At this point, the back fields are completely empty. Half an hour ago it was a hub of bustling energy, now it’s a ghost town. Think county fair at dawn, well, except for a couple of people playing catch. They are Hill and his 11-year-old son Brice. Both long throws for a few minutes, light work for Hill after a day of cutting his teammates.

Finally, Hill summons his son to come, say, about 60 feet, six inches away. Hill crouched, a strange sight, the left-handed catcher two weeks from his 43rd birthday. Some of Brice’s throws are sharp leather and pop, others bounce or pass. After about 10 pitches, Hill walks over to his pitching partner, extends his arm out (ball in hand with that signature curveball grip) and reminds his son of the family recipe.

After a few moments of conversation, young Hill nods and mimics the grip, and his father returns to his crouch. The son pulls back and takes a perfect hit… accompanied by a very recognizable grunt, the clean version.

Rich Hill won’t pitch in the big leagues forever, but he just might.

Jake Mintz, the stronger half @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York City and therefore leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

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