Shawn Hill was hurt.
There have been a lot of times that phrase has been uttered throughout the 33-year-old right-hander’s extensive career, but this was a time when he was especially suffering, continuing to deal with pain that had been lingering in his throwing shoulder for almost four years.
He wasn’t playing for a team in 2011, because at that time he couldn’t maintain his health for a long enough period of time to get a chance. The Mississauga native really didn’t know if he would ever get another opportunity with an organization again.
But Team Canada called. There was a spot on the national team roster waiting for Hill, and he figured that if he was on his way out, he should at least try to give it absolutely everything he had first. The hurler joined the squad for the World Cup in Panama before they went on to the Pan Am Games in Mexico, throwing hurt the entire time.
“For the tournament I decided I was going to strap it on,” Hill said. “I physically still wasn’t there but I was able to throw enough to pitch. Then in between [outings] I couldn’t play catch, I couldn’t throw bullpens and all that kind of stuff, but I figured where I was – not knowing if I was even going to play the following year again – that it was worth the short inconvenience of pain to help the team out, and to go through that experience.”
That experience included a bronze-medal victory at the World Cup, before the senior national squad won gold for the first time in program history.
“Playing in that environment, as opposed to affiliated ball, it’s a very different with the camaraderie amongst the team,” Hill said. “There was nothing bad about it whatsoever, other than the fact that I was still injured per se, from not having my shoulder taken care of. So it was kind of a grind for me physically but as far as the experience went, it was spectacular.”
Currently a member of the York Revolution rotation, in the independent Atlantic League, that moment ranks among Hill’s highlights. The Team Canada veteran was one of just three players on that gold-medal-winning team with big-league service time, having thrown 242 innings in the majors for the Montreal Expos, Washington Nationals, San Diego Padres and Toronto Blue Jays.
It was a special experience for all who played, but the pitcher was exceptionally overjoyed for what the victory meant for the program, for Baseball Canada, for manager Ernie Whitt, and for Greg Hamilton, the director of national teams.
“When we won the Pan Am, the reaction that Ernie had was incredible, but more specifically Greg,” Hill said. “You could just tell the utter joy that overcame him. Basically all the fruits of his labour came to fruition there. And I was happier and more proud that we were able to win for him – and not just for him but for the organization, knowing what it was going to mean for the organization moving forward – than I was for myself.
“It was still cool and all that, but I knew what that win meant for them and that’s obviously going to help catapult what he’s doing back home. When I was drafted [by the Montreal Expos in the sixth round in 2000], they had the program going and it was doing well but compared to what it’s doing now and the amount of Canadians who are coming in at a higher level now, and the exposure that he’s able to give them is night and day – and after 15 years, which I know is not the shortest time, but it’s obviously not the longest time either – so it’s incredible.
“I don’t think there’s a harder-working person in baseball. Obviously I don’t know them all but I’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who does more for a particular organization than he does.”
It is for that reason, and because of the tight-knit baseball community created north of the border in part through all of Hamilton’s efforts, that Hill hopes to suit up in the red-and-white uniform once again this summer, to help defend his gold medal on home soil at the 2015 Pan/Parapan Am Games in Toronto in July.
“The main reason for me is because of him and the organization,” Hill said. “It’s…like a little family. And the players will tell you the same thing, it means a lot to us in that sense. And it starts with him, so I can’t say enough about the guy.”
Roster submissions will have to be finalized by the first week of June, so while Hill hopes to be representing his country at the newly-built baseball facility in Ajax, any number of things could change over the next several weeks.
“It’s going to depend on the situation when the time comes, but Hammy’s already got my documentation and all that, to get that set up for the preliminary rosters,” he said. “If things work out and I’m able to at the time, then obviously if they need and want me also, it has 100 per cent been on my mind. We’re going to have to see how things play out, but I anticipate there’s a strong chance that I’ll be there.”
The senior team has lost a number of veteran players since the last Games, with several having left the game to move onto the next phase of life, but there is no doubt in Hill’s mind that they will find ways to fill those voids, as each squad has had to do in the past.
“You’re going to have to have certain guys obviously be there and be able to gel the team together,” Hill said of the transition. “Dustin Molleken, for example, was one of the huge pieces there. He threw very well while we were down there [in Panama and Mexico] and had however many innings as a reliever, but his biggest contribution to me – and that’s in no way taking away from his pitching performance – was how he kept the clubhouse and kept the team so light.
“He’s just an absolutely character in the best of ways. He makes everybody relax. If we have somebody like that, and Dustin’s back, it makes it pretty easy … You basically just need somebody to be able to bring everybody together and keep the focus. It’s a short tournament, so you’re all in from the first pitch of the first inning of the first game to the end of it, because it’s not going to last that long. So you have to just give it what you have, and you have to emphasize that to the younger guys.”
Before Team Canada reunites, meeting first in Cary, NC at the beginning of July for a short series of exhibition matchups leading into the Pan Am Games, Hill’s 16th season will start with the Revolution in York. His first stint with the Atlantic League team was in 2012, and after finding success in the circuit, he signed a contract with the Blue Jays out of the league.
Hill was hoping he would find an affiliated home this season after splitting time between the Triple-A rosters of the Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers organizations last year, but after six surgeries – including two Tommy John procedures – he is just grateful for a job, and looking forward to the opportunity he was given in York.
“This was in the back of my mind as a backup plan,” he said. “We explored some different options. Obviously I was trying to get back into affiliated ball … Knowing where I’m at, age-wise and all that kind of stuff, and even though I’ve been healthy for two-and-a-half years, organizations are still for some reason caught up on the medicals. I don’t blame them, to an extent … but there’s a lot more to the stories with my medicals unfortunately that I think most teams, most trainers, or doctors, don’t really look into.
“They see pictures or Tommy John and [say], ‘Let’s not.’ So I’m basically fighting that uphill battle, and this is a good place for me to be able to throw, get my work in, and hopefully perform. If somebody needs somebody at the time, then the medicals and that aspect becomes less important to them when somebody is performing well and is currently healthy.”
Hill had the opening night start against the Long Island Ducks on Friday at Santander Stadium, and took the loss. He pitched three innings allowing one run on two hits and a walk. He left losing 1-0 as Long Island went on to a 5-2 win.
“I’m excited to get it going,” Hill said before the season opener. “I’ve been itching since last September to get going again because I finished off better than I started and I was starting to see things turn and go in the right direction, so I’m anxious to get it going.
“Opening Day is obviously exciting for everybody. No matter where you are, relative to where you’re at, the nerves and the adrenaline get kicking a little bit more, so I’m trying to keep those in check and go out and take care of business.”