The Pirate

Coming off two straight trips to the World Series, former University of Arkansas star and 2002 American League Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske is now serving as a veteran influence for a youthful Pittsburgh Pirate club.

BRADENTON, Fla. – The last batter in the World Series is what all kids grow up wanting to be, the guy who wins it all for his team.

While it didn't play out the magic way for Eric Hinske as the Philadelphia Phillies downed his Tampa Bay Rays in his second appearance in the World Series in as many years, it was certainly a season and a moment that he will never forget.

Hinske (6-2, 235), the former University of Arkansas star and 2002 American League Rookie of the Year, was the go-ahead run at plate when relief pitcher Brad Lidge's slider finished off the fifth and deciding game of the 2008 Fall Classic.

"It was just a Cinderella season last year being with the Rays and going as far as we did," the 31-year-old Hinske said. "Nobody gave us any chance to compete in our own division, much less knock off the Yankees and Red Sox and make it as far as we did. Of course, the only thing that could have made it better would have been to actually win it all."

Hinske, a free agent who signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the offseason, hit .247 with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs last season – including a pinch-hit bomb in the World Series.

He got off to a hot start with five homers the first month and still led the team in that category as late as June 24 while mentoring budding superstar Evan Longoria.

"He got me on a program," Longoria told "He just was a guiding light for me. ... [Hinske] was just a perfect guy for me to mold myself after."

Hinske played all four corner spots – first base, third base, left field and right field – for the Rays, the same thing he will do this season for the Pirates after signing a one-year, $1.5-million deal.

Some might think it strange since the Pirates have had 16 straight losing seasons and haven't been relevant since the "We are the Family" days back in the late 1970s.

"I had the opportunity because of playing those four corner spots to hook on with a bunch of teams in the offseason, but just really meshed with the Pirates especially since they are a National League team and that (versatility) comes in handy," Hinske said. "I really fit what they are trying to do. They wanted a versatile, veteran guy who had been on a winning team to come in and continue to help them change the culture and work with the great, young talent they have."

He and fellow vet Ramon Vasquez are certainly welcome additions for Pirates skipper John Russell, who has them filling roles that went to Doug Mientkiewicz and Luis Rivas last season.

"Not to take anything away from our bench last year - they did a great job and battled and did a lot of things above and beyond what we expected - but we feel very confident that our bench this year is going to be stronger and going to give us more versatility so that we can do some different things later in the game," Russell said. "You look at what they've done in the past and you look at the numbers that they've put up and the experience that they have. The numbers don't lie."

Hinske really didn't have a chance to return to the Rays because they were looking to add right-handed bats and did so in Pat Burrell and Gabe Kapler.

He wishes the Rays well, but hopes he will be missed.

"You'd like to think so," he said. "I think we definitely had a big part in what went on there last year. You hope you feel missed, for sure, but they're a group of young, talented guys that have got a lot of good years ahead of them."

Orignally drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 17th round of the 1998 draft, Hinske has amassed 105 homers and 399 RBIs while playing seven seasons in the big leagues with a career .254 average.

Hinske, who was traded by the Cubs to Oakland in 2000 and then shipped to Toronto in 2001, started his major league career with the Blue Jays while making $200,000 before signing a 5-year, $15 million dollar deal with the organization.

He split time with Boston and Toronto in 2006, played for the World Champion Red Sox again in 2007 and hooked up with the Rays in 2008.

"It's hard to believe that I have eight seasons in and am really considered one of the older, veteran guys now," Hinske said. "It seems like just yesterday I was playing at Arkansas."

That 2002 rookie season was his best with a .279 average, 24 homers, 84 RBIs and even 13 stolen bases - all still career highs - while playing 148 games at third base and 151 overall.

"That was a great way to get my career going and I have some great memories of that season," Hinske said. "I owe a lot of my success to the hard work and coaching I got at Arkansas."

Hinske, who actually grew up wanting to play football at Wisconsin, played three seasons for the Razorbacks under Norm DeBriyn.

"I thought he was a mean, old man back then," Hinske said. "Now I know he is a great guy who was pushing us and just doing what he could to get the best out of us.

"I still talk to him a lot," Hinske said. "He'll call and check up on me and I'll check in with him."

Hinske, who bats left and throws right, hit a homer in his first at-bat for the Razorbacks.

While playing from 1996-98, he hit .348, had 30 round trippers, 173 RBIs and 55 doubles.

He also scored a school-record 87 runs and remains in the top 10 in school history in home runs, RBIs, doubles and slugging percentage.

"I really enjoyed my time there and we had some great teams and I had some great teammates," Hinske said. "I look back on it and smile a lot about it, but when I do look back on it I think it went by pretty quick.

"I enjoyed my time there being around guys like Ryan Lundquist, Rodney Nye and Brent Caldwell," Hinske added. "I loved that city of Fayetteville and loved my time there. The fans were great."

Hinske has not been back to Arkansas in eight years, but does keep up with his old program via the internet.

"I get on there and check them out although not as much as I did when Coach DeBriyn was still coaching there," Hinske said. "I'm from (Menasha) Wisconsin and live in Scottsdale, Arizona, and with the season and those two places, I don't get the chance to get back to Arkansas. I really enjoyed my time there. It was a great place."

Hinske has been on the shelf for a couple of weeks because of a left rib cage contusion, but should be back playing next week.

"I got hurt in the first game while going back to catch a fly ball and running into the wall," Hinkse said. " I hurt what is called the intercoastal muscle, but have been getting treatment and healing up. I am ready to get back in there and get going and I am planning on being ready for game action early next week."

Hinske's career has been stymied by injuries, including a broken hymate bone in his hand in the 2003 season that he tried to play through.

He is no doubt one of the few major league players that is a fan of this year's longer spring training.

"It's worked out really well for me, especially with this injury," Hinske said. "Even being out a couple of weeks, the fact that we are having a longer spring training than ever because of the WBC (World Baseball Classic), I will still be able to play 20 games and get my 60 at-bats when I come back next week. That should have been ready to go for the start of the season."

It has given the huge Metallica and Pantera fan a chance to size up the Pirates roster.

"To me it is just like Tampa Bay in that there is a lot of great young talent on this team," Hinske said, "and even though they have not won here in awhile, they have the confidence that it is going to turn around because of that young talent and a few veterans around to teach them what it takes to get over the top."

He is happy to be one of those veterans, a guy who has certainly been able to provide for his wife Kathryn and daughter Ava, who will soon be 2.

"Baseball has been very good to me," Hinske said. "I have loved this career and hope that I have several more years left to play."

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