Fateful accident doesn't stop Iowa's Hill

DES MOINES – Class AAA Iowa catcher Koyie Hill hit .158 in April. May wasn't going much better, and the 29-year-old journeyman needed to figure out what to do next. "I just sat down with myself and said, ‘Look, you can either start thinking about managing, or you could go home, or you could suck this up and grind it out and really figure out what you've got inside,'" Hill said.

Hill wasn't just going through a slump; he just could barely grip the bat. Last October, Hill accidently severed the pinkie and ring fingers from his right hand with a table saw.

Initially, doctors doubted that he would be able to play again. Now Hill is able to joke about the accident that nearly ended his career.

"It would be a better story if someone broke into the house and cut my fingers off," said Hill, who hit .432 in July and .320 in June to raise his average to .293 entering August. "But when you do it to yourself, you don't really want to tell the story."

Shortly after Chicago lost in the playoffs last season, Hill was doing carpentry work in his Wichita, Kan., home when the incident occurred. His dad, Kennard, was a master carpenter, so Hill had grown up around the workshop.

"It's something I've probably done 1,000 times before, if not more … I was making a grove in a piece of wood, and it got stuck [on the table saw]," Hill said. "And I went to pick it up after assessing all the other things, and it just grabbed…and sucked [my hand] back through."

The blade completely cut off the pinkie finger on his right hand, and left the ring finger hanging on by the skin near the base of the joint. It also cut deeply into the middle knuckle of Hill's middle finger and lacerated his thumb.

In the emergency room, Hill evaluated his options.

"I had my wife go get a baseball out of my truck," Hill said, "because at that point, they were talking about leaving the pinkie off and taking the rest of the ring finger off, so I wanted to see what I would be able to do with the baseball without those two fingers. And I don't think it would have worked out too well."

Hill, a switch-hitter, was able to see Wichita hand surgeon Dr. Mark Melhorn and underwent emergency surgery to reattach both fingers.

"I got the ball and put it in my left hand, and they saw the position of it and just fixed (it) the best they could. When they pinned it together, thinking [the fingers] would never move again, they pinned it in a position where I would be able to throw the ball," he said.

The medical staff added bone to his middle knuckle to make it "about 80 percent of a joint," Hill said, allowing him to have grip with the finger. The ring finger is now bent off to the right from the middle knuckle, but provides stability for throwing.

Hill had re-signed with the Cubs before the accident. He spoke with Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry after an early prognosis.

"We've known each other for a long time. He saw me in college, so we've got a history," Hill said. "I told him – because at that point we didn't know if the fingers were going to live or not – and I told him if it enables me to get back quicker, I'll just have them take them off.

"He said no, and that my life and my hand is more important than the Cubs and what they were doing … [Hendry] said I'd have a job when everything got better and I got back, and just to do what I needed to do. That really made me feel good, and in a game when security is a big issue, it takes a lot off a guy's mind."

The fingers survived upon reattachment, but several obstacles lay ahead. In December, the Chicago Cubs' consulting hand specialist, Dr. Dan Nagel, said that he didn't think Hill would ever be able to throw or play again.

"At that point, I'd been throwing tennis balls and I was like a month out of surgery, and I still had pins in my hand and I was throwing tennis balls to try to get the spin right and make sure they were rotating the right way … it moved into baseballs and things like that," Hill said. "But I think some people just need to be told they can't do something."

Hill said he worked in rehab seven days a week, 3-4 hours a day during the off-season. His physical therapist, Polly Senseman, said he strictly adhered to all rehab programs.

Senseman has worked with traumatic hand injuries throughout her 25-year career, and she pointed out that Hill's injury was especially complex considering the bone and tendon damage that was involved.

She said she felt an instant bond with the catcher, as her late father, Ken Johnson, was a relief pitcher from 1947-52 with St. Louis, Philadelphia and Detroit.

"There were people out there that said he would not return to baseball," said Senseman. "I looked at him and said, ‘OK, Koyie, here is the deal. It's not a matter of whether or not you will return to baseball; it's a matter of when.' And we both looked at each other, and said, ‘That's right.'"

Hill said he didn't doubt that he would be able to play baseball again, but he questioned how much of his ability he would retain.

Hitting would be his biggest challenge. In spring training, Hill could only grip the bat with his thumb and forefinger on his right hand. He had to cut down the number of swings he would take in batting practice.

"[The hand] fatigued fast, it ached fast, it would just wear down and throb and things, so I just limited my rounds," Hill said. "I'd hit a couple balls decent and get out and kind of, you know, get into it a little bit that way. Now … it hasn't been affecting me at all as far as anything I can do and strength-wise, it has gotten a lot stronger."

Hill said the cold Iowa weather early in the season increased the difficulty of his return, and occasionally he feels severe pain after a swing.

"Imagine running as fast as you can in one direction, and getting your finger caught in somebody's shirt going the other direction," he said. "That's the only way I can put it into words."

Hill dealt with the pain and began to develop better routines in his diet and approach to the game. An adjustment in his approach at the plate corrected a flaw he'd had throughout his career. Iowa hitting coach Von Joshua drilled Hill to keep his front hip from flying open too soon.

"He's an older guy, so it's kind of tough sometimes to show an older guy something new," Joshua said. "But he's caught onto it real well and he's getting up against his front side a lot better. Before he used to spin off it and not hit up against it. Now he's hitting up against it, he's driving the ball a lot more, and it's allowing him to stay on the ball a little more, and he's hitting more line drives. He's doing it good from both sides, too."

Hill had never had more than 14 home runs in a season during his professional career. He hit only two in June, when he said he started to feel more comfortable hitting with his injury.

The swing adjustment was made in mid-June and has made him feel like "somebody else has gotten into my body," he said.

"I'd always been a guy where if I did hit a home run, it was usually a big one," Hill said. "I would always try to create that all the time, you know. I'd say ‘OK, if I can hit the ball that far, why can't I do it all the time,' but I'd always hit them from right-center to the right-field foul pole.

"Now, my last six or seven home runs have been to the opposite field, and I'm hitting the ball as far or further that way than I had ever hit pull-side, and it's allowing me to see the ball longer. I'm not getting fooled on pitches… it's just a simplified approach, and I feel like I see the ball 10 more feet."

Hill was drafted out of Wichita State by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fourth round of the 2000 draft. Originally a third baseman, he was converted into a catcher and had three at-bats with the Dodgers before being traded with Reggie Abercrombie and Billy Murphy to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Brent Mayne and Steve Finley.

He was the opening day starter for the Diamondbacks in 2005, but hit .218 in 34 games. And after being called up by Chicago on June 1 of last year, Hill started 25 games at catcher. With Chicago last season, Hill was 15-for-93 (.161) at the plate.

"I know when I got into the big leagues, I'll be the first one to admit now that I wasn't ready to be up there," Hill said. "I think I worked myself into some situations physically and mentally that didn't allow me to succeed. Now, looking back on it, I've learned so much. Catching-wise, it hasn't been a problem over the last few years, but when I first got to the big leagues as a catcher, I had only been catching for two years and I had no idea what I was doing."

His defense kept him in the lineup with Chicago. Of any catcher with four starts or more, Hill had the lowest CERA (or pitcher's ERA while he was catching) in the majors at just 3.02. He played in only nine games after the mid-July acquisition of Jason Kendall, and was designated for assignment on Aug. 20.

"In the past, you could be a great catcher and hit .120 and be valuable, but everybody wants offense now," said Joshua. "So they like to have that good defensive catcher, but they want that offense also. He's an outstanding, outstanding catcher. He really shuts the running game down. He did a great job last year when he went up working with (Carlos) Zambrano and these guys… but his offense was just terrible, so hopefully he'll get another shot up there."

Iowa manager Pat Listach said Hill is the third catcher in the Cubs' organization behind Henry Blanco and Geovany Soto, so he has to keep Hill in the lineup.

"I didn't know about [Hill's hand] until Spring Training," Listach said. "He's come a long way, he's worked hard, he's done a good job. He really calls a good game, controls the running game, and the way he is swinging the bat has been a big plus."

Joshua said Hill has shown his character this season.

"I can't imagine going through what he's gone through," the veteran hitting coach said. "Earlier in the season, he could hardly hold the bat, and it was cold, and a lot of guys were thinking he was washed up and done. I know he was frustrated; I think sometimes it crept into his mind also. But all of the sudden, when it warmed up, he started getting some feeling in that hand, and I tell you, the rest is history."

Hill's contract with Chicago expires at the end of this season, but he said he'd love to play in whatever role the Cubs would want him in.

"I'd love to go up and work with Soto. I love working with [pitching coach Larry] Rothschild. Larry does a great job, and I've learned a lot from him. That pitching staff, what a treat to work with them, you know," Hill said. "But again, there are 29 other teams, and we'll see what happens in the future. I know that I'd really like a chance to be on a big league ballclub, and I feel capable of it. I guess we'll just see what happens.

"[Ryne] Sandberg was my favorite player growing up, and Chicago kind of feels like my hometown team, so there is sentimentality there. There is some attraction to that, but it'd be nice to be up there [in the major leagues]. I'm a baseball player. I'm going to play on a baseball team no matter where it is."

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