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Washington Nationals Minor Leagues: The screenplay-worthy journey of Koyie Hill

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Koyie Hill's is a classically impossible tale.

A journey to a dozen cities and towns from Yakima, Washington to Wilmington, North Carolina with his current stop in Syracuse. Nine years in the big leagues with three different teams. There was a stomach-twisting injury that could have destroyed his career and the rehabilitation to return. A week ago, he signed with a new organization, flew into town, didn't have a locker, took batting practice, and left his gear in the hallway. And now he has caught six-straight wins during an eight-game win streak that has turned around a season.

It is melodramatic; screams for a screenplay.

Hill, 33, just shrugs.

"Just another day in the life of a baseball player," he said leaning against an Alliance Bank Stadium railing.

The journey

Every ball player has seen a lot of the United States; not necessarily by choice.

Hill's played 313 games in the big leagues stretch over nine years. He is a career .210 major league hitter whose defense and brains behind the plate outweigh what he does at it.

He worked his way up through the Dodgers system as a Yakima Bear (Low Single-A), Wilmington Wave (High Single-A), Jacksonville Sun (Double-A) and a Las Vegas 51 (Triple-A) before he was a Dodger for three games in 2003. He spent some time as an Arizona Diamondback and Tucson Sidewinder (Triple-A) in 2004 and 2005. He went over to the Yankees system as a Columbus Clipper (Triple-A) in 2006 before he joined the Cubs organization in 2007 and became an Iowa Cub (Triple-A). He was in Chicago from 2008 to 2011 before he signed a minor league deal with St. Louis this January. He was released by the Cardinals and signed with Cincinnati and was playing as a Pensecola Blue Wahoo (Double-A) when the Cubs were hit by a rash of injuries at catcher and brought him back.

On June 17, he did not accept the Cubs sending him back to Iowa and became a free agent.

On June 19, Washington, a club also beleaguered by injures behind the dish, brought him on board. That night he was a Syracuse Chief (Triple-A).

Stooped over his bag in the hall - there was no locker ready for him yet - and shin guards still on, Hill greeted the media. He was 0-for-4 in his first game.

"You must be here to talk to me," Hill deadpanned; his arms outstretched.

That first night he joked about the differences between controlled corner-nibbler Zach Duke and sometimes wild fireballer Henry Rodriguez that he caught.

"I told Zach that Henry was throwin' a little bit harder than he was and not to let that bother him," Hill said that night.

"It was like a wild horse running through a pasture," Hill said about Rodriguez the next day to Chiefs Broadcaster Jason Benetti. "We think of ourselves as the jockey."

He knew each pitcher for about six hours at the time.

"I've been around long enough to know that that stuff happens. It wasn't shock to me," Hill said about the first day whirlwind. "I would almost rather be coming in on a day like that and playing the game. You would probably find yourself taking a nap on the bench during the game if you weren't in there."

One of his three hits in his six games (.136) so far was a homer against Pawtucket. His bat isn't why he is in the Washington pipeline. He has a 2.57 ERA as a catcher (16 ER, 56 inn.) and has thrown out two of six base stealers.

His sense of humor is why he has seamlessly dropped right into the clubhouse amidst a run that has brought Syracuse from the brink of a lost season to within 3.5 games of a playoff spot halfway through.

"I don't care what you say. Playing baseball is fun. When you aren't winning - whether its checkers or baseball - losing is not fun," Hill said. "Winning definitely helps, but winning here is a byproduct of such a good group that they have here. They do things the right way. You can tell that they genuinely care for each other."

"He has a great feel back there and has fit right in with the clubhouse. He understands our starters. He has gone out in games and just executed game plans," Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley said. "He calls a good game. He adjusts to what the hitter does. He lets the pitcher understand what he has that night. He has been really really good communicating with the starter, blocking, and receiving. He has been a key element since he has been here."

Four key elements of Hill's game were torn away, literally and grotesquely, almost five years ago.

The injury

The table saw tore into Koyie Hill's right hand in October, 2007.

His father was a master carpenter and Hill had helped him throughout his life.

He was working on some off-season woodwork and his life changed.

The metal teeth severed his fingers.

His joints and nerves were destroyed.

They scrapped together his shattered digits.

Hill was rushed to the Emergency Room.

Surgery followed.

Pig bones were used as placeholders.

Doctors were able to re-assemble Hill's throwing hand.

Months of rehabilitation followed.

He came all the way back.

"He did a decent job considering the mess that he was handed," Hill said about his surgeon to WGN-TV in Chicago after the accident. Notice the hint of humor even in the face of trauma.

"It was all about wanting to play. It was something down inside. Where ever there is a will there is a way," Hill said to Benetti on his second day in Syracuse. "Those early April Chicago games weren't any fun."

Hill's fingers are bent a little differently now.

There are some scars.

When he shakes hands though there is no way to notice a difference.

Unless you are looking for the remains of the life-changing incident it is hard to tell that his fingers were cut off.

The now

As of Tuesday, the Chiefs stand at 40-37 going into an eight-game southern swing through Durham and Norfolk. Syracuse is trailing Pawtucket by 4.5 games in the International League North Division, while they are 3.5 back of LeHigh Valley for a Wild Card spot. It is a good time to be a Chief, once 12.5 back and now almost kicking down the door.


Washington is 41-30 and 3.5 clear of Atlanta and New York in the National League East. Despite a currently sputtering offense, it is a better time to be a National.

"That is the reason why I am here. I came over here to help them at the big league level. I know they are a team that is in first place, they are a team that can go to the playoffs. A lot of good baseball people in this organization. That was something that drew my interest," Hill said. "If I can help in any way I am more than willing. If that is helping guys here that move up then I am more than happy to do that too. You want to be productive no matter what you are doing. I enjoy working with these guys and it is a passion of mine working with the pitching staff, seeing if you can make people better."

After all of the travel, all of the rehab, Hill is still playing baseball for a living.

"I feel like I have given everything I ever had to baseball," he said rolling his once battered hand up into his batting practice jersey.

"Being in long enough to have friends, and guys that you respect, get out of the game. They will tell you that a bad day in baseball is better than any day in real life or in the real world," he said.

Koyie Hill would know too. It has been quite a journey so far.