Hill close to fulfilling gritty comeback
After severing fingers on right hand, Cubs catcher could make roster
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Sometimes, Koyie Hill dreams that he can bend the fingers in his right hand.
"I wake up almost refreshed because I had a realistic thought of stretching them out and bending them," the Cubs catcher said. "It's weird to think about not ever being able to do it again, but I can play, and I can play 100 percent, so what else is there?"
Hill's career nearly ended on Oct. 16, 2007, when he severed three of his fingers and his thumb on his right hand in a freak accident with a table saw. All the fingers were re-attached, and doctors had him hold a ball in his left hand to see how his right ring finger should be positioned. As he likes to say, his right hand now is built for baseball.
He played for Triple-A Iowa last year, hitting .275 in 113 games with 17 homers and 64 RBIs. Hill didn't reveal the hand injury to the public until last September, when he was called up to the Cubs. Now, he could be breaking camp with the Major League team as the backup catcher to Geovany Soto, who won the National League Rookie of the Year in 2008.
Hill is just one of the guys this spring and can do everything the other catchers do. His right hand is a little distorted, but it works.
"Last year at this point, I was still working on being able to put my hand in my jeans pocket," he said. "I was still working up enough strength to be able to take my catcher's helmet off. I was still figuring out how to tape my bats so I could hold onto it.
"I remember last year in batting practice, I didn't have the endurance or stamina or strength in my hand. You take rounds in batting practice of eight, and I'd take four, maybe five."
These days, he's taking extra batting practice.
"It's full bore," Hill said. "The only time I notice it is if you do a ton of hitting in a day and I feel I'm fatigued. It takes quite a bit [to notice it now]."
There's no pain when he's playing baseball. Last year, if he hit a ball on the barrel, it would sting. Now, he doesn't think about it.
"I feel healthy -- as healthy as you can be with three crooked fingers that don't bend," he said. "They're functional."
|"I was thinking, 'You keep this up, another eight to 10 years of full-throttle playing, there's a pretty good chance that when you get to 45, 50, you're going to want them to take them off.'"|
|-- Koyie Hill, on his surgically repaired fingers|
"Now, it's all normal," he said.
There are no extra therapy sessions. His fingers aren't going to bend any more than they do, which is enough to hold a baseball, and that's it.
"They knocked out all the joints that allow them to bend," Hill said.
Ninety percent of one of the joints in his finger is gone. Forty to 50 percent of another joint is gone. How does he do it?
"You just find a way," Hill said, crediting the hand specialist, his rehab team and especially his wife, Meghan, for motivating him. "It's a miracle, and I'm very thankful."
Last September, Hill mentioned he may have to cut off his fingers when he's older because the pain may be too much. He doesn't have any problems with baseball, but if he accidentally bumps his right hand, or it gets locked up, it does hurt. A lot.
"My ring finger gives me more problems than anything," Hill said. "It's probably the most damaged. I was thinking, 'You keep this up, another eight to 10 years of full-throttle playing, there's a pretty good chance that when you get to 45, 50, you're going to want them to take them off.'"
Most of the time, he just sticks his right hand into the hot whirlpool for about 10 minutes, and he's ready.
He could be in the big leagues on April 6 with the Cubs. Hill was on the Arizona Diamondbacks' Opening Day roster in 2005 for the first time in his career. That was before the table saw got stuck on a knot of wood of that frame he was cutting.
"It'd be nice," he said about making the Cubs' Opening Day roster.
It'd be more than nice.
"It'd be fulfilling," Hill said, his voice softening. "You have a standard for how you live, and you should hold yourself accountable to a certain way and character and all that. I can say it now -- it was fun to go through something like that to really test and really see. You think you're made of this, and yeah, you're a hard worker and the wrestler, you're tough and you're this and that and whatever. But let's see it.
"You go through the possibility of being on the Opening Day roster, and it feels good to come out on the other side, the champion or whatever you want to call it. You did it. It feels good."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.