EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 30, 2009

Toronto's unsung Hill is second to none

Bill Burt

BOSTON — If Aaron Hill played for the Boston Red Sox, well, he would be world famous.

His 36 homers, including his second-inning bomb last night over the Green Monster, and his 105 RBI lead all middle infielders in the majors.

To put Hill's season in perspective, the "world famous" Dustin Pedroia hit 17 homers with 83 RBI en route to the American League Most Valuable Player Award last year.

Pedroia did hit .326 in 2008 compared to Hill's .287 through last night, but the point is if Hill played in Boston he would not only be famous but he would be beloved.

Defensively, Hill, might even have the edge on Pedroia, the reigning AL Gold Glove Award winner, at second base. Hill has committed seven errors to Pedroia's six, but has had a whopping 130 more chances (774 to 644).

"The funny thing is Aaron reminds me of Pedroia," said Toronto Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi before his club beat Boston, 8-7, last night. "He's tough. He's gritty. He comes to the park and plays hard every night. He's got a very quick bat. And he takes a lot of pride in his defense."

Hill admits Fenway Park feels like home to him. Including last night's home run in the second inning, he has six career homers against the Red Sox. All of them at Fenway Park. All of them over the wall in left field.

"I love playing here. The city is great. The atmosphere, with all of the fans, is fun to be around," said Hill. "Hitting here is an advantage with the wall. I mean, look at it, it's right there ... But you still have to hit it."

What hurts the Hill Publicity Tour is the AL East. Despite the fact the Blue Jays are a respectable 12 games over .500 since Hill played his first game on May 20, 2005, they have been road kill in this division, never sniffing a big game in September, never mind October.

Their record of 74-84 has them 27 games behind the New York Yankees and 17 1/2 behind the Red Sox.

It means little to no national TV exposure, at least in this country.

"You don't play the game for that," said Hill, a former star for the Manchester Fisher Cats, before last night's tilt. "I can't control (the exposure). I just play the game to win. And I love to play baseball. That's what keeps me motivated. I'm playing baseball."

Another reason he's overlooked is his position.

There are at least 15 second basemen who have "all-star" status in the majors, including Baltimore's Brian Roberts, Philadelphia's Chase Utley, San Francisco's Freddy Sanchez, New York Yankees Robinson Cano, Texas' Ian Kinsler and Detroit's Placido Palanco, to name a few.

"Second base is like the shortstop position used to be," said the Blue Jays' Kevin Millar. "This Hill kid can play with any of them. I love him. If he played in Boston or New York everybody would love him."

Hill doesn't play in either of those cities and won't be any time soon. He inked a four-year contract for $12 million with a three-year team option that could net him $25 million more.

The Red Sox, Yankees and even the Tampa Bay Rays appear loaded for bear for at least the next half-dozen years, prospects for a Blue Jays postseason run any time soon don't appear great.

Unlike the Sox, who traded for an All-Star slugger in Victor Martinez and a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, the Blue Jays let an All-Star, Alex Rios, and his whopping contract ($60 million through 2014) go for nothing.

"It is what it is," said Hill, doing his best Bill Belichick impression. "It's tough to compete against superpowers like the Red Sox and Yankees, who spend two or three times what you do. But that means we have to work harder at developing our own players.

"Personally, it's not OK that we miss the post-season. But I like challenge of being in this division. You want to play the best."

Hill is quick to note that history could be on his side.

"Don't forget, I think (Toronto) had the highest payroll those two years," said Hill of the 1992-93 World Series teams. "Maybe we will start going in that direction. Hey, it's been done here before."

Hill, a native of Visalia, Calif., says Toronto has grown on him.

"It's a beautiful city. There is always something to do," he said. "I'm learning more about the city every day."

One thing he has learned is that hockey is No. 1 and the rest of the sports, at least these days aren't even close.

"When Maple Leafs players come to our games they are treated like rock stars," said Hill. "It's amazing the way people follow hockey."

As for his team prolonging the Red Sox season, even if it's for a few days, it's a nice consolation prize.

"No one likes to be celebrated on," said Hill, after last night's 8-7 win. "But honestly, I'm rooting for (the Red Sox). They're a good bunch of guys. I just like the way they play."

There is one particular reason, Hill admits, he won't mind heading home this weekend when the 2009 season is officially over.

His first child, Paige Victoria Hill, was born two weeks ago.

"Sure I'd love to be playing more baseball, but I can't wait to get home and spend time with my wife and daughter," said Hill. "She's a doll."

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.