I thought left-handers had nine lives. They'd always get chance after chance, and their original teams would be slow to give up on them. Southpaws with good stuff are somewhat precious in the game.
But the Cubs didn't allow Rich Hill a long lifespan in baseball speak. One year of the control yips, made worse by mounting pain in his back, and he was banished to the repository of battered former Cubs prospects -- Andy MacPhail's Baltimore Orioles.
Here was a guy who was a very promising 11-8 as the fourth starter on Lou Piniella's first playoff team in 2007. To be sure, Hill did not acquit himself well in Game 3 of the division series against the Diamondbacks -- but which Cub did, anyway?
And now, on a cool late-September afternoon, here's Boston-area native Hill in Red Sox togs, healthy and happy, his strange journey from the '07 playoffs all the way down to rookie ball, back through the Orioles and Cardinals farm systems with labrum surgery putting his career in some jeopardy.
Hill's a September callup, content for now at 30 to get a middle-relief appearance here or there. Somehow, the intellectual-leaning southpaw survived with his sanity intact.
"I'm a human being who I'd like to think is educated so I didn't have to lose my sanity," he said. "I stayed grounded. I'm from Boston, a place of blue-collar people. It's a high-income sport that can be pretty lucrative if you hang around a play a long time. At the same time, coming from a place like Boston, you learn to live simply and not have the over-luxuries in life."
"It's all about how you stay balanced. Some people handle it well. Some people don't handle it well. Some people don't handle it well, and they figure out how to handle it well. I don't think there's a secret formula out there. If it doesn't go the way you planned it, move on, go to the next day."
Hill was forced to move on, considering how quickly Piniella apparently soured on him after one awry control night in St. Louis early in 2008. From that point on, Hill's pitches had the wanderlust, Steve Blass 1973-74 style. It was that bad. But the Pirates gave Blass two-plus seasons to try to right himself. Hill got the quick hook and the ticket punched to baseball purgatory in Baltimore.
He obviously had done some formal visualization after reading several pitching-psychology books. And if he visualized his Cubs future as 2007 drew to a close, Hill logically believed he'd be a rotation mainstay into 2009, 2010 and maybe beyond -- not trying to re-start his career in Fenway Park, as much as he loved the Red Sox growing up in the bleachers with the smart-ass collegians from Harvard, Boston College, et. al.
"I envisioned it for each day, the next day, for weeks, looking forward," he said. "But the biggest key to the game was staying healthy. I had an unfortunate back injury in '08 that I believe led to shoulder injuries. Your whole body is connected. When you're not healthy and you're injured and things aren't working in psynch together, it's kind of like writing a sentence and missing words."
Amid his woes, though, did Hill feel the Cubs pulled the plug on him too early?
"That's something you'd have to talk to those guys about," he said. "The injury inhibited myself going out there and performing the way I'm capable. Now that I'm healthy (13 months after his shoulder surgery), I'm proving that I'm back again to pitch, and pitch well. Here we are again. I'm 100 percent."
Hill's Cubs experience, working in the fishbowl, prepared him well for going home to Boston. He can handle all the inquiries -- when will the Red Sox right themselves, can you get me tickets to Fenway Park, the usual hassles. Old hat after you've been in Wrigley Field in a playoff season.
Now that he's broken out of that Chicago bubble to play for a team that has thrown off its longtime championship drought, what will it take for the Cubs to emulate the Red Sox?
"In my opinion, you'd need some veteran leadership in the locker room coming in, older guys who have been in the postseason who would add a comfort to the team," Hill said. Ah, but the Cubs have cleaned out the locker room of leaders like Derrek Lee and Ted Lilly. Hill cited Kerry Wood and Greg Maddux, but they're long-gone, too.
"You need to rejuvenate that, bring in guys like that. Or have guys from inside the organization who understand what it's like to be a Chicago Cub. In my situation as a Boston Red Sox, having grown up in Boston, I understand what it was like to watch in '86, what it was like to watch all the way through the Nineties to finally see them win it in '04.
"As a Chicago Cub, you've got to understand where they came from in the past. Not about this over-100-years since they've won the World Series. But what it takes every day to go out there and grind out some of those games. Which a guy like Ted Lilly was great at."
That's the crux of the Cubs' dilemma. You had good leaders, you let them go, where do you get suitable replacements? A fella like Hill, so grounded in thoughtfulness, doesn't have the concrete answers. And so sports' greatest mystery continues.