Entering the 2011 MLB season, the Boston Red Sox were a favorite pick to vie for another World Series berth.
But while Red Sox Nation was restless for the hyped season to begin, a longtime Boston fan and former Michigan pitcher, Rich Hill, was stuck in Pawtucket, R.I. with the Red Sox’s Triple-A affiliate — the Pawtucket Red Sox.
Hill grew up dreaming of playing in Fenway Park; his high school is just nine miles away from the storied stadium. So while Boston was off to a sluggish start, Hill’s numbers were impressive. He was shortly rewarded with a call-up to the big leagues.
In nine appearances in the majors this year, Hill surrendered just three hits and no runs, seemingly solidifying the Red Sox’s bullpen.
Hill left the Wolverines in 2002 after a dominant junior campaign. He pitched complete games in each of his eight Big Ten matchups and led the conference in strikeouts.
He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the fourth round and spent four seasons with the team as a starter. After experiencing command issues, he played one year with the Baltimore Orioles before signing a minor-league deal with Boston.
The Michigan Daily recently spoke with Hill about his experiences at Michigan and his dream to pitch with the Red Sox.
Unfortunately, since the interview, he injured his elbow and will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery.
TMD: As a Boston kid, what factored into your decision to come to Michigan?
RH: The opportunity to attend the University of Michigan and play baseball there and obviously the academic-athletic combination you get there — I don’t think you find that at too many universities. That’s not to dog other universities; it’s just a very unique situation at Michigan.
TMD: After your sophomore year, you were drafted by the Anaheim Angels. Why did you pass up that opportunity and decide to return to Michigan?
RH: To get a year closer to my degree and also to come back and play for a Big Ten title. I wanted to come back and play with a lot of the guys that I came in with and the friends that I had over the couple years. It was that opportunity to play with them again one last time and that was pretty special.
TMD: After you left Michigan, you told the Daily that finishing school and getting a degree was important to you. Are you still planning to graduate?
RH: Yeah, I’ve been working on that as of late. The last couple of years, I’ve been trying to figure out when I can do this, but it’s been very difficult with the baseball season going into late October, when the first semester is at least a good way through. (That makes it) difficult to work through the last year of my degree. It’s been tough, but with a lot of courses being offered online now and a lot of universities around Boston, I could take some classes in the Boston area and have them transfer over to the University of Michigan.
TMD: In your junior year, you were dominant but the program was in turmoil with a coaching change and a disappointing record (14-17 Big Ten, 21-32 overall). How frustrating was it to finish your career on that note?
RH: Overall, we wanted better results. But after you look back — and it’s been almost 10 years now — it’s the friendships that were made there that last. Obviously, in that tradition that you bring with you from going to a university like Michigan and understanding of what comes along with that. It was tough with the coaching changes and trying to build a little bit of consistency. It seemed like we started to get going a little bit and would fall back and then get it going again. It was just teeter-tottering a little bit with the wins and losses. Obviously, playing-wise it was a tough year, but for us, the camaraderie was great.
TMD: What were your favorite parts of being at Michigan and in Ann Arbor, away from the baseball field?
RH: When I look back on it, just the campus itself and going to the football games and hockey games. Obviously, those were a blast. And then the friendships I made through the guys on the baseball team and the times that we had together will never be taken away. Just when I look back at it and how great of an institution that it is after you leave there, it’s with you for the rest of your life. Wherever you go, you carry University of Michigan with you as part of your identity. My wife and I (a graduate of Michigan’s Nursing School) went on a trip to the Galapagos Island and there was a doctor who was on the trip who’s a doctor at Mott Children’s Hospital. We did some work with Mott (when I was there). It’s just a small world with over 450,000 alumni. It’s amazing how anywhere you go, you can come in contact with someone from the University.
TMD: Your catcher for two years at Michigan was Jake Fox, who’s now playing for the Baltimore Orioles. Do you still talk to him?
RH: Yeah, I actually saw him a couple of weeks ago when we played the Orioles. It’s great to see him having success and to see another Michigan alum doing well in the big leagues. It was exciting to see him.
TMD: After going through some ups and downs with the Cubs and through the minor leagues, you’ve settled in with Boston. Your high school was just nine miles away from Fenway Park and you grew up a huge Red Sox fan, so how surreal is it to be pitching for your childhood team?
RH: I grew up going to the ballpark with my dad and my family, so just getting the opportunity to be here and play for the team that I grew up idolizing is something special. It’s been a great ride and I’ve been able to enjoy it. Hopefully, (I’ll be able) to stay up here in Boston because (my wife and I) don’t live too far from the ballpark and it’s Fenway Park, the best stadium in baseball, even coming from Chicago and playing for the Cubs (at Wrigley Field).
TMD: For most of your life — at Michigan and with the Cubs — you were a starting pitcher, but now in Boston, you’ve found success as a reliever. Would you like to become a starter again, or are you happy in the bullpen?
RH: I enjoy coming out of the bullpen. It’s been something that I’ve had to make some adjustments and find your routine that you stick with and that’s been the biggest thing — just getting into a good routine coming out of the bullpen and sticking with it. I think that’s something that’s my niche.
TMD: Growing up in Boston, you had to live with the Curse of the Bambino and all the Red Sox’s disappointments. This year, Boston is an odds-on favorite to win a World Series. Obviously, the Red Sox have won a few recent titles, but what would it mean to win a World Series for your hometown team?
RH: It’d be great. Just to see how the teams from 2004 and 2007 were embraced in Boston — and obviously the fans in Boston are very studious and they understand the game and the ups and downs, they live and die with the team — you’re representing an entire city. In the end, if it comes to fulfillment with a World Series Championship, that would be — for me, especially, being from the area — something that I’d never forget.