As our countdown to Mets fantasy camp nears, we sit down with former Met pitcher, Mets fantasy camp favorite, and a pitching star in Japan: Eric Hillman.
Chayim: You’re a 6’10 control pitcher – who did you model yourself after? Who was your inspiration?
Eric: I didn’t really model myself after anyone. Growing up I liked Steve Carlton. He was dominant. I certainly didn’t have the success that Greg Maddux had but I… I wanted to get hitters out in three pitches or less. You know? You put the ego in check and you’re no longer looking for the strikeout…you try to maximize your time on the mound so it was always changing as to who I was gonna emulate but mostly, I was just trying to be myself and have the success I knew I could have. The Mets didn’t ask me to steal bases or hit home runs, they asked me to get guys out and that’s what I tried to do.
Chayim: Personally, I think pitchers that pitched to contact were kinda screwed from the get-go in the “steroid era”. Your thoughts?
Eric: Well, I mean, I saw it obviously, that whole thing came out of the Mets clubhouse with Kirk Radomski… I saw him, I saw the guys from the other teams that were coming down the hallway and we all kind of knew what was going on. I watched an unnamed Teammate get injections in his ass. His wife would shoot him up in his ass after ball games around 11:30-midnight when we were on his porch having beers listening to music. It never really bothered me – the steroid era. If that’s what these guys wanted to do… it doesn’t make your talent any better and for me, being a sinker ball pitcher, having them hit the top half of the ball – didn’t matter if they could bench-press 500lbs. They’ve certainly been penalized in the public realm – the way they’re perceived by the fans and media, but as far as how they’re perceived by ballplayers? For me at least, my feeling was “I don’t care, I’ll pitch to ‘em”.
Chayim: You don’t think a decade earlier or a decade later, you’d have been better off? You don’t think you could have had more success in a different era?
Eric: It was really the team. We’re in New York, it’s the media capital of the United States, and we were just a really bad team. Best way I could sum it up is: (former Mets teammate) Frank Tanana, he said to me “E, I’ve been on bad teams, but this is the worst. If you go out and pitch well, you’re probably gonna lose. If you go out and pitch poorly, you’re guaranteed to lose.” There was just no offense.
I’ll tell you what. These guys (the steroid guys) go out make 10, 15 million dollars a year, I have 0 envy or jealousy. The only thing that really ruffles my feathers is when I look through a box-score and see a pitcher go 5 innings, 9 hits, 6 runs, and he’s the winning pitcher. That just gets in my craw. I was never able to go out there and give it up.
Chayim: So your beef is with every Yankee pitcher of the 2000’s.
Eric: Well that’s just it. Look through my stats, even in the minor leagues. I always pitched well; not dominant but good enough to win. I was just never on a good team. I’ve never been to the playoffs. Honestly, whether it was little league, summer ball, legion ball – we never made it to the state playoffs, College – we never even made it to regionals, minor leagues – I was never in any playoffs, and obviously, those two and a half years in New York – there was no playoffs there. I went to Japan to play for (Bobby) Valentine in Japan – no playoffs there. I would have liked to have made the playoffs and when you’re playing on that ‘92/’93 team….that’s why I jumped on Dallas Green once. Here I was, a 25 year old kid, wide-eyed, trying to achieve my dream and busting my butt to achieve my dream; I finally get in that clubhouse and no one gave a crap. Everybody on the team, all they cared about were their cars, their jewelry, their real estate… nobody cared about the game, no one cared if they won or lost. There was no fire. There was no pride… Then Dallas Green sends me down saying “we’re trying to make an example of people that don’t want to be here”, I was like, “you’ve gotta be kidding me”. I cared as much as anyone else on that roster. I was just surrounded by high-priced guys they couldn’t get rid of or send to the minor leagues or anything.
Chayim: Bobby (Bonilla)’s still getting paid
Eric: (sighs) yeah. It’s disgusting. I’ve never met anyone like Bonilla in my life and I hope I never do again.
Chayim: Ok Eric, you’re “fantasy GM” and you have one Amnesty Clause to use on those teams. Bobby or Dallas? Who do you get rid of? Who was the bigger cancer?
Eric: Bonilla or Dallas? Bobby
Chayim: When you watch a kid like Harvey, who is dominant, go out and throw eight strong, give up one run in a loss, do you feel for him? Can you commiserate?
Eric: Oh absolutely. I never signed a two-year deal. I never had guarantees. As someone who bounced between being a fifth starter and being in the bullpen depending on the off-days, I always had to go out there and prove myself. I threw 8 shutout innings in San Diego and came out with a no-decision and I remember getting a “great game” but that’s all you get. You don’t get a “W”, you don’t get a stipend, all you get the next year when you try to renegotiate a new contract is “well what the hell are you talking about? You only got two wins”. Well, yeah, but in ’93, if we had some decent offense, I think I pitched well enough to get 8 or 9 wins.
Chayim: Most “Baseball people” poo-poo wins and losses for a pitcher. You on board?
Eric: Yeah. Today, if you’re a starting pitcher and you get your team into the 6th inning, you can sign yourself up for 5 or 6 years. I don’t understand that. I always had the mindset…you get yourself in a nine-inning mindset. You break it down into three three inning games. As long as I got the third out, I assumed I’d go out for the next inning. I’d get a little pissed off when; you get the third out, you grab a drink of water, next thing you know you’re getting a pat and a “hey, great game”, I’m like, “what? I’m only out here every 5 days, I’d like to try to maximize my time on the mound”.
Chayim: So inning-limits. Pitch-counts. Strasburg rules, Joba rules, whatever we’re calling them. You’re anti? Pitch counts, innings-limits overrated – go out there and pitch?
Eric: I think it’s overrated because of all the pitching done between starts. If somebody like Strasburg goes out throws 120 pitches a start and he’s locating well, I don’t think he needs anything more than to get a little bit loose on his side days. This goes for all pitchers. Throw 20-25 pitches at about 75-80%, work on your release point, work on snapping the curve…. you just need a little fine-tuning. There’s no reason these pitchers need to be throwing 60-65 pitches at full tilt. Especially when you get into July, August, and September. It’s like batting practice. You think Jeter needs to take batting practice every day from some 65 year old guy throwing 50 miles an hour? What the hell is that gonna accomplish? The longer you keep your mind right… it’s not football where you have 16 games a season, once a week.
I remember in Chicago, Mark Grace hit a blooper…I jammed the shit out of him…Grace hits a blooper down the line for a double and it was just one of those days – ground balls through the hole between third and short, bloopers just making it out of the infield…. Grace was my last batter. Dallas comes out to get me and he’s just like, “well, it’s just not your day. They’re hitting you all over the field” and I was like, “They haven’t hit me all day” and walked off.
I talked to Bobby (Valentine) when I was playing for him over in Japan. I pitched well over there and it was towards the end of the season… I like Bobby. A lot of people don’t like Bobby but I like Bobby because Bobby asks questions and he only asks questions he knows the answer to. Or thinks he knows the answer to. He thinks he knows the answer to everything…
Chayim: …that’s what I’ve heard
Eric: …so Bobby asked me: why do you think you’re pitching so much better over here in Japan than you were in the states? The competition’s the same- there’s not as many long ball threats but there’s a lot more contact – which is scarier I think.
Chayim: For your style for sure…
Eric: I loved facing those guys (the home run hitters in the states) because most of the time, they’re sitting dead-red, taking a huge swing… you get a 2-0 count and throw a nice little changeup and they’d throw out their back popping up to the third basemen.
Chayim: A southpaw with a sinker and a change… they must have HATED you
Eric: I tell you, it’s the backup third basemen or the utility infielders that were the toughest because there’s no ego. They don’t get themselves out and they put the ball in play so they’re tougher for me…
So Bobby asks me why I’m pitching so much better and I say, “You know Bobby? Honestly? I don’t care about the end of the game. I quit caring about the outcome of the game. I prepare myself, I get my rest, I do my running, I do my side-work, I eat right, and I’m as good as I can be when I go out and take the mound. I’ve realized that once I let go of the ball, there’s nothing I can do. Once I let go of the ball, there’s nothing I can do. I’m done riding that emotional roller-coaster. I pitch a shutout: great. I go out and get my ass kicked: I don’t care. I’ve done everything I could to be as good as I can be.
Chayim: Is that a philosophy that comes from maturity and being a veteran pitcher overseas or is that a defense mechanism bred from all those years on awful Mets teams?
Eric: It is a maturity thing. When you’re young, it’s just a pissing match. “How hard do you throw?” You go to spring training and there’s 90 guys all “how hard do you throw”. It is a maturity thing. There’s too much ego in sports. I think the worst sport ego-wise is the NBA.
Chayim: I’m a beat writer with the Knicks. BOY are you preaching to the choir
Eric: But back to fantasy camp. My wife… we met once I was done pitching, she doesn’t know anything about fantasy camp and she said “Fantasy camp, I can only imagine what goes on. You go down there, all those guys drinking, the debauchery…” and I’m sure that stuff does go on but for me, it’s a homecoming. That’s the field I grew up on. I went to Port St. Lucie at 21 with my whole career and a lot of hard work ahead of me and these coaches are my family. It’s an incredible camaraderie. We had Duncan Niederauer (CEO of NYSE Euronext) down there playing with blue-collar guys whose family chipped in to send him for a 40th birthday and everyone gets along. The game’s the great equalizer because the baseball doesn’t know that you’re a CEO or a janitor, or an attorney. The wealthy participants don’t get a meatball right down the middle….It’s first class all the way and I’m proud of the Mets organization. I’m humbled to have played this game and I’m humbled to be associated with this amazing franchise.
Chayim: Toughest thing about being an athlete?
Eric: The toughest thing about being an athlete is that eventually you’ll be an ex-athlete. I cried for two days when I retired. This eases the blow of being an ex-athlete. I get to come down for a week each year, see my coaches and friends… it’s just an unbelievable experience.
Chayim: That’s something that’s always been part of the Eric Hillman experience. You’re known as one of the most accessible and fan-friendly athletes around. I heard your earlier interview with Mark and heard you talking about bringing kids into the dugout. You talked about online blogs and on the Mets Ultimate Database blog – “Memories of Eric Hillman” page, there are several posts about fans memories of you and there’s a response from an “Eric Hillman”. Is that actually you?
Eric: Yeah. I got on there and I just had to defend myself. It’s easy to take potshots at somebody and hide behind the anonymity of a computer. This is who I am; I never pretended or tried to be someone I’m not. I’ve gotten to do some amazing things. I got to play in Japan and have success. I got to be the father to two great boys and the husband to an amazing woman. The thing I’m most proud of about my life so far is that I don’t have to be 75 sitting in some assisted-living facility with my mental and physical abilities diminished to be able to say “every day’s a gift”. I’ve had that perspective for years.
Chayim: That was one of the two things expressed regularly on the blog. One was your typical “Hillman sucks” or “Hillman couldn’t break glass with his fastball” from trolls. The others were how good you were with fans, how accessible you are, how you weren’t one of those “dick-athletes”. What’s your take-away from a blog like this? Pissed at the trolls? Proud and appreciative?
Eric: Everybody wants to feel like they made the tiniest bit of difference.
Chayim: Let me ask you a little bit about Japan: You played for Bobby Valentine, you were voted “Best Nine” for excelling at your position… tell me a little bit about what it was like. What was the biggest culture shock coming from Flushing to Japan?
Eric: My first day in Tokyo, I’m walking the streets by myself and I hear this little jazz club. I walked in the door and as soon as I walked in the door, this little Japanese lady comes running up to me saying “no, no, no, no, no. No Gaijin (foreigners). Japanese only, only Japanese people.” I thought that was kinda funny. Could you imagine doing that in the US? We talk about what black people must have felt like in the ‘50’s…
Chayim: You should have your own 42 movie
Eric: That’s right! “42, A man in Japan”
But you know my first year, I was there with (Pete) Incaviglia and Julio Franco and you could not find two guys that hated Japan more. They were the worst. The Japanese do extended calisthenics before they even pick up a baseball. So much so that after you do these drills, you go back to the clubhouse, change because you’re undershirt’s so sweaty, and then go play a little catch. Pete’s just bitching and moaning “I’m not gonna do that, I don’t need that”, I’m like “dude, we’re here til’ October, why not make the most of it? Plus, it’s exercise, it’s good for you”. And the food’s great, the food’s healthy.
The way the Japanese see eating…it’s like your car’s on empty and you put in a gallon. They eat just enough to get you to the next meal. We eat til’ we’re stuffed…The language barrier, the people… if you accept there’s gonna be some differences and go in there with an open mind, it can be great. You just have to accept that there’s gonna be some differences.
Chayim: Despite the segregation and blatant discrimination that you endured, how are ballplayers treated over there? The Ichiro’s and Matsui’s aside, how do they treat ballplayers? I’ve heard nothing but good things…
Eric: Well… it’s not all good things. The Japanese are VERY race-proud. There’s a reason they and the Germans got along so well. The Germans were elitists and the Japanese are not much different. When I went over there, we’re not fully accepted. I don’t think any American player is fully accepted. They like to keep their Japanese teams Japanese. That’s why they have those rules there about how many foreigners you could have. When I got there, you were allowed three non-Japanese in the organization. Didn’t matter if they were Dominican, American…if you weren’t Japanese you were Gaijin and they only allowed three. Either 2 pitchers and a position player or 2 position players and a pitcher in the organization – each team only has one minor league team. It’s funny, a perfect game for the Japanese would be if I give up 6 runs in 2/3 of an inning, Incy (Incaviglia) goes 0-4, Julio goes 0-4, and we still win the game 8-6. “The Americans, we didn’t need them. We overcame them.” Y’know? They certainly didn’t view us like they might’ve viewed Bob Horner in the 70’s. There’s no hero’s welcome now. You go over there, you play the game…One of the strangest things I’ve seen. The Tokyo (Yomiuri) Giants win the World Series, Dan Gladden was on that team, and everyone was just talking…having a little bit of fun, then getting dressed and going home.
Chayim: Wait, I don’t get it. Why?
Eric: I don’t know. When I’d have a bad start, I’d come in and slam my glove down y’know? Some of the players would come over and be like “Nice fighting spirit”. They were pretty laid back. They didn’t get pissed off when they struck out or had a bad start because these guys all have jobs with the company. Yomiuri runs all the TV stations and newspapers (that’s why they’re the most popular), Yakult makes all the dairy in the country… they all have jobs with the company when they’re done playing. Me? I was trying to hit incentive bonuses and earn my contract.
Chayim: And there were incentives…
Eric: oh yeah. They’d be on your stool the next day. You’d show up at the park and you’ve got two grand in cash just sitting on your stool. No one would touch it, no one would take it. It was just there waiting for you…
Chayim: Like you’re a college football star
Eric: Exactly. Got my money from the booster club.
Chayim: So why don’t more players head over to Japan? Monetarily speaking, it sounds great. Is it a pride thing? Do they not want to give up on the dream? Is it fear of the unknown?
Eric: Firstly, I don’t know if the opportunities there for a lot of people. You need to have an agent that could facilitate that kind of deal. Baseball’s won the World Baseball Classic 2 out of 3 times. You can’t just head over there and decide “oh, I’ll just go there and be a superstar”.
Chayim: Articles have been written about the differences between Japan and here in terms of pitching philosophy. Pitch counts, inning limits etc. What was it like over there?
Eric: Fortunately, I was really allowed to have my own regimen. The thing I really liked about Japan was that you’re only allowed 5 pitches between innings. After that pitch, the ump signals the pitcher and away we go. Next time you’re at a ball game, see how many pitches the pitcher throws between innings. A guy goes 9 innings in the states: he throws 50 pitches warming up in the bullpen, about 90 pitches between innings, 120 during the game – that’s about 250 pitches. They think “oh, he’s pitched 100 pitches let’s pull him” bullshit. He’s thrown closer to 200.
Chayim: Obviously, you’ve had a well-traveled career and you’ve been in some interesting clubhouses. What’s your craziest clubhouse/locker-room story?
Eric: Oh man… I was in AAA in ’91. We were playing the Indianapolis Indians and we were in a delay. It was just pouring rain. Max Patkin (the clown prince of Baseball) was performing that night. So he’s in the clubhouse and he’s like “I’m going out there and making my money no matter what. I’m not getting stiffed on this one”. So he’s out there slipping and sliding. He grabbed the Indians bats and threw them onto the field “they’re not using them anyway, use them to soak up the water”… you know, doing his schtick. And I look behind homeplate and there’s a kid standing there and he asked “Mr. Hillman, can I get an autograph?” I was the starting pitcher that night so I handed him this shitty ball and I told him, “throw this ball over the screen at the clown and I’ll give you the game ball.” He takes the crappy BP ball, throws it over the screen, hits Max on top of the head and he is out cold laying in the mud. Me and the kid just look at each other like “Holy Shit!” We both booked it, I don’t think I ever gave him the ball. The Paramedics are taking Max out and he’s moaning “oh god! Who would throw a baseball at me?” The police and paramedics are there with a 75 year old with a lump on his head crying his eyes out.
Chayim: So you damn near killed the Clown Prince of Baseball.
Eric: Yeah. I think he thought it was one of the Indians because he was throwing their bats on the field. Thank god he was ok. I thought he was dead.
Chayim: Did you have a backup plan in case he was?
Eric: I would have told the cops I didn’t speak English. No backup plan.
Chayim: Do they even do pranks in Japan?
Eric: Nah. Not at all.
Chayim: They weren’t the ’86 Mets but you came up, at least spent Spring Training with some pretty rowdy Mets teams. David Cone was infamous for what he was like when he was younger… there had to be some stories
Eric: I was on a flight in ’92. (Jeff) Torborg was the manager, his wife Judy was on the plane. Those guys sat up in the first class seats- there was no divider or anything. Cone is naked in the back of the plane, drunk, (like all of us were) screaming “Judy! Come back here!” It was pretty classic. I get up to the Majors and see the silly pranks and stuff these guys were doing and I was like “I can hang with these guys. This is the stuff I’ve been doing my whole life”.
Chayim: Your best teammate?
Eric: Gosh, I don’t think I could name one.
Chayim: I’ll make it easy for you. Take 9 – put together an Eric Hillman fantasy camp. Anyone you want:
Eric: Honestly, I’d take the guys that are there right now. Honestly, I wish HoJo would come back but apparently he’s had a big falling out with the Mets. Might’ve been something about his kid; I hope he comes back. Wally – Wally Backman; he’s a character and he’s great down there. Wally coaches his team like it’s the 7th game of the World Series every game. My fantasy camp coaches are honestly the guys that are there right now. Randy Niemann, Bobby Floyd, Bob Apodaca, Al Jackson’s like my dad. He taught me how to eat, sleep, talk, think, and fart, like a lefthander. Al was a crafty lefty too, so he spoke my language.
Chayim: Thanks for your time Eric and looking forward to seeing you at camp.
Eric: Thank you. If it wasn’t for guys like you and Mark and what you do, we wouldn’t get the chance to talk about what’s important about Met’s fantasy camp: the love, the camaraderie, and the respect that comes out of camp. That’s honesty why I go. It’s an opportunity to recapture my youth, talk to people, have fun, make people laugh, and provide a quality experience. That’s why I love going down there.
Chayim: That AND the groupies…
Eric: Oh yeah. They’re in their 70’s now but…
Chayim: No way you’re gonna be hurting your shoulder down there with that kind of talent around.
WLIE 540 AM SPORTSTALKNY Head Writer
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