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Move north paid off for Blue Jays’ Hinske

by Rob Smaal

Funny how things work out sometimes.

Eric Hinske was toiling in the Oakland A’s system, and things weren’t looking good for the young third baseman. With Gold Glove infielder Eric Chavez firmly entrenched at third in Oakland, Hinske was probably looking at a few more seasons riding the bus in Triple-A.

Then came the day that changed his life.

On Dec. 7, 2001, the A’s dealt Hinske and pitcher Justin Miller to the Toronto Blue Jays for closer Billy Koch. Given a fresh chance with the Jays, Hinske made the most of it, hitting .279 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs on his way to being named the 2002 American League Rookie of the Year.

“I was a rookie coming in, I didn’t have any big-league time and I got traded to the Blue Jays,” Hinske said prior to Game 1 of the current MLB-Japan All-Star Series. “Toronto gave me a chance to play every day, and things just seemed to work out really well.”

So well, in fact, that Hinske set team rookie records for runs (99), doubles (38), homers, RBIs, total bases (272), extra-base hits (64) and walks (77). He led all major-league rookies in homers, RBIs, multi-hit games (48), runs, hits (158), total bases and doubles, and was tied for first among AL rookies with 13 stolen bases.

While the 25-year-old Wisconsin native had a great season personally, the Jays stumbled out of the gate before eventually finishing third (78-84) in the AL East in a year that saw attendance at SkyDome dwindle. I asked Hinske what it was like to be a baseball player in a hockey town.

“We’ve got to start winning some more games,” Hinske said. “It was a baseball town in ’92 and ’93 when they won the World Series back-to-back, so if we start winning games the fans will come back to us. The second half of the season, we had a better team and you could see the fans kept coming out. That’s what we’re trying to get back to, how they were winning in ’92 and ’93.”

Hinske says he’s enjoyed his time here in Japan, even though the MLB stars got off to a rough start by losing the first three games of the series against their Japanese counterparts. Hinske was batting .364 after going 4-for-11 through the first five games.

“This is the chance of a lifetime to come out here and play. This is my first time in Japan and I’m excited to be here. Everyone’s great, everyone’s real nice, and playing on a team of All-Stars here, I get to play with guys like Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, so I’m happy. This is a great time, I just want to get better, learn some things from these older guys and hopefully get better.”

While in Japan, Hinske said he’s been popping into as many small restaurants as he can to sample the different types of food here. He also says he’s keen to pick up some electronic goods, maybe a camera or a camcorder.

When asked the inevitable question of what he thinks about Japanese free-agent slugger Hideki Matsui, Hinske said he’d like to see “Godzilla” in Jays’ blue.

“Tell him to come to Toronto,” Hinske said with a smile. “Ichiro (Suzuki) is in the majors and he’s probably the best player in the league. It’s fun to play against him, he’s a great guy and a great player. Keep sending over guys that are that good and it’s only going to make our league better.”

Matsui in Toronto? Not likely, but the move north sure paid off for Eric Hinske.