At the end of their daily fielding drill at T-Mobile Park, the Mariners’ infielders gather and yell, “Bone!”
It’s a heartfelt tribute to missing mentor Perry Hill, the Mariners’ infield and first-base coach who sits home, yearning to be with his pupils.
But the Mariners made the tough, preemptive decision that it was too much of a health risk for Hill, who turned 68 on March 19 — a week after the MLB season was shut down for three months because of coronavirus concerns — to participate in this most unpredictable of seasons. Also absent, because of preexisting medical conditions, are hitting coach Tim Laker, 50, and bullpen coach Brian De Lunas, 45.
I reached Hill at his in-season Bellevue home, where he is riding out this unforeseen hiatus “just in case they change their mind.”
He was initially reluctant to talk, because he didn’t want to detract from the team and its focus. But when he relented, Hill expressed the evolution in his mindset after the initial shock of being out of uniform during baseball season for the first time in nearly four decades. Especially when he feels great, as always exuding the energy of a man 20 years younger.
When Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto told him of the Mariners’ decision, shortly after baseball’s resumption was announced in June, Hill said he pleaded to be allowed to coach.
“Begged might be a better word,” he said.
Hill admitted he hadn’t considered the possibility that he might be grounded in 2020.
“Not at all. I still have a lot of passion and energy for the game,” he said. “It didn’t cross my mind at all.”
Hill acknowledged he was bothered by the Mariners’ decision at first — until he had time to reflect. It didn’t take long before he concluded it was the right thing to do, in light of the greatly increased danger of COVID-19 for people in his age range. The Minnesota Twins did the same with coaches Bob McClure, who like Hill is 68, and Bill Evers, 66.
“The competitor in me doesn’t like the label or the ruling, but then again, I have the full confidence in Jerry, (manager) Scott (Servais), our medical team, our training staff, that they’re doing the right thing to protect me — basically, from myself,” he said.
“I want to be there, obviously. But they know more about the medical side and the long-term effect of something than I do. I appreciate the fact that, although I want to be there — very badly — and I miss it tremendously, I also respect the fact they care about my long-term health.”
Hill’s absence in this training camp is palpable, and not just because infield practice is no longer peppered with his nonstop banter — including his oft-repeated catch phrase, “Stop it!” That term is used by Hill to punctuate a well-executed play or crisp drill, and has become something of a rallying cry for infielders.
Rest assured those infielders dearly miss the man known as “Bone,” who joins Atlanta’s Ron Washington as the most celebrated infield coaches in the game.
In 2019, his first season on the Mariners’ staff, Hill’s main project was newly acquired shortstop J.P. Crawford, who has credited Hill with saving his career. This spring, before the shutdown, Hill’s prime focus was on Shed Long, settling at second base after moving around the field in 2019.
Though Hills says the fielders “are in good hands,” with Servais, Manny Acta, Jared Sandberg and other coaches on hand, there’s only one Perry Hill, and he’s inimitable.
“It sucks,” Long said Tuesday of Hill’s absence. “I mean, he’s really done a lot for me defensively. We can’t have him around, unfortunately. It’s for the better. The energy he brings every day, the way he goes about his business, you always miss having that around when you could. But we talk a lot. Even when I wasn’t here, we would talk at least once a week. We’d talk about defense all the time. I’d send him videos. We always talked.”
Analyzing video from home is now Hill’s prime role. He intently watches the YouTube broadcasts of each day’s workout and receives tapes from the Mariners’ video staff, Patrick Hafner and Dan Kaplan, that are isolated on players. The feedback is coveted by the players.
“It definitely sucks not having Bone there,” Crawford said. “His presence, his energy … you know he’s there to get on your butt, and he’s there to congratulate you at the same time.
“It’s definitely not the same, but someone’s got to take his place, and someone has got to be that loud energy guy, so I’m eager to see what happens. I talked to him a lot. He texted me yesterday, just checking in; I know he’s going crazy probably at his house.”
There’s truth to that, especially because Hill loves teaching above all else and is so high on the defensive potential of this Mariners infield. That includes rookie Evan White at first and, of course, veteran Kyle Seager at third, who says of Hill, “That’s a tough act to duplicate. It’s real and genuine, and there’s substance, too. … He’s got a way of telling you you’re doing something wrong and picking you up and making you feel good at the same time.”
That’s precisely what friends and colleagues had to do with Hill — pick him up when he was feeling badly about having to miss the season. They helped him come around to the realization that it was, indeed, for his own good.
“I think they (the Mariners) knew I would take all the precautions and do the protocols,” he said. “That doesn’t mean other people would, somewhere. Not necessarily our team, but somewhere else. Especially when we get on the road, and I might be susceptible. I don’t think it had anything to do with me, or the team, or anything like that. It’s just that you never know about the unknown.
“As much as it hurts, I know Jerry and the crew were looking out for me.”
For Hill, the immediate future might be unknown, but his long-term plans have not changed. In 2019, I ended a column about Hill with this quote from him: “Retirement? What’s that? They’re going to have to peel this uniform off me.”
Fast-forward a year to the murky, uncharted realm of 2020, and the sentiment hasn’t changed a bit.
“I love my job. I’ve said this many times: I have 10 more years in me. Easy. Easy. I’ll come back with a vengeance in 2021.”