In the rather mundane world of infield instruction, there are two legends in the industry. Ron Washington is one. Perry Hill is the other. He's got a trademark catchphrase — "Stop it!" — but it doesn't mean what you might think.
PEORIA, Ariz. – As the Mariners run through the intricate choreography of their daily fundamental drills, a slight, 66-year-old man bursts into prominence.
Perry Hill, the Mariners’ new infield coach, barks out situations as he darts around the field. He peppers his instruction with non-stop commentary that pierces the reverie of a quiet desert morning.
“Long hop or no hop!”
“That’s how you play the game!”
“Don’t give up any extra outs!”
“Look at my left fielder – that’s where he’s supposed to be!”
The last one is a Hill trademark, soon to be emblazoned on T-shirts and the phrase that becomes drilled in the brain waves of every disciple. The first time third baseman Kyle Seager heard it, he thought the team was being admonished. Far from it.
“ ‘Stop it’ means, ‘That’s so good I can’t take it anymore,’ ” Hill explained, his energy level turned down several notches while standing in a hallway Thursday morning. “That’s exactly what we’ve talked about, that’s what we’ve preached, that’s what we’re practicing, and now it’s coming out in the drills – stop it!”
Hill has an amazing rate of transforming his teachings into habit during his 24 years as a major-league coach. In the rather mundane world of infield instruction, there are two legends in the industry. Ron Washington is one. Hill is the other.
Just ask Mariners second baseman Dee Gordon. He credits Hill’s instruction for leading directly to the Gold Glove he won with Miami in 2015. In gratitude, Gordon gave Hill an autographed glove. When Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo won the first of his three Gold Gloves in 2003, he went one better. He presented Hill with the trophy itself. First baseman Derrek Lee had his glove manufacturer stitch “Derrek Lee, 2003, Gold Glove” on a model and ship it to Hill.
All these, plus many other tokens of appreciation, are displayed in Hill’s den at home in Rochester Hills, Mich. He defers credit, however.
“It’s very humbling, because I didn’t field one of those balls, I didn’t make one of those throws,” he said.
But what Hills does is teach the tools that frequently allow his players to do it better than they’ve ever done it before. The Marlins had their eight best seasons of fielding percentage while Hill ran their defense. Pittsburgh led the majors in fielding percentage during his lone season with the Pirates. The 1997 Tigers became the only team in baseball history to go from last to first in fielding percentage in his first season in Detroit. His players have won six Gold Gloves under his tutelage.
“Dee called me this winter after he got hired and just told me how much I was going to love him, and how he thinks he won a Gold Glove because of him, and all these other really positive things,” Seager said.
“He’s certainly lived up to it. He’s been great. He’s got of energy. He’s brought it every single day. I like a lot of the things he talks about from a mechanical standpoint. I’ve been really, really happy and excited to work with him.”
When Gordon starts talking about Hill, it’s hard to get him to stop. He was ecstatic this winter when he found out Hill was headed to Seattle after being let go by Miami in the offseason.
“I was very excited for two reasons,” Gordon said. “Number one, I was playing infield again with him as my coach. That was exciting for me. And number two, just for him to have a new opportunity to show his talents as coach — because he has a lot of talent.
“I know that sounds weird to say. But he’s very talented as a coach. It’s just the way he works and the way gets us to work. It’s amazing. I know even other guys are telling me he’s the real deal. It shows, and I’m just happy people get to see it.”
Gordon has described himself as “awkward” and “terrible” in the field when he switched from shortstop to second base and became Hill’s pet project.
“The first day he talked to me, he said, ‘Hey you’ve got to trust me,’ ” Gordon recalled. “And I told him the truth, I don’t trust anybody. I just really don’t. And he said, ‘I’ll gain your trust.’ ”
It didn’t take long. Their first day, Hill cleaned up Gordon’s throwing mechanics and then had him do a double-play drill in which he shut his eyes while throwing to first. Gordon fully expected the ball to rattle off the chain-link fence.
“Instead, I heard the ‘pow’ as it hit the glove,” he said. “I thought, ‘I don’t believe this, I’ve got to do it again.’ And I heard ‘pow.’ That’s when I knew that if I listened to him, it will work.”
Hill honed his infield-teaching techniques during a five-year playing career in the Mexican League. As he puts it, he had a lot of free time as the lone American on his ballclub. Eyeing a coaching career, Hill developed methods that he felt could easily be translated to players.
It’s all centered around what he calls the “six Fs” – feet, field, funnel, footwork, fire and follow, which cover every aspect of preparing for, catching and throwing a batted ball.
“My thing is less movement, less chance of error, cut out unnecessary movements, make the plays you’re supposed to make,” Hill said. “My theme has always been 27 outs. Don’t give them any more.
“When the game starts, I’m at 27. I’m going to count backwards until I get to one. I never want to turn around. And it happens. You turn around and you go up. It’s a game, there’s going to be errors and mistakes that are made. But I keep preaching 27 outs. The plays we practice and we should make, we’ve got to make to help out the team.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais had tried unsuccessfully to hire Hill years ago when he worked in player development with the Rangers. He jumped at the chance to bring Hill to Seattle when Scott Brosius’ departure left an opening in the staff. Servais has been delighted with what he’s seen.
“When players are walking by you, players that have been here a while, and say, ‘This guy is awesome, Skip,’ that says a lot,” he said. “When you are putting a coaching staff together, you want a diverse group. We can’t have 10 Perry Hills running around, but it’s really nice to have one.
“As much as we get caught up in the numbers in our game, and certainly that’s the way the game is going analytically, but there is still an art, and he’s painting a picture every day with what they need to work on.”
Almost literally. After each game, Hill meticulously charts each ball put in play by opponents, using a four-color Bic pen. In the past, Hill has used that research to make marks in the infield to guide his players when he positions them for each batter. With the Mariners, however, he’s going to defer to the shifts that are devised by Servais and bench coach Manny Acta, in concert with the Mariners’ analytical department.
“They have a real good system here, the way Scott and Manny work together that is really outstanding,” he said. “There’s no sense changing something if it’s not broken.”
Hill is known to many by his nickname “Bone,” which he got as a child after he carried around chicken bones rather than putting them on the plate. Reminded that there is already a famous “Bone” in Seattle baseball lore, Hill quickly said with a smile that he’ll relinquish the moniker to Jay Buhner.
“He’s much further up the food chain than I am,” he said. “He can have it.”
Hill, who doubles as the Mariners’ first-base coach, is eager to make his mark on what he says is a talented, receptive group of infielders. It’s clear that no one in camp is having more fun. Hill’s frenetic energy is the first thing an observer will notice when watching the Mariners work out this spring.
“I have a passion for my job,” Hill said with a shrug. “I love it.”
So much so that despite being a month from his 67th birthday, Hill never considered walking away from the game when the Marlins let him go.
“Retirement? What’s that?” he said. “They’re going to have to peel this uniform off me.”