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Toronto Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Riccardi (R) talks to Aaron Hill at the team's spring training facility in Dunedin February 14, 2009. Hill, who was on the disabled list for most of last season with a concussion, is expected to be back at second base this year. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (UNITED STATES)
Toronto Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Riccardi (R) talks to Aaron Hill at the team's spring training facility in Dunedin February 14, 2009. Hill, who was on the disabled list for most of last season with a concussion, is expected to be back at second base this year. REUTERS/Fred Thornhill (UNITED STATES)

Jeff Blair

Transforming good intentions Add to ...

Roy Halladay has seen young players come into the clubhouse with his same good intentions, professing this and promising that. They all have them at the start. Then they start thinking they're a major-leaguer.

"I've seen them," the Toronto Blue Jays' ace said Sunday after a brisk throwing session before the team's final game ahead of the All-Star Game break. "They're really anxious and right on top of things and then, you know, just sort of let it slip away. Not Aaron Hill."

Walter Hill has done a fine job raising an all-star second baseman. He knows it says something that his son, Aaron, was voted onto the all-star team by his peers after coming back from a serious concussion in 2008 that limited him to 55 games.

But he also knows what's gone into Aaron Hill's ability to take good intentions and make them mean something. Walter Hill knows this because he was at the wheel of the car with 15-year-old Aaron and two friends, heading for a golf outing. He had to swerve out of the way when a van cut into his lane, but the car behind him, the one carrying Aaron's mother Vicki and a friend on their way to a shopping excursion, was not as lucky and Aaron saw it all and …

No.

"Maybe losing his mom helps him appreciate things more than some people," Walter Hill said in a telephone conversation two days before he joined his son in St. Louis for the All-Star Game. "Aaron is a person who definitely appreciates the position he's in. In a sense, he probably does play for his mom."

Hill and the Blue Jays begin the post-All Star Game portion of their schedule tonight when they play the first of three games against the Boston Red Sox at the Rogers Centre. Their blazing start now a distant memory, the Blue Jays have reverted to Life In .500 Land, and until the July 31 trade deadline, it will be the possible trade of Halladay that is the only story of consequence.

Perhaps it was with that in mind that Halladay spoke about Hill's importance to the organization. Vernon Wells and Alex Rios have long-term contracts and there are those around the team who would love Hill, who at 27 is three years younger than Wells and carries himself with a little more gravitas, to stage a leadership coup right now.

But that's not Hill's style.

He still defers to Wells, and perhaps that is because he remembers what happened in 2002 when he was at Louisiana State University. His coach, current Blue Jays scout Smoke Laval, moved him to third base from shortstop after team leader (and Hill's close friend) Wally Pontiff died of cardiac arrest.

Hill eventually assumed the leadership role everyone anticipated en route to cementing his status as a first-round pick, but it was hardly a smooth transition. His game suffered - Pontiff was an in-your-face guy, Hill ran on and off the field and led by example - and eventually Laval moved him back to shortstop.

Halladay, however, thinks Hill's time is coming.

"It seems like you get almost three or four guys who, I guess, you'd call the next era," Halladay said. "With this team, it's Adam Lind and Travis Snider and Aaron. He's going to be a big voice in the clubhouse. He'll be the guy who says what has to be said."

It's telling that Halladay separates Hill from Wells, because Hill has a foot in both camps.

Hill is the first of general manager J.P. Ricciardi's first-round picks to establish himself as a star in the majors. His single-season, club-record 20 home runs by a second baseman (it took him more than 300 fewer plate appearances to hit his 17th than it took Roberto Alomar to set the club record for a season), 60 runs batted in and .292 average were the best story of the first half, considering how much concern there was about his career after he suffered a concussion in the ninth inning of a game on May 29, 2008, when he collided with then shortstop David Eckstein.

It was stop and start and then finally stop for good until November, when he started to notice he could run around outside with his dog without feeling the "heavy-headedness" that had become a companion.

"My whole life," Hill said, "I've never been down that long, and to have somebody tell you that you have to stop doing everything. And it's not like you're walking around with crutches. That was the toughest thing. Normally I'm one of those people where, if there's a problem, I put my finger on it and deal with it and come up with a game plan. But this … there was no game plan for this."

The only other time Hill had his game taken away from him was shortly after his mother's death, when, as Walter said, he "just kind of dropped out of sports for a month."

The middle of a clubhouse is no place to plumb the depths of a man's grief, but Hill says that while he thinks of her all the time ("she's your mom, she's who you are a part of, how couldn't you?") he admits it's when the news is good that she most immediately comes to mind.

"She'd be smiling," Hill said when he was asked how his mother would take his All-Star status. "That's what my dad always thinks of first. He always thinks of what Mom would say it. He gets a smile from ear to ear ... and you can see her in him."

Hill grew up in Visalia, Calif., the economic centre of the San Joaquin Valley in the heart of the largest agribusiness area in the United States. So did his wife, Elizabeth, who is often referred to as Lucy.

The pair started dating when she was 14 and Hill was 16, broke up briefly when Hill went to LSU, then reunited. Elizabeth and her parents and brother were at the All-Star Game. Walter Hill believes that his son's family relationships are "an essential part of his calmness," and Hill himself gives his maternal grandparents' reaction to his all-star selection as an example. "They thought it was nice, and then they wanted to know how Elizabeth was doing," he said, laughing.

It took a team effort to get Hill back on the playing field's after his mother's death. "Twelve years ago," Walter says. "I don't know ... he just didn't have the desire or motivation to get back on the field. He, like, dropped out of sports for a bit. All we could do was encourage him as a family."

Hill has always been, in Walter's words, "a social kid that people love to be around." Still is. When Walter shows up in Dunedin, Fla., at spring training, the parking attendants tell him what a great kid his son is. Same with the security guards at the Rogers Centre.

This spring, when Hill saw a reporter in the clubhouse for the first time, his question was: "How's your paper doing?" It's the second-nature stuff that makes people like Aaron Hill. The niceties and the sensibilities and the other stuff are often lost in passing.

Halladay thinks that respectfulness reflects an attention to detail that will hold his younger teammate in good stead.

"Aaron is just, in general, a respectful guy," Halladay said. "And he has that attention to detail, and the thing is, that all that becomes a part of you.

"I've always felt that if you're paying attention to it early in your career, it becomes part of your makeup."

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