February 22, 2007
'J.P. tried to bury me'Hillenbrand goes on tirade
By BOB ELLIOTT -- Sun Media
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Shea Hillenbrand speaks calmly as he reflects on his sometimes turbulent time as an infielder/designated hitter with the Blue Jays -- an 18-month stretch that culminated in an explosive confrontation with manager John Gibbons.
While Hillenbrand himself can be blunt, he paints a picture of Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi as being equally outspoken. And very controlling.
"J.P. tried to bury me," Hillenbrand said of having his playing time cut during the 2006 season, in advance of his trade to the San Francisco Giants on July 21 that year.
"J.P. will deny it, but he told my agent, Dan Lozano, they'd bury me ... keep cutting down on my playing time, unless I got in line," Hillenbrand said.
Seated in front of his locker in the Los Angeles Angels clubhouse at El Diablo Stadium the other day, Hillenbrand coolly detailed a chain of clashes in the Jays clubhouse before his head-on crash on July 19 with Gibbons, who challenged him to a fight.
There may be some people who aren't inclined to believe Hillenbrand, who made a name-calling exit from the Boston Red Sox in May 2003, ripping general manager Theo Epstein.
But this is his story and he's sticking to it.
"I'm not a 'yes' person, I'm a competitor," Hillenbrand said. "They looked at me and rather than seeing a competitor, they saw an a------. Now, J.P., he's like me, a competitor."
The Jays became upset with Hillenbrand over his comments during the spring of 2006 when he said the Jays had a "country-club atmosphere, content to be in the majors, that you can't compete with the Bostons and New Yorks."
Not long after, Hillenbrand asked the Jays to deal him. Then came a May 19-21 interleague series against the Colorado Rockies in Denver. Gibbons called a team meeting and ripped any Jay who didn't want to be a part of his team.
"No one in the room had any idea what he was talking about," Hillenbrand said. "But he spent the whole time glaring at me. He didn't say anything to me one-on-one."
During that series, Hillenbrand started just one game and had a pinch-hit appearance as Colorado swept the Jays.
The final week of May there was hot trade talk -- how the Jays might send Hillenbrand to the Angels for second baseman Adam Kennedy. Nothing happened.
So, with the deal still on hold and with the pot stewing, Hillenbrand and his wife, Jessica, flew to Los Angeles to adopt a baby, Dakota Grace, on July 15.
"You're allowed three days under the contract," said Hillenbrand, who returned before a game against the Texas Rangers July 18.
Not in the lineup the next night, Hillenbrand unloaded on the organization to the media, saying: "I'm surprised I'm not in there. I should have stayed home. I love my teammates, but I'm just waiting to get traded ... they should have traded me two months ago."
During batting practice he was in the outfield talking with players ("players who wanted out, the trade deadline was approaching"). He admitted, in the interview this week, to writing "Play for yourselves" on the clubhouse whiteboard July 19.
Gregg Zaun mockingly wrote the next line "Play for your contract" and argued with Hillenbrand. Then, Hillenbrand wrote "This ship is sinking."
Hitting coach Mickey Brantley told Gibbons what was on the board, Hillenbrand claims. After batting practice a team meeting was scheduled, called by Vernon Wells. A teammate had accused the centre fielder of pulling up on a ball that should have been caught.
"Vernon explained how he had a pulled hamstring," Hillenbrand said. "Gibbons stuck his head in, saying he wanted to come in when we were done."
Gibbons delivered a "you or me" ultimatum to Hillenbrand. Later, assistant to the GM Bart Given told Hillenbrand he had been designated for assignment. That night the Jays claimed Hillenbrand had cut up both the Canadian flag crest on his cap and the Canada across the back of his jersey on July 1 after being removed late in a 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Hillenbrand shook his head and looked around the Angels clubhouse when the topic was broached.
"Look I have no disrespect toward Canada, the fans were great," Hillenbrand said. "I loved living there ... except I was miserable going to the park every day."
Hillenbrand played 81 of the Jays' first 94 games in 2006 before being designated. In 2005, he played in 152 of 162 games.
"In 2005 I'm an all-star, selected by my peers," Hillenbrand said. "A year later they're saying I was a cancer in the clubhouse? Give me a break."
Hillenbrand touched them all, as the late Tom Cheek might have said, in his post-Jays comments to match either Doyle Alexander or George Bell.
"I'm not a guy like Gregg Zaun who claims he's a leader, I'm a competitor," Hillenbrand said.
"I like Gibbons, but J.P. puts so much pressure on him. Gibbons keeps everything inside until he reaches the boiling point and can't keep it in any longer."
Hillenbrand remembers being in the training room at Rogers Centre after a game early in 2005.
"J.P. comes in ranting, knocking Vernon for a lack of work ethic and saying how he couldn't stand Eric Hinske," Hillenbrand said. "I hardly knew the GM and he's saying this to me?"
Hillenbrand spoke of a dugout scene against the New York Yankees in 2005 when Alex Rios didn't run out a ball and Gibbons lifted Rios from the game.
"The manager had the situation under control; at the end of the inning in comes (third base coach) Brian Butterfield, he's yelling, swearing, hitting the Gatorade bucket and crapping on Rios.
"I tap him and say 'it's okay, John handled it,' and Butterfield turns and goes off on me. We didn't need him distracting everyone. (Butterfield) said later I didn't know him well enough to say anything to him."
And to think his conversation with the Sun started off with the probing question: "Have you been following your old team?"
"The San Francisco Giants," Hillenbrand said with a smile, "are my old team."