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In the right spot, again

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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NEW YORK - Need a tour guide around the American League East? Eric Hinske is your guy.

In the last three seasons, Hinske has played for the Red Sox (2007), the Rays (2008), and the Yankees (2009). And he was American League Rookie of the Year with the Blue Jays in 2002.

Hinske has found his niche in major league baseball. Maybe it’s not the niche he once dreamed about, when he showed so much promise as a rookie third baseman in Toronto. Whether it was an injury or two, or a move to first base after the Blue Jays acquired Corey Koskie, who knows?

What was expected after his career started with a .279, 24-homer, 84-RBI season and what actually happened is something Hinske has had to deal with.

“I just made the decision that I could fight not playing every day wherever I went,’’ he said, “or I’d accept a role and try to help a team win by giving guys days off, or coming up as a pinch hitter and getting a big hit, or playing the best ball I can when I am in there.

“Really, I had no other choice but to accept it and do it if I wanted to keep playing baseball. I’m lucky in that, even in this tough market for players, I’m still getting phone calls to play and I hope that continues.’’

His streak of landing on postseason teams almost ended when the team that came calling over the winter was the Pirates. Yet Hinske accepted their invitation, made the team out of spring training, and hoped to get playing time there.

But the playing time wasn’t as much as he expected, and when the Yankees were assessing their needs, they realized they didn’t have a lefthanded bat off the bench and someone who could protect them in the infield and outfield. So they went out and got Hinske, persuading the Pirates to take on half the salary.

Hinske has helped the Yankees. He homered in his second at-bat with them, on July 6 vs. the Blue Bays. In 84 at-bats, he hit seven homers and knocked in 14 runs, though he batted just .226.

“Who wouldn’t want to play for the New York Yankees?’’ Hinske said. “When the deal happened, I thought, ‘Well, here’s another opportunity to go the postseason and win a World Series.’ Why not? That’s fun.

“Those are the things and experiences I’ll remember most when this is all over. I got to play on great teams with great people. I saw how the very best were run. I got to dress next to some of the greatest players who ever played the game.

“Sure, everyone wants to make a living, but it’s going through this stuff with a good group of guys and knowing you can carve out a little piece of it and help where you can that makes this worthwhile.’’

At 32, Hinske still wants to play every day, but he’s not expecting a miracle. He would love not to have to live contract to contract, to have some stability and peace of mind, but he knows that isn’t likely to be in the cards.

Anyway, he has made about $16 million in his career, so he rolls with the punches. If he’s been characterized as a hired gun, so be it. If he’s characterized as a super utility player, well, that’s better than unemployment.

So he works out at various positions each day, starting in the outfield and working his way to third base.

“You have to keep sharp and be ready to play every day,’’ Hinske said. “You never know when someone is going to go down with an injury and I’ve got to go in there. And when you get your chance, you want to make sure the team doesn’t suffer when you’re in there. You want to make sure you can contribute in some way.

“So I take fly balls in the outfield and then move over to third base and take grounders there. I figure if I prepare for third, I can easily go in to play first. So it’s a routine I’ve gotten used to, and I practice every day. And it works for me.’’

He grins when asked about his penchant for showing up in the right place at the right time.

He says the experiences with the Yankees and the Red Sox have been similar.

“Same type of players and team,’’ he said. “They expect to win here. They’re accomplished, great, veteran players who believe they’re going to win every time they take the field.

“We won it in Boston, so that experience was unbelievable. Tampa Bay was a little different in that we were the Cinderella story. Nobody expected us to do what we did and there was no pressure. I think we had so many young guys, they had no idea what they were doing or that what they were doing had such an impact.

“It was fun to be on a team like that, but here, this is the top of the heap. This is the Yankees, who have won more championships than anyone. We play in this incredible facility, dress in this unbelievable clubhouse, and we’re in the postseason as a team that everyone’s trying to knock off.’’

This gun-for-hire business has its ups and downs. The ups are playoff shares and fame. Yet every offseason, Hinske goes back to his Scottsdale, Ariz., home to wait for his next job. The Pirates didn’t call this year until Jan. 30. The year before that, the Rays signed him Feb. 6.

More than once, the chilling thought has floated through his mind that perhaps nobody would call. But the scouts who have watched him decided that if you need an experienced guy who can play multiple positions, and who can stick a big hit in there once in a while, why not Hinske?

“If that’s what baseball people think, then that’s fine with me,’’ Hinske said. “I know what I can do and what I’m capable of. I hope teams keep calling and I hope I can keep delivering what they want.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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