When the Cardinals reacquired Ken Hill, they thought they’d found an ace. Instead, he was a dud.
Twenty years ago, on April 5, 1995, in one of the first big trades made by general manager Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals got Hill from the Expos for pitchers Bryan Eversgerd and Kirk Bullinger and outfielder DaRond Stovall.
The deal was considered a steal. Hill had 16 wins for the 1994 Expos, sharing the National League lead with Greg Maddux of the Braves.
Hill, 29, a right-hander, joined a rotation of left-handers Danny Jackson, Allen Watson, Donovan Osborne and Tom Urbani. Like Hill, Jackson ranked among the top four in the NL in wins in 1994. He had 14 for the Phillies.
“In acquiring Kenny Hill, we’ve got probably one of the top two or three pitchers in the game today,” Jocketty said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I think we’re on our way to putting together the championship club we thought we could.”
Said manager Joe Torre: “Kenny Hill is the type of pitcher we really haven’t had. He’s the type of pitcher who can go out and dominate a game. He’s an intimidator, a guy who can go out and pitch a no-hitter.”
The Expos were slashing payroll and general manager Kevin Malone was under orders to unload top-salaried players such as Hill, reliever John Wetteland and outfielder Marquis Grissom.
The Blue Jays and Rockies also had made strong bids for Hill. “The Jays thought they had offered a better deal for Ken Hill than the one the Expos accepted with the Cardinals,” The Sporting News reported, adding that the cash-strapped Expos were in no mood to help their Canadian counterparts.
Jocketty was thrilled he didn’t have to trade to the Expos one of the Cardinals’ top three pitching prospects: Alan Benes, Brian Barber or John Frascatore.
Said Torre: “This shows how serious we are. It’s very exciting to me that the Cardinals have gone out and established themselves as helping the club _ right now. That should put to rest any question about the desire of the Cardinals to win.”
First time around
Hill was a prospect in the Tigers’ minor-league system when the Cardinals acquired him and first baseman Mike Laga from Detroit for catcher Mike Heath on Aug. 10, 1986.
Hill made his big-league debut with St. Louis in 1988. In four seasons with the Cardinals, Hill was 23-32. According to catcher Tom Pagnozzi, Hill and pitching coach Joe Coleman “didn’t get along.”
After the 1991 season, Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill sought to acquire Expos first baseman Andres Galarraga. The Expos wanted pitcher Rheal Cormier, a Canadian, in return. Maxvill refused and instead offered Hill. The Expos accepted.
The deal was a bust for St. Louis. Plagued by injuries, Galarraga was limited to 95 games and hit .243 with 10 home runs and 39 RBI for the 1992 Cardinals. A free agent, he departed for the Rockies after the season. Hill had 16 wins for the 1992 Expos. In three years with Montreal, Hill was 41-21.
When Jocketty brought back Hill to St. Louis, it was as if a wrong had been righted.
“The Cardinals made belated amends for one of their worst trades in recent years,” Rick Hummel wrote in the Post-Dispatch.
Hummel’s colleague, Bernie Miklasz, opined, “Walt Jocketty needed one long distance phone call to erase one of Dal Maxvill’s worst mistakes.”
In The Sporting News, Bob Nightengale offered, “The Cardinals, always regretting they traded Hill … made up by stealing Hill back.”
Hill returned to find Mark Riggins had replaced Coleman and that Bob Gibson had been added to the coaching staff. Riggins had coached Hill in the minors.
“I never didn’t like Hill,” Torre said after the pitcher was reacquired. “I’ve always had a good opinion of him. I just thought he was a little casual at times. But he’s grown up since then.”
Said Hill: “I love the deal … I couldn’t stand it when they (the Cardinals) traded me out. But I think that change of scenery helped.”
The 1994 Cardinals had tied with the Rockies for the worst ERA in the league at 5.15. With Hill and Jackson joining the rotation, hopes were high for the 1995 St. Louis staff.
“Suddenly, the 1995 Cardinals have the ingredients for a fine starting rotation _ just as Jocketty had promised,” wrote Miklasz.
Hill won his first four decisions for the 1995 Cardinals, then lost his next four in a row. He said he wasn’t happy with Pagnozzi as his catcher. He asked to be traded to a contender.
Hill had a 6-7 record and 5.06 ERA when he was traded again by the Cardinals on July 27, 1995, to the Indians for infielder David Bell, pitcher Rick Heiserman and catcher Pepe McNeal.
“I was not happy with his performance or with his attitude,” Jocketty said of Hill in explaining the trade to the Post-Dispatch.
In two stints with St. Louis over five seasons, Hill was 29-39 with a 4.23 ERA. He pitched in the big leagues until 2001. In 14 years with the Cardinals, Expos, Indians, Rangers, Angels, White Sox and Rays, Hill was 117-109 with a 4.06 ERA.