Reuniting Rickey Hill with his ring, 37 years later

A year or so ago, I started talking to people associated with the 1978 Grays Harbor Loggers, champions of the Northwest League. The result was probably my favorite story ever.

Among the Loggers’ best players – and among my best interviews for the story – was Texan Rickey Hill.  And there was one thing that stuck with me, but that I didn’t use in the story: “I am the only one on the team who didn’t get a ring,” Hill told me, “even though I led the team in home runs.”

This had clearly stuck with Hill for some 37 years, and so it stuck with me, too. When speaking with Hill’s teammates, I always asked about their rings; to a man, all of them had received one (although Mike Manderino, the spiritual center of the team, had somehow lost his). The lead owner of the club, Joe Tolomei, has been deceased for some years. But I did speak to Van Schley, who supplied most of the Loggers’ best players and was the one who commissioned the rings. He’s still got his own ring, and couldn’t fathom why Rickey Hill wouldn’t have received one.

That said, Schley didn’t recall exactly how the rings were distributed. After all, the players scattered to the four winds immediately after winning the Northwest League championship, and not a single ’78 Logger returned to Grays Harbor in ’79.

Anyway, the trail on Rickey Hill’s championship ring ran cold real fast, so I gave up.

Fast-forward six months, when I received a wonderful present for my birthday, in the form of a tweet from someone named Gerald Pense.

Oddly, I can’t find that first message, but the gist was this: I have Rickey Hill’s championship ring and I’d like him to have it. Can you help?

Yeah. I can help.

But first I wanted to chat with Mr. Pense, so before long we were chatting on the phone. And it didn’t take long for me to realize how much better my story about Loggers would have been if I’d talked to Gerry earlier. Because he’d grown up right across the street from old Olympic Stadium, home of the Loggers, and he’d hung around the team in ’78. He shagged fly balls before games, and Bill Murray once picked Gerry up and carried him around. Gerry’s dad took Murray to purchase the legendary keg of beer that finally made Olympic Stadium “wet” (however briefly).

So how did Gerry Pense wind up with Rickey Hill’s ring? Well, we still don’t know, exactly. But according to Gerry, “My dad bought the ring from Joe Tolomei, who owned the deli near the stadium. Dad bought it in 1979, and had it ever since. He used to wear it around all the time. He was a big sports nut.”

“My dad passed away in 2004,” Pense says, “and when I was going through his things, I noticed that Rickey Hill was engraved on the inside.”

In the wake of my story about the Loggers, a new Grays Harbor baseball team scheduled a 1978 Loggers reunion in early August. Pense figured the occasion might be the perfect chance to unite Hill with his long-lost ring. But after just a couple of weeks, the Grays Harbor Gulls and the rest of the Mount Rainier Professional Baseball League collapsed. So much for the reunions.

A few weeks later, Pense had read my story and gotten in touch. As he told me, “I just would like to get it back to him. I’m not looking for nothing out of the deal.”

The next day, I called Rickey Hill with the good news.

“Wow,” he said. “Thirty-seven years later. I guess that’s just how God works sometimes.”

At 19, Hill had signed with the Montreal Expos out of a tryout camp in Texas. In 1975, swinging one of the biggest bats in professional baseball, he shared the Rookie-league Lethbridge Expos outfield with roommate Andre Dawson. Hill suffered from a debilitating back problem, though; as a child, he’d worn Forrest Gump-like leg braces. Released by the Expos after that first summer, he spent the next three seasons with unaffiliated teams in three Class A leagues.

“Every day I played in Aberdeen,” he told me last winter, “I played in pain. Multiples of pain. We had trainers. They did everything backwards. I always said, ‘I will play until the tire goes flat.’ It went flat.”

Hill’s physical pain, and the pain of his baseball career ending so prematurely, nearly drove him to suicide. “I was sitting there one night with a knife, ready to stick it in my throat. That’s gospel.”

When I was interviewing Hill at the Winter Meetings last year, Andre Dawson just happened to walk past. Hill excused himself to go say hello, and I watched as the two chatted for a few minutes.

When I told Hill on the phone about his ring, he said, “Man, it means everything to me. I’m getting ready to call Andre Dawson right now.”

But how would Hill actually get his ring, 37 years later? He said he’d fly to Seattle—Pense lives just south of Tacoma, and of course I’m in Portland—and we could all get together for the occasion.

Fast-forward four months. I haven’t heard a word from either Hill or Pense. And as God is my witness, just minutes before I was about e-mail one or both of them, I got a text from Hill: He was coming out here from Texas.

Fast-forwarding once more: I missed the Great Moment, 37 years in the making. We were all supposed to get together for lunch, so I took an early train from Portland. Hill had to reschedule – early dinner instead! – so I changed my train home. The good news is that I met Gerry Pense, and got a look at Rickey’s ring (which Pense recently had gotten shined). Oh, and Loggers knuckleballer Tracy Harris showed up, too, championship ring on his pinky and dozens of stories at the tip of his tongue. But our appointed time with Hill came and went, and finally I had to hustle to the train station. Which hurt.

But my hurt was fleeting. An hour after my train left Seattle’s Union Station, we lurched to a stop in Tacoma. A group of joggers had crossed the tracks just ahead of us, but the last one hadn’t made it. That was some pretty bad news. Just the sort of thing that’ll make you stop feeling sorry for yourself in a real hurry.

And there was good news, too. About an hour after I left, Rickey Hill showed up, and for the next few hours, Hill and Harris swapped stories to the delight of Pense and a friend who’d come along. And all the while, Hill brandished the ring he’d earned 37 years ago but had never, until this very night, laid his eyes upon.

The Lord does work in mysterious ways, and Rickey Hill is living proof.