MESA, Ariz. – They're called dados, circular saw blades that come in stacks, and they're used by woodworkers to cut joints. Cabinetmakers use dado cuts to make slots for shelves.
Koyie Hill, the big league catcher and son of master carpenter Kennard Hill, was making a window frame for his home in Wichita, Kan. He had five dado blades, all five-eighths of an inch wide, inserted in his table saw when the blades grabbed, pulled the board Hill was cutting, and sucked his right hand in after it.
"I've been around tools all my life,'' Hill said. "My dad has always warned me about how bad those things are about grabbing. But it's like you can only tell your kid not to play in the street so many times. Then it's your responsibility. It was kind of a freak thing. It grabbed.''
Alone in his basement, his pregnant wife Meghan upstairs, Hill let out a scream. When he pulled his hand back, there were empty spaces where his fingers should have been.
"All of them were hanging by a thread or nerve or piece of skin somehow,'' he said. "My pinkie was completely off, except for maybe a sliver of skin, and it was hanging down somewhere in my wrist area. My ring finger was kind of in the same situation – it was dinged out, laying toward the side.
"Something I didn't notice until I got to the hospital was that my thumb was cut all the way to the bone, to where it could lay back to my forearm.''
It is almost two years later, and Koyie (pronounced "coy") Hill, his digits surgically reattached by a hand specialist who once played baseball and understood what it would take for Hill to throw again, is in spring training with the Chicago Cubs, waging what may well be a successful bid to win a backup catching job to Geovany Soto. He is careful shaking hands – he'll wince if you squeeze too hard – and has changed the way he high-fives and claps. In cold weather, his fingers get stiff, something he'll probably deal with the rest of his life.
He also may be the first switch-hitter in history, as Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster pointed out, to use a different bat, depending on the side of the plate he's hitting from.
"I have to tape them differently,'' Hill says, reaching for Alfonso Soriano's bat to demonstrate. "If I tape the bottom of this, I can hold onto it [batting left-handed, when his right hand is closest to the knob]. But if I have to hold on here [gripping the bat where his right hand would be the top hand], I can't squeeze it. I tape a knot here so I can hold it.''
Koyie Hill, who turned 30 early this month, has played parts of five seasons in the big leagues, but has only 231 at-bats. Originally drafted by the Dodgers, with whom he made his big league debut in 2003, Hill was a highly regarded prospect – he was the starting catcher for the U.S. in the Futures Game in 2004 – he bounced around from the Diamondbacks to the Yankees organization to the Cubs, with a year on the shelf with Tommy John surgery and more time spent in the minors than the big leagues.
Nothing could have prepared Hill for what happened in his basement. But to hear how he responded is to understand how he was able to make it back. His reaction when he looked at his mangled hand?
"It's funny,'' he said, "but I've always been able to handle those situations calmly. It was kind of surreal at first, but it was something I didn't panic over. It was, 'OK what do I need to do now?'
"In my mind my priorities were figuring out a plan and staying calm so my family isn't going crazy. My wife was eight months pregnant. My daughter's there. My priority was assessing the damage, doing the right thing, trying to find the right people, getting to the hospital and seeing if there's something I can do.
"I figured 100 percent I was going to lose my pinkie. I was trying to figure out on the way to the hospital, 'Would I be able to throw if I lost my ring finger, too?' ”
Upon arriving at the hospital, Hill, his hand wrapped in a bloody towel, calmly ticked off his insurance information to the woman sitting behind the registration desk.
"She said, 'Let's take a look,' '' he said. "I think she thought I just nicked it or something. When I showed her, she turned green. Things started happening quick.''
The severity of the injury, Hill said, became apparent when a steady stream of residents and interns came into the ER to sneak a look. That was too much for Meghan Hill.
"This isn't a freak show,'' she said.
When doctors told Hill it would be hours before they would be able to perform surgery, his father-in-law swung into action, finding the best hand surgeon available. That's how Hill soon found himself with Dr. J. Mark Melhorn, who coincidentally had attended seminars with members of the Cubs medical staff.
Melhorn told Hill and his father, Kennard, that he could repair and reconstruct the fingers, and that Hill should be able to throw again. While at the hospital, Hill sent Meghan out to his truck to fetch a baseball. With his left hand, he and Melhorn studied his grip on the ball to determine the position best suited for his fingers to be able to throw.
"I was a catcher in Legion ball," Melhorn said. "I told Koyie, 'You will get some stiffness. Your fingers will be stiff. So we have to figure out what is the most functional position for you to throw a baseball to second base. It may not be the optimal position for other people, but it will help you throw.' ''
The surgery to reattach his three fingers and thumb lasted several hours.
"First, we had to stabilize the bone,'' Melhorn said. "We used metal wires to hold the bones in the appropriate positions. The bone structure is like putting up the framework of a house. When that was done, we filled in the 'walls,' repaired the tendons, the nerves, the arteries.''
What Melhorn did, he said, should not be considered unusual. This was not a medical miracle.
"What is remarkable is Koyie's dedication," he said. "All I did was facilitate the repair process. He was extremely motivated and willing to invest the time and pain to make it back.''
Melhorn predicted that Hill would be throwing within three months. Within a few weeks he was bouncing a tennis ball off a wall, trying to get the rotation right.
"Once Dr. Melhorn said I was going to be able to throw, I knew I was going to be fine,'' Hill said. "I'd figure out a way to do it. I'd figure out a way because in my mind that's what I do. That's what I wanted to do.
"You can always go home, you know. When you're hurt you can always come off the field. But it's hard to get back on it.''
Hill began with three days of physical therapy, then five, then seven. His physical therapist, Polly Senseman, is the daughter of Ken Johnson, who pitched for the Phillies' Whiz Kids in 1950. She gave up her weekends to work with Hill.
A month or so after the surgery, Hill was scheduled to go to Chicago to meet with Cubs doctors. Melhorn warned him that they likely would be pessimistic because of the nature of the injury (which they were) and told him not to get discouraged.
"'We can get you back,''' he told Hill.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry was supportive, Hill said, offering him all the time he needed to get back. Hill made it to spring training and started the season with Triple-A Iowa in Des Moines.
That came as some comfort to his father.
"My dad didn't eat for three days after the accident,'' he said. "He felt … I don't know if he felt responsible, like maybe he should have taken more time, maybe should have taught me this or that. I was always in architecture and drawing, and I think he was afraid I was going to lose that, too. He took it hard. It made him [literally] sick.''
The hardest part was not throwing. It was hitting. In his first 20 games, Hill was batting just .132 with no home runs.
"I couldn't hold a bat, squeeze a bat, swing a bat,'' he said. "I could, but it wasn't the same as it had been. My hand was slipping off the bat, I didn't know where my barrel was.''
It got so bad that he thought of calling Hendry and asking if there might be a coaching position in the organization.
"I just felt terrible about going out there and being a burden to the team,'' he said.
Meghan talked him out of it. She reminded him of how little time had passed since the accident. Then the weather began to warm up, Hill felt less stiffness in his fingers and his bat came around. In his last 93 games with Iowa, he batted .307 with 17 home runs and 21 doubles, and he earned a September call-up to the Cubs.
He played sparingly, getting just two hits in 21 at-bats, but this spring, after collecting a hit in four trips in Thursday's 9-2 win over Seattle, Hill is batting .394.
"It's pretty awesome, chopping your fingers off and coming back as far as he has,'' Dempster said. "To play baseball again, at such an elite level, and have the success he's had shows you the kind of drive he has inside.''
Hill believes he can play in the big leagues, but if the Cubs send him down, "it won't deter me from what I'm doing. You want to play at the highest level you can, whether it's the big leagues or A-ball. I'm confident in my abilities. Do I feel I can play in the big leagues? Of course I do.
"I've always thought of myself as a tough person, mentally tough. It's kind of fun to go through something like a situation where you really test yourself, and come out of it. It's a good feeling, and it gives you a lot of confidence about things you can handle.''
One thing he won't be doing anymore is carpentry.
"I won't even deal with a pair of scissors now,'' he said.
But that doesn't mean the table saw is sitting idle in the Hills' basement.
"Meghan, she makes all the cuts now,'' he said. "We did a retaining wall slide for a flower bed. I measured, and she made the cuts.''