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Hinske still going strong in 9th season

Most players would envy Eric Hinske's career.

American League Rookie of the Year. World Series appearances in each of the past three seasons. Career earnings of more than $18 million.

Hinske, 32, has all of the above on his resume, and in his ninth major-league season, he is still going strong with the Braves.

Yet, for the longest time, he was haunted by his inability to match his initial breakthrough with the Blue Jays in 2002.

"Never living up to my rookie year in Toronto probably was probably the hardest thing in my career to live through," Hinske says.

Yes, even more difficult than getting traded four times, scrambling for one-year contracts as a veteran free agent and getting stuck in baseball purgatory with the Pirates in 2009.

Good thing Hinske got over it.

He would have missed all the fun.

He learned to accept his role as a part-time player. He earned respect from his teammates and superiors for his professionalism. He became a model major leaguer, if not a star.

"I'm to the point in my career now where I can look back and say it was my fault, not anybody else's," Hinske says, reflecting on his decline with the Jays.

His 24 homers and 84 RBIs from his first season stand as his career highs.

In his second season, he missed more than a month with a broken bone in his right hand.

In his third, he batted .246 with 15 homers and 69 RBIs, but readily admits, "I wasn't good enough.

"At the time, I wanted to blame other people and say, 'They've given up on me,"' Hinske says. "But you grow up when you get older and realize hey, you probably didn't do what you were supposed to do back then.

"I would have loved to have keep hitting 25 or 30 home runs every year. But it didn't happen. I just realized, be happy. Baseball is supposed to be fun. You shouldn't be mad every day when you go to the clubhouse if you're not in the lineup or something like that.

"You're in the big leagues. You're an adult playing a game. Treat it that way. Cherish everything. And the last four years, my career has been great."

To say the least.

The Jays traded Hinske to the Red Sox in August 2006. Bingo! He won his first World Series with the Sox in '07.

That winter, Hinske signed a minor-league contract with the Rays. He made the club, produced 20 homers and 60 RBIs and -- voila! -- found himself back in the Series again.

His next step was a one-year, $1.5 million free-agent contract with the Pirates -- a weaker club, yes, but one that figured to offer more playing time.

Didn't happen. Hinske, for the first and only time in his career, asked for a trade. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington obliged, sending him to the Yankees in late June.

Hinske joked later that he ran to the plane.

He ended up in another World Series parade.

Now Hinske is with the Braves, helping spark their recent surge. He only expected to be a left-handed pinch-hitter and occasional replacement for first baseman Troy Glaus when he agreed to a one-year, $1 million free-agent contract in January. But a surprise opportunity arose earlier this month when left fielder Matt Diaz required surgery on his right thumb.

Hinske took over in left on May 11 and launched into a 17-for-39 tear that included four home runs and 11 RBIs. The Braves went 8-4 in that stretch, climbing into contention in the NL East.

Braves general manager Frank Wren says he did not intend for Hinske to play the outfield; Wren simply wanted a hitter who could play the infield corners and hit for power.

"Then all of a sudden we got in a situation, and he's done a solid job out there," Wren says.

Hinske is not exactly a stranger to left -- he occasionally would spell Manny Ramirez with the Red Sox and also filled in at the position when the Rays' Carl Crawford missed nearly two months with a finger injury in '08. But of Hinske's 217 career games in the outfield, 136 were in right.

"You know, I work every day," he says. "I go out there and take groundballs at first and third, then flyballs in right and left field. I work the right way. I just want to go out there and try not to mess up.

"I know I'm not an above-average outfielder. But I go out there, catch the ball and hit the cutoff man. That's how I look at it."

The Braves aren't asking for anything more.

Hinske relishes playing for manager Bobby Cox, speaks fondly of teammates such as Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and David Ross, enjoys, "going for team dinners 15 players strong on every road trip."

So much has changed for Hinske since the spring of '07, when the Red Sox informed him that he would be a bench player for the first time.

Hinske recalls thinking, "Whoa, I guess that's where I'm at in my career. I need to check my ego at the door or get another job."

He checked his ego at the door.

"There are no regrets at all," Hinske says. "I've become a better person throughout my baseball career. I think I'm a better father, a better husband, because of what I've gone through in baseball."

Hinske and his wife, Kathryn, are the parents of two daughters -- Ava, 2; and Dylan, three months.

"You can be humbled every day in this game," Hinske continues. "It makes you appreciate the little things in life. Every day I wake up, I feel lucky. I owe a whole lot of stuff in my life to baseball. I never did live up to my first year, but I've done a lot of great things in my career."

Amen.