BREWER — Shea Hillenbrand pointed to the iconic Citgo sign high above Fenway Park on Tuesday. He pointed to the huge Coke bottles beyond the Green Monster, explaining to his new wife how his first major league home run sailed over the wall and Lansdowne Street.
The former Red Sox third baseman played tour guide a bit longer. After landing at Logan Airport, this was a quick detour before they headed to Maine.
He’s visiting here for two weeks, staying with Paul Lancisi, the owner of Maine-based Dove Tail Bats in rural Shirley Mills. Lancisi threw Hillenbrand a lifeline by hiring him to promote his bats.
Hillenbrand also will use his time to teach Maine kids how to better hit a baseball and make decisions that will affect their lives.
Hillenbrand knows the topics well. His is the riches-to-rags-to-finding-inner-peace story. He was a two-time American League All-Star who earned millions but was out of baseball after seven seasons. It was 2007 and he was only 32.
He and his first wife, Jessica, had adopted three children and bought a 25-acre ranch in Arizona that became home to some 200 neglected and abused animals. Hillenbrand had a foundation, Against All Odds, and brought special needs and at-risk kids to the ranch. Far from baseball, there was purpose to Hillenbrand’s life again.
Then there wasn’t. By 2012 he lost his marriage, lost the ranch to foreclosure and the animals that never passed judgment on him. He had become another elite professional athlete who lost his way.
“I had sold my soul,” said Hillenbrand. “All I wanted was to stay in the game. Not much else mattered then. I said and did some things I shouldn’t have.”
He had to end his career to save himself. He was in his prime but no longer having fun, no longer finding satisfaction in the skills and lifestyle that are the dreams of so many aspiring ballplayers. His performance suffered.
Hillenbrand was a promising rookie when he arrived in Boston in 2001, then branded a malcontent when he was traded barely two years later. The Red Sox had picked up the consistent Bill Mueller, who took playing time away from Hillenbrand.
Hillenbrand complained and was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim.
The next season the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
Four teams and four years later, Hillenbrand’s major league career was over. He had a much-publicized confrontation in Toronto. Although getting permission to leave the team for three days for the adoption of his second child, he returned to silence from the front office and his manager, John Gibbons.
Hillenbrand was hitting over .300 at the time. He was benched after his return. If he wasn’t playing, Hillenbrand wouldn’t sit in the dugout. On a message board in the clubhouse he wrote: “Play for yourself. This ship is sinking.”
“Shea always had a way of speaking his mind,” said Frank Fassett of Boothbay, who managed and was part owner of a car dealership in Wiscasset. They met soon after Hillenbrand came to Boston and their friendship flourished. “Shea was very trusting of people, too.”
Gibbons called a team meeting and challenged Hillenbrand to fight him with fists. Hillenbrand declined. J.P. Ricciardi, then the Blue Jays’ general manager, quickly traded Hillenbrand to the San Francisco Giants.
The Blue Jays rehired Gibbons last year to replace John Farrell, who left to manage the Red Sox. A Toronto media outlet contacted Hillenbrand, perhaps looking to stir the pot. What did Hillenbrand think? He said he was thrilled.
Lancisi, who hired Hillenbrand to be his West Coast sales rep, grew up in Worcester, Mass., with Ricciardi. Hillenbrand asked Lancisi to put him in touch with his former GM.
Hillenbrand wanted to apologize and ask for forgiveness. No need, said Ricciardi. He had forgiven Hillenbrand years ago.
“You don’t understand,” Lancisi told his friend. “Shea hasn’t forgiven himself.”
Wednesday, Hillenbrand sat in a small set of bleachers inside Sluggers, an indoor baseball facility. He had a hitting lesson to give later.
He is 38, looked fit and content. He sold cars to help pay bills. He worked for friends.
In 2012 he was on the roster of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League, playing for Manager Willie Upshaw, the Toronto Blue Jays’ hitting star of the 1980s.
Hillenbrand was liked by teammates, but troubled and left abruptly midway through the season. “I was in self-destruct mode,” said Hillenbrand.
Back in Arizona he met Sheila. “On our first date I took her to a youth group Christmas party at the church,” said Hillenbrand, smiling. “Who does that?”
He shares custody of his three children with his ex-wife. Sheila has two children of her own.
“This is our first time away from the kids. We never had a honeymoon. This is it.”
Shirley Mills is near Dover-Foxcroft. Tuesday night’s snowstorm surprised everyone, especially Hillenbrand and his wife. “I got to see a working snow plow,” he said, laughing.
He’s thankful for meeting Lancisi after a chance encounter between Hillenbrand and a Lancisi friend in another batting cage a year or so earlier. Hillenbrand and Lancisi are Christians so their meeting was part of a bigger plan, not chance.
Lancisi wanted someone he could trust, someone with integrity. Hillenbrand is that and more, he says. He drove to Boston to pick the Hillenbrands up at Logan and had to swing by Fenway Park. Hillenbrand was not part of the 100-year anniversary celebrations two summers ago.
“I felt like a kid,” said Hillenbrand, seeing Fenway again. “It feels like a long, long time ago.”
Hillenbrand and Manny Ramirez have reconnected, mostly through Lancisi. Manny is using Dove Tail Bats. “Manny asked me to tell Shea he’s a Christian, too. He’s accepted Christ. The two text Bible verses to each other.”
Don’t question a larger plan.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: