On Christmas of his 13th year, just two months before his diagnosis of bone cancer, Danny Hill’s big present was a replica professional baseball jersey.
And not just any jersey, either.
Hill unwrapped the paper and opened the box and found an Oakland A’s No. 62 jersey, just like the one worn by his favorite player, Sean Doolittle.
Doolittle was a pitcher. Hill was a pitcher.
Doolittle was a former Shawnee star. Hill was headed there after middle school, with every intention of taking the mound for the Renegades.
“I was such a fan of his before this,” Hill said. “He’s a Shawnee legend.”
In February 2014, Hill received a diagnosis of osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. He has undergone 13 surgeries and 32 rounds of chemotherapy. He has a titanium rod in his right leg and a new right knee. He has been through immunotherapy and he continues to participate in clinical trials.
A tall, soft-spoken senior at Shawnee, Hill can’t say enough about the support of family and friends. He can’t say enough about the battalion of doctors, nurses, and support staff at three hospitals. He can’t say enough about his coaches and teammates with the Renegades baseball team
And he can’t say enough about Doolittle, his former hero who has become, he says, “my big brother.”
“It takes my breath away,” Anne Hill, Danny’s mother, said of Doolittle’s support for her son. “I can’t even describe how much it has meant to Danny to have Sean with him through this.”
Doolittle, 31, now is a relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals. He is renowned both for his excellence on the field — through Thursday, the lefthander was 6-for-6 in save opportunities, with a 1.84 ERA and 0.48 WHIP with 22 strikeouts and three walks in 14 2/3 innings — and his community service.
In 2016, Doolittle was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the Major League Baseball player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement, and an individual’s contribution to his team.”
Doolittle is an inspiration to many.
Hill is an inspiration to Doolittle.
“I look up to him,” Doolittle said. “He has this incredible attitude. He’s so positive in spite of everything that he’s been through.
“He was diagnosed and he fought through that, thought he beat it, had it come back, kept fighting. And through it all he has been so positive, so grateful just for any opportunity that he has.
“We all get so caught up in our own stresses and pressure and problems, and to see the level of gratitude that his young man has, it just helps me keep things in perspective.
“He thinks he’s leaned on me. I’ve leaned on him.”
Doolittle was one of the best pitchers in South Jersey history. He set a state record in striking out 23 in 10 innings in a victory over Kearny in the Group 4 state championship game in 2003.
“As a junior,” Hill noted.
Doolittle didn’t know Hill before Hill’s cancer diagnosis. He heard about the promising pitcher from Medford from an old teacher at Shawnee. He reached out to Hill’s parents, Anne and Gary, and asked if it would be OK to text their son.
What developed was a deep friendship. Hill and Doolittle text and talk regularly. On April 14, Hill attended a Nationals game. Afterward, he worked out with Doolittle in the team’s bullpen.
“I knew he was feeling better and he thought there was a chance he might get in a game,” Doolittle said. “But I thought he was going to get in a game as a pitcher.”
Hill’s ordeal has been extraordinarily difficult. The cancer spread from his leg, where a tumor was first discovered, to his lungs. He’s been treated primarily at St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia, but he also has spent time at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, staying with his mother for a week at a time at the Ronald McDonald House while undergoing immunotherapy treatment.
Through it all, Hill has remained connected with the Shawnee baseball program. He has been the manager of the team for much of his high school years, even though there have been days, or even weeks, when he’s been unable to attend practices and games.
“The coaches never forgot about Danny,” Anne Hill said. “They always, always, made him feel a part of it.”
Hill loved staying close to the game, and close to many of the guys who were his teammates in youth sports.
“It gave me a reason to get off the couch,” Hill said. “It was motivation, just to get back out there with my friends, on the baseball field. It’s easy to be viewed as ‘The Cancer Kid.’ They never did that. I was just regular Dan Hill.”
Hill has been participating in a new clinical trial for about a year. He gets treatment once a month.
He’s been feeling better, stronger. He’s been at school regularly, although he usually attends for a half-day. He was able to play a little bit in a rec basketball game over the winter.
“I heard that and I said, ‘Dan, maybe we can try to get you in a game,’” Shawnee baseball coach Brian Anderson said.
It happened Monday at home against Cherry Hill East. Hill had been working out more and more at practice. He had participated in a recent intrasquad game.
With Shawnee holding a large lead, Anderson told Hill to grab his mitt and take first base for the top of the seventh inning. Hill took the field wearing No. 24, Doolittle’s old Shawnee number.
“I heard Coach Anderson say it and I was like, ‘Wow, it’s happening,’” Shawnee senior catcher Colin Wetterau said. “It was awesome. The whole team, everybody there, was so excited.”
Hill, who has an older sister and two younger sisters, quickly texted his mother, who was at the family’s home in Medford. His father was outside, operating a power washer.
“He texted, ‘They’re putting me in,’ ” Anne Hill said. “We jumped in the car and tried to get there in time, but when we got out of the car we heard the roar and we knew the game was over.
“We could feel the energy from the coaches, players, parents. It was in the air. And it was the way it was supposed to be, Danny on the field with his teammates. It was perfect.”
It was storybook stuff. For the final out, Shawnee pitcher Brandon Epstein fielded a grounder, took two steps, and tossed to Hill, who gloved the throw to end the game.
“As soon as I got it, I knew this was the best thing that could have happened,” Epstein said.
Hill was playing in a baseball game for the first time in nearly five years, since his last outing for the Renegades Baseball travel team in July 2013.
“I got the ball in my glove, I made sure I was on the bag, and I was telling myself, ‘I got to hold on,’ ” Hill said. “It was incredible, just to be out there. I haven’t stopped smiling.”
There was an added bonus for Anne Hill.
“I got to wash his baseball uniform,” she said.
Danny Hill gets in his first Varsity game and makes the final out! pic.twitter.com/1RPmkBJmvu
— Shawneebaseball (@coachwelsh44) April 30, 2018
That night, Hill sent Doolittle video of his final out.
“He’s just the greatest guy,” Hill said. “We talk about a lot of things. He takes my mind off things. It’s just awesome to be able to talk to him about anything.”
Doolittle said the video made his day. Or maybe his year.
“I was so excited,” Doolittle said the other day from Washington. “I was just so happy for Dan because I knew how much it meant to him to get back on the field. He loves baseball. He wanted to get back out there and play with his teammates so much.”
Hill doesn’t regard Doolittle as a friend. He said he’s more than that.
“We’re brothers,” Hill said. “We’re family. He’s my big brother.”
Doolittle was overcome with emotion upon hearing Hill’s description of him. His voice caught as he spoke of the young man who opened that Christmas present in December of 2013, saw the replica jersey of his favorite player, held it high with a smile on his face — and never could have imagined what was ahead for both of them.
“Oh my gosh,” Doolittle said. “That is really cool. Really cool. Danny has this way of bringing out the best in people. He brings out the best in me.
“I’m so grateful to have him in my life.”
The Nationals host the Phillies in Washington this weekend. Get insights on the Phillies delivered straight to your inbox with Extra Innings, our newsletter for Phillies fans by Matt Breen, Bob Brookover and Scott Lauber. Click here to sign up.