Braves happy to have Hinske as leader

Braves happy to have Hinske as leader

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Considering all of the contributions and influence Eric Hinske has provided over the past two seasons, it seems somewhat insulting that he was referred to as a good luck charm when he joined the Braves before the start of the 2010 season.

It was really just a light-hearted reference to the fact that he had played in each of the three previous World Series with three different American League teams. But this description alone fell far short of providing a glimpse of all that Hinske can provide a team both on and off of the field.

"From Day One, he was a perfect fit for this team," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "I don't think it was any coincidence that the teams he has been with have gone to the World Series and won."

Hinske's most recognizable link to those World Series is the fact that he struck out against Brad Lidge to end the 2008 World Series. But had he not hit 20 regular-season home runs or served as a mentor to a rookie third baseman named Evan Longoria, the Rays might not have even made the postseason that year.

Much has changed since Hinske broke into the Majors with the Blue Jays 10 years ago and captured the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2002. Over the past six seasons, he has evolved into a role player with six different clubs.

But instead of sulking or waiting for the limited opportunities he receives as a utility player, Hinske has developed into a leader who mentors young players and keeps the most seasoned veterans on their toes.

"Hinske doesn't play every day, but everybody follows him and looks up to him like he does," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "He's got that reputation for a reason."

Hinske seemed to find immediate comfort and credibility after joining the Braves. While he possesses a hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach and looks fit to play fullback for his beloved Packers, the 34-year-old veteran has no problem creating laughter in the clubhouse.

"I'm comfortable around the guys," Hinske said. "I'm not afraid to say anything and the game should be fun. You should be able to say whatever you want."

Having played for both the Yankees and Red Sox, Hinske understands the value of keeping things loose in the clubhouse. He certainly gained the attention of his Braves teammates early in the 2010 season.

After Chipper Jones missed three games in San Francisco during the first road trip of the season, Hinske was set to play the opener of a three-game set in San Diego. Already knowing the veteran third baseman was in the starting lineup, Hinske greeted Jones that day by essentially saying, "So are you tough enough to play?"

"Nobody can really speak to Chipper how Hinske speaks to him," Freeman said. "It looks like Chipper loves it because it keeps him grounded. Everybody knows it's Chipper Jones Hall of Famer. But Hinske doesn't talk to him like that. It's fun to see."

As Hinske prepares for his third consecutive season with the Braves, he feels like he finally found some stability. Last year marked the first time since Hinske left the Red Sox in 2006 that he came to Spring Training with the same team over the course of two consecutive years.

"I feel like I have found my niche here with this team," Hinske said. "I like it. I'm glad they like me. It's the first time I've been the same place three years in a row since I was with Toronto. It's nice to be wanted and nice to be on a team that wants you back every year."

There was reason to wonder if the Braves would bring Hinske back after he compiled a .233 batting average and hit just .161 (9-for-56) as a pinch-hitter last year. With left-handed hitting Freeman in place at first base, the Braves could have searched for a right-handed hitting backup option.

But they opted to stick with Hinske because of his capability to also play the corner outfield positions and regain the form that allowed him to hit .298 (14-for-47) with three home runs as a pinch-hitter in 2010.

"He can play this game as long as he wants," McCann said. "He's always going to hit for power. He's always going to put the barrel on the ball. And he's going to show up and be a leader in the clubhouse. We're very fortunate to have him on this team."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.