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His wild side

Baseball is Hillenbrand's work, but his passion is animals. He and his wife plan to open petting zoo for needy children.

January 01, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

GILBERT, Ariz. -- Don't get Shea Hillenbrand wrong. There's no doubt he's devoted to baseball. After all, it would be difficult to last seven seasons in the major leagues and make two All-Star teams without having an affinity for the game.

But baseball is just his job.

"This," he says, pointing to the 38-acre farm and stables he and his wife, Jessica, opened two months ago in the shadow of the San Tan Mountains, "this is our passion. This is what we want to do."

Passion? More like obsession, because the Hillenbrands collect animals the way other couples collect fine art. Between the farm and their nearby home, they have more than 90 animals, many of them rare and exotic, ranging from a Galapagos tortoise, an Australian wallaby and several miniature horses to three llamas, a zebu and a few head of cattle adopted just hours before they were to be shipped to a slaughterhouse.

Oh, and did we mention the three children, ages 1 1/2 to 3? They were adopted too, and seem to blend into the menagerie.

The youngest child's name: Noah, naturally.

"I don't have a favorite," Shea says, referring to the animals and, presumably, the children. "I love them all."

Next month, the Hillenbrands will turn a huge swath of the farm into a petting zoo for inner-city kids and children with disabilities or special needs. There are also plans to make the farm a refuge for abandoned or abused animals.

And those are just the latest in a series of projects the couple has undertaken to help both animals and children, with much of the work funneled through their nonprofit foundation Against All Odds.

"We just have a passion for animals and we're in a position where we can share it with other people," Shea Hillenbrand says. "It's all about the kids, to come out and experience it. There's no place around here that will be able to compare with what we'll be able to offer these kids."

Monday night, the group held its annual fund-raiser at the farm, inviting more than 200 guests to ring in the new year. Each year the party, which includes music, jugglers and other performers, is built around a theme. Guests are asked not for money, but for a gift consistent with the theme. Monday night's event was made to look like a giant tailgate party and the price of admission was sporting goods equipment for children.

In the past, the Hillenbrands collected kids' books and board games, and last year they gathered enough stuffed animals to put one in nearly every Arizona Highway Patrol car in the Phoenix area, toys that patrol officers later gave to small children at accident scenes.

The idea grew out of smaller, more traditional New Year Eve's parties the Hillenbrands held, when guests brought wine or food.

"We don't even drink wine," Shea says. "Everybody probably felt bad. [Jessica] finally said we might as well have them bring something we can donate. And everybody loved that idea. Everybody really gets into it."

What Hillenbrand doesn't do is trade on his fame as a baseball player. No athletes were on the invitation list for Monday's event, and about the only sign guests had that baseball was involved was the foundation's silent auction, which included items donated by former teammates Nomar Garciaparra, Luis Gonzalez and Orlando Hudson.

"I enjoy it, but it's not my life," Hillenbrand says of baseball. "There's a lot of baseball players, it's their whole life. They have their kids out there at 1 year old, hitting and doing this and doing that.

"When I'm at the field, I love it. And when we're at home, we don't ever really talk about it. We've got so much else going on."

But it's baseball, which has paid nearly $18 million over the last four years, that allowed the Hillenbrands to pursue their other passions. And it's why, at age 32 and coming off a season in which he played a career-low 73 games for the Dodgers and Angels, hitting a career-low four homers and batting a lifetime-worst .251, Hillenbrand isn't ready to pack it in just yet.

He says he has been working out all winter and though he has had feelers from just one club, the San Francisco Giants, he's confident the phone will begin ringing in the next couple of weeks.

"Something will come up," he says. "I've got about 10 years to go."

Hillenbrand grew up in Arcadia, not far from Santa Anita Park, and says he has always had a love for animals. So while some of his teammates were spending their first big baseball paychecks on jewelry or sports cars, Hillenbrand was buying a quarter horse.

And on a recent birthday, Jessica, whose father, veterinarian Dean Rice, is a former head of the Phoenix Zoo, gave Shea a giant aldabra tortoise. Now the couple's collection has grown so large they are building a new home -- one that will include an aviary -- on the edge of Marley Farms, which was named after Jessica's first dog.

"It's like Dr. Doolittle," Hillenbrand says. "We have animals everywhere. If you don't get along you can't stay."

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