MESA, Ariz. -- Eric Hinske was a 17th-round Draft pick by the Cubs in 1998, and this year is the first time he's with the big league team -- though not as a player, but as a coach. So far, it's a perfect fit.
"It brings a smile to my face [to talk about Hinske], because he was a coach long before he knew he was a coach because of his presence in the clubhouse," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, whom Hinske played under in 2011. "He's going to hold those players accountable. He is a smart baseball person. And nobody wants to win more than he does. He brings that experience to the postseason. ... I think the Cubs are lucky to have a guy like that."
Hinske, 36, is now the first-base coach on new Cubs manager Rick Renteria's staff, although he was recruited by general manager Jed Hoyer and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. Hoyer and Epstein knew Hinske when he played for the Red Sox from 2006-07, part of a 12-year career in the big leagues, which ended last year with the D-backs.
The Cubs' roster is missing a veteran presence. Hoyer and Epstein feel Hinske can fill that role.
"I think it's important there's one coach on the staff guys can relate to," Hoyer said. "Eric has a great reputation, he's been on a ton of winning teams, Theo and I know him from Boston. He provides that nice gateway. He's not really a peer to the younger guys, but he just got off the field, so maybe that relationship can start easier and maybe they relate better on certain things."
Hinske knew he wanted to stay in the game after he was done playing and had accepted a job to be an advance scout for the Yankees. Epstein called less than two weeks after Hinske took that job.
"I knew I wanted to coach right away," Hinske said. "It was always inside of me, just by helping young guys."
He helped Gonzalez with younger players like Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward in Atlanta, showing them how to act in the big leagues, how to establish a routine.
"I think what [Epstein and Hoyer] wanted is a guy fresh out of the game who can relate to younger players and has been in the fire, so to speak," Hinske said. "I know how hard it is and I can definitely relate to what these guys are going through on a game-in, game-out basis."
Cubs players can ask Hinske about nearly every aspect of the game. He knows about the highs, having won American League Rookie of the Year honors in 2002 with the Blue Jays. He has two World Series rings, winning in '07 with the Red Sox and '09 with the Yankees. He's also been traded twice, first in March '01, when the Cubs dealt him to the A's for Miguel Cairo.
"I've been a great player, I've been a bad player, I've been a part-time player, I've been an everyday player," Hinske said. "I can help with everything. This game will continue to humble you. I want those guys to know that I know how hard it is and I've got your back. I'm going to be here for you and I'll offer my advice whenever they need or want it.
"I've been pleasantly surprised in how they're responding to me and gravitating to me. It's a neat, cool experience. I'm having a blast."
Managers can't simply point to a player and say, "You're a leader." The Cubs are loaded with youth in Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Junior Lake and Welington Castillo. Hinske can provide a relevant voice. His role as a bench player allowed him to study the game.
"For me, I felt I had to be my own manager ever since I went to the National League," he said. "I had to know the situation in the game and know the pitch count the pitcher had, because I'd start my routine in the fourth inning, getting ready for my at-bat in the seventh, eighth or ninth."
All the manager had to do was look in the dugout and Hinske would be there, already sweating from warm-up swings, his batting helmet and gloves on.
"If you can hit .250 as a pinch-hitter, you're doing unbelievable," he said. "I took it upon myself to say if I can affect the outcome of two games a month and hit .250 as a pinch-hitter, I'm doing the team a big service. I got five more years of my career doing that."
Hinske hasn't missed the live batting practice sessions of Spring Training. He doesn't have to worry about 99-mph fastballs or the conditioning drills.
"I don't have to be in shape any more," he said, laughing. "It's nice."
He's still getting used to meetings. Renteria has eased the transition.
"Being a first-year coach, I need some help," Hinske said. "I'm starting to become more comfortable speaking to the players and telling them what to do. I used to be the guy listening to the coach."
And now he's back with the Cubs. Hinske spent three seasons in the team's Minor League system before he was dealt. When the trade happened, Hinske said he was sad. He felt the Cubs had given up on him. Now, he's responsible for guiding the team in the right direction.
"We've lost for many years here and the first step is changing the culture, and how do you do that? You talk about it," he said. "You always say, 'Our goal is to get to the World Series and win the World Series.' You can't just laugh it off or think it's not going to happen. I think Theo and his team have done a great job building from the ground up and replenishing the farm system.
"It's an honor to wear a Cubs uniform. It's one of the most prestigious organizations in baseball. The fans are so passionate. If we ever do win it here, it's going to be a party that'll never stop. I think everybody is working toward one goal."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.