Trey magnifique (cont.)
Posted: Thursday April 3, 2008 12:31PM; Updated: Thursday April 3, 2008 10:22PM
Hillman's methods have not come without some pain. In an exhibition game against the Diamondbacks at Surprise Stadium in early March, after Ryan Shealy hit a walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth to win it, Hillman immediately pulled the players together at home plate and, in a calm but steady voice, reprimanded them for some sloppy base running and missing a couple of signs. Right there in front of everybody. With a few K.C. reporters just a few feet away.
Afterward, some players grumbled that the new manager had embarrassed them in chewing them out in front of the crowd. Some media critics took their shots. But not everybody saw the incident in a bad light.
As the game was winding down, Moore left his seat and went up to his office overlooking the field. After the walkoff, he stood to watch the team's reaction and saw the whole thing unfold from there.
"I knew early in the game we had not run the bases well. I didn't know we had missed a sign or two. But I knew we did run the bases a little overaggressive at times, just not knowing where the ball was," Moore says.
"A lot of times, things like that are not addressed, for whatever reason. But I looked at Dean Taylor [the team's vice president of baseball operations and assistant GM] -- I couldn't see Trey -- I looked out there, and my first thought was, 'This guy's got a chance to be very special.'"
Hillman says the whole incident was overblown, and considering it was a meaningless spring training game, it probably was. But the home-plate dressdown offers a glimpse into how Hillman's mind works, and why he does what he does.
The Royals had a split-squad game the next day, and a road game the day after that, so it was going to be difficult to get everybody together to talk about the team's transgressions. So Hillman figured it was then and there, or never. Embarrassing them, he says, was not his intent. "Never in a million years," he says.
"Was I upset? Yeah, I was upset," Hillman adds. "Dad gum, we had just hit a walkoff home run, but I was still upset because we should never had been in that position, if we had done some of the things that had already been addressed, the right way. That was my wake-up call: 'Men, we shouldn't have been in that position. Nice job, but we gotta do this, this, this and this.'"
Afterward, Hillman heard a few grumblings from within the clubhouse -- mostly through media accounts -- and he heard some criticism of the move outside of it. He sat on the whole situation for about a week until he addressed the team again.
"It didn't need to go where it went," Hillman says. "But I told them, if any of you ever feel like I ever intentionally embarrass you, or our organization or our company or our ball club, call me on it. It's just not part of my nature. I wouldn't insult them that way."
Hillman's willful ways have carried into the regular season, too. He was criticized in his very first game Monday night -- his very first Major League game, that is -- for bringing in Brett Tomko in the eighth inning with a one-run lead. Tomko, who had a 5.55 ERA last season, gave up a solo home run to Carlos Guillen that tied the score. The Royals pulled it out, 5-4, in 11 innings. After Wednesday's win, they climbed to two games over .500 for the first time in four years. They have won their first two games for the first time since 2003.
The questions and the criticisms and the second-guessing will continue as Hillman tries to rebuild the Royals. It's part of the gig for every manager, and it's especially biting at this level, maybe especially hard in a place so desperate for a winner. Hillman knows that.
But he will not stray from what he believes, what he has learned in 17 years in places like Oneonta, Greensboro, N.C., Norwich, Conn., Columbus, Ohio and, yes, in Sapporo, Japan. He will not apologize for who he is, the methods he uses or what he expects from his team.
He will continue to stress fundamentals and respect of the game. And he will ask for a lot -- even now, he talks about preparing for a 181-game schedule, counting every postseason game possible -- and he will give a lot. In spring training, he was in the park regularly at 5 a.m. for a minimum 12-hour workday.
"Look, I don't think I'm smarter than anybody else. But I try to work hard, I try to be consistent, I try to treat people with respect," he says. "I just try to talk sense. My plan has always been very simple. I've never claimed to be a rocket scientist."
Last fall, Moore, the architect of this whole rebuilding plan for the Royals, flew to Japan to interview Hillman for the job. Moore was intrigued by what he had heard. He was impressed with a man who had handled underachieving young pros at the lower levels of the minors, who had dealt with stalled-out players in the middle levels and who had managed the ever-growing egos of guys in the upper levels of the game. And had done all of that successfully.
But finding a guy like Hillman and getting him to come to Kansas City, to buy into the new way of doing things there -- the team's marketing slogan this year is "New. Blue. Tradition." -- was an entirely different matter. After a heart-to-heart between the two men, who had never met, Moore was sold.
We'll all see where it goes from here. The talent level in Kansas City is better than it has been in years. The team's younger players have a chance to be outstanding, with everyday players like Billy Butler, Mark Teahen and Alex Gordon joining pitchers Brian Bannister, Gil Meche and closer Joakim Soria. All of them are under 30. A few veterans -- second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and right fielder Jose Guillen, for two -- are sprinkled in. Moore has been bold in going after free agents like Meche and Guillen. He outbid the Yankees for lefty reliever Ron Mahay, and with Hillman's help, coaxed reliever Yasuhiko Yabuta from Japan.
But the Royals are in a painfully difficult division, with the Tigers (who are favored by many to win the American League), the Indians (who won the AL Central last season) and the big-spending White Sox (who won the Series back in '05). Building a new, blue tradition will not be anything close to easy.
"Everybody has to be rowing the boat in the same way. You got to have people that believe," Moore says. "And Trey Hillman believes. In my mind, there's nobody more prepared to be a Major League manager for the Kansas City Royals than Trey Hillman."
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