New Royals boss has K.C. pointed in right direction
Posted: Thursday April 3, 2008 12:31PM; Updated: Thursday April 3, 2008 10:22PM
By now, we probably should concede that Trey Hillman knows what he's doing. And coming to that conclusion has nothing to do with the fact that the long-moribund Royals, under rookie manager Hillman, have started the season 3-0, with all three wins coming against the latest, greatest sure-fire World Series team in baseball, those big, bad Detroit Tigers.
No, Hillman, if nothing else, simply looks like a big league manager. He talks like one. He even acts like one, with a few important prototype-cracking wrinkles thrown in.
So he doesn't have the line-perfect resume that a lot of fans, and some people in the game, would like to see from their managers. No games as a player. No internships as a bench coach. Not even any base-coaching jobs in Toronto or Texas or someplace like that. Never been a hitting instructor or a pitching coach. In fact, he'd never spent one day in the major leagues until Opening Day this week.
Yet that's all part of the appeal of Trey Hillman. It's as simple as this: He looks like your typical major league manager. He acts like one, mostly. But ... he's not. He has a few tricks in his playbook. He has some ideas. Trey Hillman is not a cookie-cutter big-league skipper.
And that, Kansas City, is a good thing.
"You can't fool the players. The players know. And the players are responding," says the Royals' general manager, Dayton Moore, the man who hired Hillman. "They're going about their business with a sense of purpose. The positive talk, just the energy level that currently exists is all the proof that you need."
Hillman's trip to the big leagues has been a long one, with managerial jobs ranging from a one-season stop in Oneonta, N.Y., to five pretty good years in Japan as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters. Along the way, he has made some mistakes. He has been overlooked and disappointed. But mostly he has listened and learned, and he has won. In Japan he took a flagging franchise -- the Fighters were every bit the Royals of Japan -- to two straight Japan Series. The Fighters won it in 2006, the first time they had taken a Japan Series title in 45 years.
For all that, Hillman now gets maybe the biggest challenge of any manager anywhere. Rookie manager John Russell has it rough in Pittsburgh. Cecil Cooper has a tough job to do down in Houston. But Hillman? The Royals have one winning season in their last 13. They last went to the postseason in 1985. They have lost at least 100 games four times in the last six years. They lost 93 games last year -- and that was a seven-game improvement over the year before.
This is what Hillman, a 45-year-old Texan who gave up on his playing career at 25 and was managing two years later, has to face. It's no job for a run-of-the-mill manager.
"When I got the job," Hillman said a couple of weeks ago at the team's spring training home in Surprise, Ariz., "immediately everyone wanted to know, 'Are you going to try to turn it into Japanese baseball?' That, to me, was a question that I thought was a ridiculous question. If somebody would have looked at my resume and seen that, first of all, that I had lasted for 13 years with the New York Yankees, 12 as a [minor league] manager, without getting fired? I don't think too many people that have done that.
"So the fact that I had managed 17 years, whether it's Asia or over here, I thought that was a funny question. I didn't take it as an insult. But ... come on."
Hillman has been forced to explain himself, to justify his place among the 30 major league managers, to show what he's trying to do all too often since his hiring last October. People with little or no baseball experience write him, strangers, looking for tips on how to go from nowhere to managing a big-league team. (He answers them, too, citing his lengthy resume and the sacrifices he has made.)
Reporters ask about some of the changes he has instituted, about how he deals with his team, about the whole Japan experience. Players have even wondered aloud at some of the things he's doing. And Hillman, to his everlasting credit, always listens and explains.
"When a player needs an answer as to why I do something the way I do it, I give them an answer. I was prepared to do that coming in here. And there have been a couple of times where I felt the need to explain something without even being provoked to explain it," Hillman says. "But they have been absolutely outstanding. They've been wonderful."
All the newness in Kansas City has not been easy on the players. In spring training, Hillman started an agility program that the Royals did five out of every seven days. He began specific drills geared toward improving fundamentals like bunting and base running. He ran simulated games and controlled scrimmages much earlier than other teams. He had pitchers throwing live batting practice, even before the full squad reported. He told the team that there will be infield taken just about every day. When a pitcher muffed a play in pitcher's fielding practice -- it happens all the time -- instead of just going to the next guy in line, Hillman stopped the drill and made the guy do it until he got it right.
"I didn't do any of that for it to be, 'Trey Hillman's stamp,'" he says. "I did it because I wanted these guys to be able to feel like they were a little bit ahead of the game coming in."