Hillman's genius lost in translation (cont.)
Bill's point was simply that Rapp had never played, managed or coached in the big leagues and, as such, did not know what he could do and what he could not. He did not have the fine understanding of what makes a clubhouse go, what buttons to push, what battles to fight, what wars can be won. "If he had just one year to sit on a major league bench," Bill wrote, "to bend his ideas to what he saw around him before anybody took a position on them, he might have been great."
One of the first things Hillman did as new manager of the Royals was call a team meeting at home plate after a spring training game. He then yelled at his players in full view of the public -- while people were filing out of the stadium -- for some base running blunders they had made. Now, some people LOVED that. It showed guts. It showed that he was serious about discipline. Moore would say that he watched Hillman pull that Herb Brooks stunt and thought, "He's going to be one of the great ones."
And that's fine but ... many of the players lost respect for him. They thought he was showboating -- he certainly could have yelled at them behind closed doors. They thought he was compensating -- he was ACTING the way he imagined a big league manager acts rather than BEING a big league manager. Mostly, they thought he was small-time. A Little League coach. And whatever point he was trying to get across, well, it didn't take. The Royals were a dreadful baserunning team all year.
This is the issue -- things that seem like good ideas from the outside often are terrible ideas on the inside. Hillman did not understand the politics of a big league clubhouse. He did not understand that his success in Japan did not impress major league baseball players. He did not understand that nobody was going to just give him respect. Sparky Anderson was known by his players as a "Minor League M-------," and he came to earn respect with his intensity and his loyalty and by being right an awful lot. By the end of that first year, the players were rather openly comparing Hillman to Michael from The Office.
And, in my mind, Hillman never recovered. Later, he tried to loosen up. He tried to regain some of the confidence and likability that he had going for him in Japan. But, once things started to go bad, he did now know how to get things going right again. The finish was already written. He kept changing his mind about things. He infuriated players with silly little things like having pitchers warm up for no reason. He was sensitive to slights. He was constantly searching for whatever sounded best rather than, you know, the truth.
I will never forget the day that Jon Lester threw his no-hitter against the Royals in Fenway Park. Hillman had this thing about keeping reporters out of his office ... while pretty much every big league manager does press conferences in their offices, especially on the road, Hillman thought his office was his private sanctuary. Fine. So he did the postgame press conference against a brick wall while people walked by and pointed and shouted. Even that's fine. But what I remember is that he told us that he had not talked to his players after the game -- after all, he explained, there was nothing to say. They were big league players. They understood what had happened. He reiterated the point again: He didn't even talk to them. No, he most definitely did not talk to them.
We then went inside the clubhouse, where player after player told us how Hillman had come in after the game to talk to them. Well, of course he did. I never even understood WHY Hillman would tell us that he had not. How was that supposed to make him look better? I mean, shouldn't a manager talk to his players after they get no-hit? But Hillman never found his voice or his confidence. He had the best of intentions and a tremendous work ethic. But, in the end, he just didn't know.
* * *
When a manager gets fired, a team almost always hires the exact opposite ... and so the Royals hired Ned Yost to fill in. Yost has plenty of experience -- he played parts of six seasons, was bullpen coach for some great Atlanta teams in the 1990s and was manager of the Brewers for six seasons. His managerial experience was mixed -- he seemed to lose it as the Brewers vainly tried to hold off the Cubs, and he was fired the next year in the middle of a pennant race. There seems to be a long line of players who did not like Yost, and some who got better on his watch, but the point seems to be that, unlike Hillman, he certainly understands the inner workings of a big league baseball team. And for now, that's what matters in Kansas City.
Hillman went out gracefully, as you might expect from a class person. He was fired before Thursday's game, but he managed anyway. The firing was not announced until after the game but, looking back at snippets they showed on TV of the pregame press conference, he seemed more relaxed than I have seen in a long time. It's funny, I think he would probably make for a pretty good managerial candidate NOW that he has been through all this. He still has all of the positives that he always had as a baseball man -- smart, loyal, committed and so on -- and now he has a much better understanding of what the job is all about. He probably will get coaching offers. And he probably will think an awful lot about what he has learned.
And the Royals? Well, make no mistake, the big reason they have lost the last three years is not because of Hillman, it is because they are a bad baseball team. They are a team with a dull lineup filled with old guys, a last-in-ERA pitching staff overflowing with underachieving young starters, and a mess of a bullpen. There's no magical solution here. Yost may give the team a boost, he may not, but when it wears off, this is a 90-loss team waiting to lose 90 games. Their future is in the future, built around a handful of young players in the big leagues and minor league prospects who, at least for the time being, look promising. In the meantime, this is a Royals team that no longer looks young or bold like it did when it hired Hillman not so long ago.
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