For Trey Hillman, Royals’ Job is ‘a blessing from above’
Trey Hillman read the letter from the 49-year-old high school coach asking for advice on how he, too, could realize his dream of becoming a major league manager.
“He assumed I was plucked off the street,” says Hillman, 45, the Kansas City Royals’ rookie manager. “So I called him. I’m not going to sit there and tell him it’s not possible, but I also educated him about where I’d come from.”
Hillman, hardly a household name in American baseball, was plucked from the other side of the world, ending a 21-year odyssey that began as a Class AA utility infielder who didn’t foresee a big-league playing career. What followed was scouting, coaching, 12 years of managing in the minor leagues and a career-altering five seasons in Japan.
He’s home now, looking out from his second-floor office over the family’s six acres in rural Texas, about 30 miles northwest of Austin. Brianna, 11, his daughter, is in the pool with family friends visiting from Japan. Son T.J., 14, is off to work out with some of his baseball-playing pals. The goats that used to roam behind the patio are gone, sold two weeks ago to make room for the full-size artificial turf infield that should be ready to use before the end of the month.
” ‘Hillman’s Haven’ is what the flag will say,” says Hillman, who’s as much at home on his tractor removing tree stumps as he is on the two laptop computers in the office. He works here amid memorabilia from 13 years in the New York Yankees organization, replicas of the championship trophies won in Japan, a board with the Royals’ roster, a guitar and a drum set.
“The time (to return from Japan) was right for our family,” says Hillman, who had interviewed for the San Diego Padres’ and Oakland Athletics’ managerial openings after the 2006 season.
He told the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in August, while headed toward consecutive Pacific League titles, his fifth season would be his last. He won the Japan Series in 2006 and turned around a franchise that hadn’t won so much as a pennant in the previous 22 years. It had become a cross-cultural experience the entire family embraced.
His wife, Marie, was used to the constant movement of a baseball family. A Texas native like her husband, she said yes 17 years ago when he proposed and said, “If you say yes, we’re moving to Florida (to work at the Yankees’ Tampa facility). If you say no, I’m moving to Florida.”
“No telling how many times we’ve picked up and moved since,” she says.
She brought the kids to Japan for the second half of each school year after the first half in Texas. She took piano and pottery courses, taught a cooking class, made friends.
Brianna learned Japanese and, at 7, was performing in front of 35,000 fans as one of the Fighter Girls Dance Team. T.J. took 45-minute train rides to play baseball, hung out in his dad’s clubhouse and became friends with several of the Japanese players.
But T.J. was headed to high school and wanted to play baseball and football. His dad still had the dream of managing in the major leagues. He was a bright young manager a few years from being ready for the big leagues when the Yankees fired Buck Showalter after the 1995 season and hired Joe Torre.
The Yankees’ job didn’t come open again until October, a couple of days after Royals general manager Dayton Moore flew to Sapporo to interview Hillman.
“I kind of look at timing as a blesssing from above,” says Hillman, a deeply religious Christian. “Nobody on this earth is smart enough to know when the perfect timing is for anything.”
Royals took initiative
For Hillman and the Royals, the timing was perfect.
“His personality is very engaging,” says Moore, who hadn’t met Hillman before those two days in Japan. Moore hired him about a week later. “I’ve learned that if you know you want somebody, you have to move quickly.”
Hillman’s name was surfacing as a darkhorse candidate to replace Torre because of his contacts in the Yankees organization, where he won three manager of the year awards with such future major league stars as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Alfonso Soriano and Mike Lowell.
But Moore, who knew from the middle of last season Buddy Bell had decided not to return as Royals manager, had done his homework on Hillman.
“Other people had spoken very highly of him,” Moore says. “Louie Medina (one of Moore’s assistants) played with him. Trey spent 13 years in player development, so he has a great awareness of how a major league organization should work. He’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Indeed. Hillman already has spent a morning whipping up lattes for charity in a green apron over his powder blue Royals jersey at a Kansas City Starbucks.
Many stops on last week’s Royals Winter Caravan were at supermarkets in small Missouri towns. At each, Hillman found the candy aisle, bought three bags of lollipops and tossed them to kids in the lines of fans that snaked through produce and meat departments.
“You’ve got to have fun, right?” Hillman says, stroking the salt-and-pepper goatee he promises to shave before the official team photo. “I can grow this thing in two days. It’s nice after 13 years in the Yankees system,” where facial hair is forbidden. “It grows so fast, I used to shave before batting practice just to be sure.”
The Royals will have no such rules under Hillman.
Introducing himself to players
When Hillman came to a staff gathering at last month’s Winter Meetings, the first time he had met most of the Royals’ baseball operations people, he sat down sporting an outrageous set of fake teeth straight from a novelty store.
“He’s going to be good for me,” says Moore, who admits to a reputation of being unsmiling, often intense at work.
Fun for Hillman this spring is simple. “I can’t tell you how exciting it is to get to teach in my language,” he says. So exciting, players, coaches and development folks hear from him constantly. “He called me six or seven times from Japan,” catcher John Buck says. “You can’t help but notice that.”
That word spread among the players, who did their homework on Hillman. “Yeah, I did some poking around,” Buck says. “Looked on the Internet. Talked to some people. I got the idea he’s a real baseball guy, a player’s manager.”
Hillman says he told the players, ” ‘Find out as much as you possibly can about me before we get on the field together because I want you to be as comfortable as you can.’ “
That’s why Hillman’s more frivolous side doesn’t concern Moore. “He’s very prepared, very quick-thinking,” Moore says. “He’ll keep (the players) focused, keep them motivated. … It’s a family.”
It’s what Hillman likes to hear. “I just bare my soul, quite honestly. Early in my career, I had experienced development people telling me, ‘Trey, you’re getting too close to your players. You need to keep more separation.’ … I decided a long time ago that if I err, I’m going to make an error getting too close rather than not getting close enough.”
Hillman believes building relationships pays off.
“Trey is an outgoing guy, enthusiastic, energetic,” says Jeff Scott, who was the Cleveland Indians scouting director who took a chance in 1988 and hired the 25-year-old going nowhere as a player. “When you’re like that, you can make a couple of mistakes and people cut you some slack.”
It worked in Japan, where managers are revered, even feared. Players there didn’t know how to react to the joking, overly friendly foreigner. By the time he left, most of the players were in tears.
“I had a tough time getting through it,” Hillman says. “A lot of players were crying. That was very touching. It spoke volumes about how they felt about me.”
“What is wonderful about him is consistency,” Fighters owner Hiroji Okoso says. Okoso jokingly told joked with Japanese reporters the next manager would have to like table tennis, a reference to Hillman’s purchase of a table last season to help loosen up what he thought was a tense clubhouse during a losing streak.
“When he decided something, he did it even if it did not go well immediately,” Okoso says.
How quickly will things go well in Kansas City? The Royals are young and promising but lost 93 games last season and have finished above .500 once since 1994. That’s similar to the situation Hillman found in Japan.
“It slapped me in the face the second year,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, these guys have never won a championship. But they’re not planning on winning one, either.’ … So that took me to one word, and that’s ‘expectations.’ It’s the same situation” with the Royals.
He’s not making predictions but neither is he preparing apologies.
“There are people who are going to laugh their rear end off when they hear Trey Hillman say our plan is to win a World Series,” he says. “And that’s OK. … Everyone has their opinion. I accept the accountability of what I say and what the expectations are that we’ve set.
“I don’t think it’s possible to win a championship unless you plan on it, you expect it to happen.”