DENVER -- On Wednesday morning, Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch strolled around the visiting clubhouse at Coors Field wearing a hooded sweatshirt, shorts and flip-flops. Such youthful fashion choices -- not entirely out of place in a big league clubhouse but rare for a field boss -- suit the 35-year-old Hinch just fine.
He checked in on the ongoing card game -- Pluck, a variation of Spades popular among the Diamondbacks -- and ambled over to a cluster of players watching baseball highlights. When a debate breaks out over which divisional rival starter the hitters would rather face: the Giants' two-time Cy Young winner, Tim Lincecum, or the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez, who had extended his scoreless innings streak with six shutout frames against Arizona the previous night, Hinch acted as moderator before heading down the hall to check matchup stats on his computer.
In age, attire and attitude, Hinch can often come across as one of the guys, and therein lies one advantage for baseball's youngest manager, one who was hired with no managerial or coaching experience: He has a knack for relating to his young players. As he approaches the one-year anniversary of his controversial hiring last May 8, Hinch has asserted himself as the boss who will regularly let players know where they stand, something he does with ease, according to several Diamondbacks. As a result, they praise Hinch for his communication skills.
"The thing that's changed this year is that the people around me -- whether it's our club, the general public, the writers -- have calmed down," Hinch says. "I was never uncomfortable in this position or doubted whether I could handle the job. The tornado around me has gone away."
There was little doubting Hinch's baseball acumen -- he played parts of seven seasons in the majors from 1998-2004 and was a rising star in their front office -- but still there was a firestorm last May when Arizona fired manager Bob Melvin and replaced him with Hinch. Suddenly, Hinch went from a suit-and-tie wearing front office and scouting position to becoming uniformed personnel, sitting on the dugout bench and making in-game decisions.
"I had spent a lot of time in the dugout, so it wasn't my first rodeo," Hinch says now. "But I hadn't managed or coached, and that was the main 'attack,' so to speak."
A catcher, he played at Stanford, was the U.S. Olympic captain in 1996 and played nine seasons of professional baseball, retiring in 2005. Hired by the Diamondbacks shortly after Josh Byrnes became general manager, Hinch was the club's vice president of player development overlooking the farm system, a fast-riser on the personnel track.
Gaining the players' trust didn't happen overnight. The young players who rose through the farm system all knew Hinch, but the veterans weren't sure what to make of him.
"He came in and showed that he was in control and knew what he was doing," 26-year-old third baseman Mark Reynolds says. "I think it took the older guys a little longer because they didn't know him very well, so it took a little longer for them to feel him out."
As manager, Hinch had the aid of a strong presence in bench coach and longtime big leaguer Kirk Gibson, and aside from being reprimanded by an umpire in his first week for not having a hitter in the on-deck circle, there were no embarrassing managerial gaffes like filling out the lineup card incorrectly or getting lost on his jog to the mound to remove a pitcher. In fact, opponents have made such errors against Arizona. In March, for instance the Dodgers batted out of order in a spring training game. As one Diamondback official said, "If [Hinch] did that, my God, what would have happened?"
Not that Hinch didn't have to endure his share of difficulties. The Diamondbacks went 58-75 under his leadership last season, dealing with a season-ending shoulder injury suffered by ace Brandon Webb on Opening Day and questions about whether they'd pick up the option of the guy who had become the face of the franchise. Throw in lingering hamstring problem for shortstop Stephen Drew, season-long offensive struggles by Chris Young, Conor Jackson, Eric Byrnes and Chad Tracy and a poor effort from the bullpen and Hinch had his hands full in his rookie season on the bench.
In the final weekend of last season, Hinch addressed his players and, in his own words, "let loose" about putting the year behind them, challenging them with expectations for the offseason and letting them know what would be tolerated come spring training.
As Hinch recalls, after that meeting a couple of his coaches told him that "it was one of the first times they saw me be me -- not trying to fill a role of the manager but just me who was the manager." He followed it up with a similar, tone-setting meeting on the first day of spring training, which resonated with the players.
Reynolds says, "In spring training on the first day he said, 'I'm not going to take any B.S. I'm the manager. We're going to play the way I want to play. You're going to hustle or you're going to be benched.' He's definitely asserting himself a lot, and I think the guys respect that."
Adds center fielder Chris Young, "He probably stopped worrying about what people thought and focus more on what people wanted to do as a team. That's good, that's how it should be."
The Diamondbacks are off to an 11-11 to start 2010 -- but there are signs he is coming into his own. One of them came the day of his casual clubhouse visit in Denver. The Diamondbacks had blown a 6-0 lead, allowing 11 straight runs to the Rockies, but they showed grit in battling back and tying the game at 11. Then in the ninth inning, the otherwise cool, young skipper morphed into someone very different. With the bases loaded and one out, John Hester grounded to third, where the Rockies' Ian Stewart fielded the ball but threw errantly home, seemingly pulling catcher Miguel Olivo off the plate as he lunged high and a little up the first base line for the ball.
Before home-plate umpire Marvin Hudson had even finished making the out call, Hinch was sprinting out of the dugout to protest. He extended his right index finger to make a point and then placed his hands a foot apart to show how high he believed Olivo was off the ground when receiving the throw, a gesture for which he was promptly ejected (replays indicated the call was correct).
"I think that play really fired everybody up," Arizona second baseman Kelly Johnson said. "It really did. A.J. wasted no time. He got right out there and he was heated. It really does fire you up when the guy you're playing for is on your side and has your back."
In the very next inning, Johnson hit what proved to be the game-winning home run in the Diamondbacks' 12-11 victory.
Johnson was acquired from Atlanta in the offseason, where Cox has lorded over the team since 1990. Johnson says that from the day he got drafted the Braves told their minor leaguers "This is how you play for Bobby" as they went through the farm system.
"With a guy like Bobby, that's where you're going to get that experience and stability that he's not going to go anywhere," Johnson says. "That kind of confidence definitely spills over and rubs off on a young player. I started my career pretty bad, and Bobby, knowing that we had a good team and that I was going to come around eventually, waited me out. Sometimes with a manager for a younger team, they don't feel like they can do that because they need to win now."
That's part of the reason why, before even managing a game, Hinch was given a contract through next season, as Byrnes believes in giving security to people in leadership. It was especially necessary to show that Hinch wasn't just a rest-of-the-season fill-in but, the club believed, the best long-term choice at manager.
"The shock has worn off with a year of experience," Byrnes says. "Last year was the perfect storm of bad events, but the benefit of it was that he picked up valuable experience. Now it's time to do just what he's being asked to do, which is lead this group. He's done a very good job."
It's clear that one year into Hinch's tenure, lots of other people both inside and outside the Diamondbacks clubhouse are finally feeling the same way.