Hillman's genius lost in translation
In October of 2007, when the Kansas City Royals hired
And they hired Hillman, championship manager in Japan. The line of thinking was that if a Texan like Hillman could win in Japan -- when he did not even speak the language -- he certainly could win back in the ol' U.S. of A. The line of thinking was that he could bring home some of the discipline and emphasis on fundamentals that defines Japanese baseball. The line of thinking was that the Yankees really liked him -- he had been a successful minor league manager in New York's system -- and there was actually a rumor that the Yankees wanted to hire Hillman instead of
I watched Hillman manage in the Japan Series -- Japan's World Series -- and I was impressed. His Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were a decidedly mediocre team (they finished last in runs scored that year) but they were so disciplined and together and had such good fielding and such good pitching (featuring worldwide sensation
He listened. Then he said this: "Yeah. He's never been in the big leagues."
If there's a tombstone for Hillman's career as Royals manager, those are the words that should be carved on it.
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The Royals fired Hillman on Thursday, just moments after his team snapped a seven-game losing streak and
Two days later, he found himself firing Hillman ... which strongly suggests that it wasn't his decision. He probably should be in better concert with the rhythms of Royals owner
But why did it fail? Why didn't Hillman have more success as manager? There are numerous reasons, none more significant than the lack of major league talent that the Royals have put on the field day after day. As the old line goes,
But that's obvious. Beyond that, none of the reasons why the Royals hired Hillman in the first place quite worked out. He was known for his sense of the game, but his Royals consistently played clueless baseball. He was known for his deep belief in the fundamentals -- "there are no little things," was one of his mottos -- but the Royals were a terrible defensive team and a terrible baserunning team on his watch. He was known as a man who related well with players and the community, but his players often didn't seem to get him, and his appearances in public were often just bizarre. I will never forget his inscrutable answer during an Internet chat when a fan asked him what he expected for the upcoming season:
Hillman: "Same as every year. As a manager, we want to show marked improvement on what we showed in 2008. If we do that, we should improve our overall standings and increase our fan base."
What the heck is that? This was a FAN asking a question, not
And, in the end, it occurs to me that the answer was there in what my friend said before Hillman had managed even one major league game: He had never been in the big leagues. That's all. He had never played in the big leagues, never managed in the big leagues, never coached in the big leagues. The only time he had been around a big league clubhouse was as a clubbie for the Texas Rangers when he was a kid. He simply did not know about life in a big league clubhouse. He thought he knew. But he did not.
But, even so, the season was a disaster. He feuded with players constantly. He tried to enforce rules about facial hair and clothes and weight -- these were rules that
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
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
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
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.
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When a manager gets fired, a team almost always hires the exact opposite ... and so the Royals hired
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.