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Hillman's genius lost in translation

In October of 2007, when the Kansas City Royals hired Trey Hillman to be their manager, I traveled to Japan to watch the man in action. Hillman was a bold hire by what then looked like a young and bold organization. The Royals had just hired Dayton Moore from Atlanta as their general manager -- Moore was more or less the hottest young GM prospect on the board. The Royals brought in respected people from all around baseball. They tried to reconnect within the community. They spent a lot of money on the draft, they bulked up their international scouting, they added a minor league team and they talked the good talk about building from within.

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 Joe Girardi to replace Joe Torre. The line of thinking was that Hillman was a teacher and a winner and the sort of guy who would outwork his counterparts and make the Royals a cutting-edge baseball team.

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 Yu Darvish) that they went to the Series anyway. They lost decisively -- the final game was a perfect game -- but I saw what the Royals saw. And I will never forget coming back to the States and talking to one of my best friends in the game, telling him that Hillman was smart, impressive, engaging and all those good things.

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.

* * *

The Royals fired Hillman on Thursday, just moments after his team snapped a seven-game losing streak and Zack Greinke won his first game of the season. This was also just two days after Moore offered such powerful support of Hillman that it seemed to transcend "dreaded vote of confidence" status. Moore didn't just say that the organization believed in Hillman, he said that "Trey's done a terrific job." He didn't just say that he planned to stick with Hillman, he said that "he is exactly what this organization needs at this point in time."

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 David Glass, who, like just about everyone else, had lost patience. Late last week the entire Royals team failed to notice when the Rangers' Josh Hamilton simply forgot to tag up on a fly ball. The missed out cost the Royals two runs and the ball game. It wasn't the worst blunder Hillman had made, but it was obvious. There was no recovering. The experiment had failed. The Hillman Era was doomed. Moore should have had a better feel for the reality surrounding him.

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, Casey Stengel, Earl Weaver and Joe McCarthy combined weren't winning with this team.

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 60 Minutes. Improve our overall standings? Increase our fan base? But that was Trey Hillman ... his public statements always seemed out-of-touch, his attempt to connect with players off-key. I often wondered: Why? Where was the confident guy I remembered from Japan? Where was the baseball man with the great story: The undrafted player who managed and coached and scouting and went halfway across the world, all chasing this game he loves so much?

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.

Bill James wrote a great piece a few years ago about the failure of Vern Rapp as a manager. Few managers have ever had the pedigree of Rapp. He had been around the game for decades. Numerous players who became stars in the big leagues swore by him. He was smart and intense and a teacher and all those other good things. And when he was 49 years old in 1977 he was finally hired to manage -- by his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, no less -- and he led the Cardinals to a dramatic 11-game improvement from the year before.

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 Sparky Anderson managed to enforce with the Big Red Machine because he got the players to buy in. Rapp could not. He proudly announced that he wasn't there to be liked, and nobody liked him, and 17 games into the next year he called Cardinals star Ted Simmons a loser after a game (Simmons, apparently, had turned up the stereo after a loss) and got himself canned.

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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