View Full Version : Az Republic: Hillman looking to spark Royals

03-09-2008, 03:03 PM
Hillman looking to spark Royals
Bob McManaman
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 8, 2008 06:00 PM

It's mid-morning at the Peoria Sports Complex, and the Kansas City Royals' team bus slowly pulls to a stop next to the visiting clubhouse, where weary bodies slowly pour out and shuffle their way into the room.

But not first-year manager Trey Hillman, who arrives with a pep in his step and hearty handshakes and hellos to all who were awaiting the team's arrival.

"It's gonna be a good day today!" Hillman promises. "It's gonna be a great day!"

It takes awhile for his enthusiasm to permeate the locker room, but it does, especially when Hillman emerges from his office to address the team before its scheduled morning stretch.

He asks them if they want an extra 15 minutes before taking the field, or if they wish to proceed as scheduled. He walks around the room, gauging opinion. He looks players in the eyes. He invites dialogue. He cares.

Is Thomas Brad "Trey" Hillman, a man who never played or coached at the major-league level, any different from those who lie on the heap of the managerial wasteland that has befallen so many former Royals skippers?

What makes the organization or its players believe he can do something that Tony Peņa, Tony Muser, Hal McRae, Bob Boone, John Wathan, Billy Gardener and Buddy Bell could not do?

The Royals haven't made the playoffs in 23 years, not since the late Dick Howser took them to the World Series in 1985. And all of a sudden, here comes the 45-year-old Hillman, a former minor-league manager who spent the past five seasons managing in Japan, to save the day?

Different kind of leader
"I believe in Trey Hillman," Royals catcher John Buck said. "He's a tremendous communicator. He's very loose, very easy to approach and talk to, and whether it's good or bad, he communicates a lot better than any other manager I've ever had."

Buck goes on to talk about the insecurities of the average pro baseball player, how their lives often are largely defined by "year to year or day by day," and to have someone such as Hillman spell things out so clearly to all is "a huge sense of comfort."

A native of Amarillo, Texas, who enjoys playing the guitar and singing country songs, Hillman appears genuine, gentle and generous. He takes time for everyone and doesn't take himself too seriously.

One of his first acts after being named manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan's Pacific League was to personally clean out the entire locker room and bullpen for his players. Think Joe Torre or even Joe Girardi would do something such as that at Yankee Stadium?

Hillman is something else entirely. A former middle infielder who attended the University of Texas and spent three years in the Cleveland Indians' system before becoming a scout, then a player-development man for the Rangers, he knows a thing or two about earning his keep.

He learned it the hard way, by slowly moving up the chain of command. It led him to the Yankees' system, where he managed in the minors for nine seasons and three times was named Manager of the Year.

Then it took him to Japan, where he guided the Ham Fighters from being a team with one of the worst records into the Japanese champions in 2006.

"There is not a more qualified person out there to lead," Royals General Manager Dayton Moore said when announcing Hillman's hiring in October. "He's been a winner his whole life."

Expecting success
This particular day, after meeting privately with one of his players to reassure him of his status, Hillman talks about the chat openly without naming names.

"I can't be anybody but myself," he said. "Right now we've got 59 minds out there in that clubhouse, and that's a lot of gigabytes wondering 'How is the roster going to fall out? When am I going to play?'

" . . . I know the anxieties that are going through the clubhouse, even this early. But all I can be is myself and with what I try to concentrate on with my skill set, where the No. 1 thing is integrity. Sometimes I'm honest to a fault."

The Royals made some strides last season, avoiding 100 losses for the first time in three years despite finishing last in the AL Central for a fourth consecutive year. But there is optimism, thanks to a group of youngsters such as right-handers Zack Greinke and Scottsdale-born Brian Bannister, third baseman Alex Gordon and first baseman Billy Butler.

"He's got us believing," Gil Meche, the ace of the Royals' starting rotation, said of Hillman. "We're going to be OK."

Hillman has done it before. He inherited a disheveled Japanese team and turned it into a champion within four years. He hopes for similar success in Kansas City.

"I don't go into any season not planning on winning," he said. "That's just the way I'm wired. But we'll give it our best shot and plan on winning now and see how we need to re-evaluate it along the way and at the end of the season."