In just two seasons American manager Trey Hillman has taken the perennial second-division finishing Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to the Pacific League playoffs.
believes his team has what it takes to win the Pacific League pennant this
This year Hillman is hoping to complete the transformation from doormat to champion by bringing his team its first Pacific League pennant since 1981.
Hillman spoke to The Japan Times in an exclusive interview recently and gave his thoughts on the upcoming season, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and what it takes to succeed at managing Japanese players.
Japan Times: What are your goals for the 2005 season — the third year of the Hillman plan?
Trey Hillman: It’s been a fun ride so far. I don’t think any of this would have been possible, and this is sincerely spoken, had it not been for the group I’m working for. They have been very accepting to opening their minds up to new ways.
Do you think you have a chance to win the pennant this season?
I do. I think we are in a better position. We are not as deep as Seibu or the Hawks. But if things fall the right way health-wise and performance-wise, I like our chances.
Can you talk about your team’s first season in Hokkaido? How were you and the players received by the people?
It was exciting. In a weird way, the strike added excitement. The night the strike was decided, we met with ownership and told them that we needed to make the most of a bad situation.
We had a big autograph signing session for the fans and two days later we had our biggest crowds of the season, when we played the Hawks in a must-win situation.
That was when I saw a piece of what my dream for the organization is, and that is to have the Sapporo Dome filled (with people), like the Fukuoka Dome is.
So you think the strike actually gave the team a better chance to interact with the fans than it would normally have had?
Yes. Even now, looking back, I am shocked at the advantage the strike seemed to have had, because we did have a lot of interaction with our fans over that two-day period.
What is your projected starting rotation for this season?
Carlos Mirabal, Brad Thomas, Satoru Kanemura and Shintaro Ejiri.
What about your top draft pick pitcher Yu Darvish?
He will start out on the farm team. I sure you are well aware of some of the problems he has had.
(Darvish was restricted to the team dormitory after being photographed smoking in a pachinko parlor during spring training. Darvish is only 18. In Japan, one must be 20 to legally smoke tobacco.)
These have put him behind. But I am pleased with the way the organization stepped up and took care of the issue. We didn’t try to cover anything up and admitted that our guy made a mistake and said we are going to make sure that we take care of the problem.
I was extremely impressed with the way our front office handled it. I was informed and asked my opinion, and the issue was dealt with.
Tsuyoshi Shinjo returned to Japan with the Fighters last season after three years in the majors. Why do you think he played so well last year?
I think he was comfortable. Not only being back in Japan, but I think he had some individual things he wanted to prove as a baseball player. But he also wanted to be a part of a bigger group and the Fighters organization to help them transition to a new location. That helped fuel a lot of his energy.
Many people — myself included — didn’t realize what an exceptional athlete he is.
I had not had the opportunity to see him day-in and day-out.
Quite honestly, he could play several positions on a major league diamond. He could play all of the outfield positions, all of the infield positions and probably be a closer.
I believe my relationship with him is very good.
Do I loosen the strings with him?
Yes. But he has never gone over the line to the point where he has upset me. That is mutual respect.
I have adjusted my way of thinking. I typically don’t like the uniform pants to be down over the shoes. He loves to wear his that way and always has.
I thought long and hard about it and felt that if that’s what makes a player feel comfortable, and if that’s what helps drive one of our guys in the middle of our field, then maybe I’m the guy that needs to adjust a little bit more.
Has Shinjo helped make you a better manager?
I think so. Any player that helps the team win makes the manager a better manager.
With what he brings to the table just in attention alone, he’s made me more patient. I know that every day I am going to have the Shinjo questions (from the media), so I don’t get upset about them.
I hope that the comfort that he has in playing with our team, and the comfort he has with me being the manager, has added something to his career as a baseball player.
I don’t believe I will ever witness another player that has as much charisma and a knack for fueling energy from the media and the fans, as much as he does.
I have never seen anything like it. It’s young, it’s old, it’s male, it’s female. It’s everybody.
What about his teammates, do they resent that?
I thought I would see some jealousy, but I don’t. I think one of the reasons is because of the way he treats his teammates. He goes above and beyond for them.
In spring training, he had a package of Sea Breeze body soap, hair shampoo and conditioner delivered to everybody’s room.
Because he has the endorsement. He’s a giving guy. He cares.
Do you think he inspired his teammates with his play last season?
There is no doubt about it.
When I talk about Shinjo I also think of Michihiro Ogasawara — who is our team captain and exceptional player — because they both inspired their teammates in totally different ways.
As a manager, what is the key to getting the most out of the Japanese players?
Even with my inability to speak Japanese well, communication is still the key. Non-verbal communication is important. A pat on the back.
Their expectations are very high for me. They know this is work. I think they have done a real good job in a relatively short period of time of understanding that we really do want them to enjoy the game.
I will have more adjustments to make managing guys back in the United States, than I do managing these young men here. These guys come to the ballpark and they’re ready to work.
If you tell them to do something, they are going to do it.
If they are talking behind my back, I have never felt it.
The attitude and perception that I have of them as professional men on the field and at the workplace is top-shelf.
So, in some respects, it has been easier than managing in the States?
In some respects, it has. Especially when you are dealing with individual players’ egos. No doubt about it.
I do think that the organization has done a good job of going and getting the foreign players that will fit here.
Fernando Seguignol is one of the best guys I have ever managed.
Carlos Mirabal has been in Japan for eight years.
They have seen how it is and fit in very well.
Can you talk about your life in Japan in the offseason?
After the first season, I only spent 10 weeks back in the U.S. This past offseason, I spent three months at home.
I do feel an obligation to spend time here in the offseason, but not to the point where I am neglecting my family back in the U.S.
I think there is a balance there and the organization allowed me a little bit more time at home.
You want to manage in the major leagues, that is no secret. You have a good track record in the minor leagues. What are your thoughts about the future?
Honestly, I am trying to go one day at a time. I enjoy what I’m doing, right now.
I do want to go back eventually to the United States, but I don’t have a timetable for that.
You have been at this game for a long time now. What is the most important factor to be a successful manager?
Communication and integrity.
Sometimes, I have to give difficult messages to both the the staff and the players. I don’t like giving difficult messages, but I am also not afraid to give them.
Lack of fear, delivering difficult messages, and doing it with integrity, those are the keys.
I see the same appreciation from these men in doing that, that I did from those back in the U.S.
What is the most important attribute to be a successful player at this level?
Once you reach the ability level of a major league caliber player, the consistency of being able to do it day-in and day-out.
With pitchers, they must have the ability to locate pitches repeatedly.
With position players, it’s the adjustability of the swing.