Outgoing Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman obviously has only one thing on his mind right now — beating the Chunichi Dragons again and winning a second consecutive Japan Series title.
However, his next job as manager of the Kansas City Royals will be another big challenging and, if anyone can pull a team out of the doldrums, it’s Hillman.
That’s what he did with the Fighters, a club he took over in 2003 that had not been to the Japanese Series since 1981.
The Nippon Ham front office people turned to Hillman after getting sick and tired of finishing out of the running year after year after year and playing in front of mostly empty seats at Tokyo Dome, their home before making their other brilliant decision to move to Sapporo.
In the same sense, the Royals are one of several major league franchises playing season after season after season with little or nothing to show for their effort. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Montreal Expos-Washington Nationals are others that come to mind and fit into this category.
The baseball fans in K.C. — probably even those crazy little women Wilbert Harrison sang about in his 1959 hit song “(I’m Going to) Kansas City” — are excited. So is the media there.
After the story broke on Oct. 19 about Trey’s new gig, the e-mails started pouring in. I got messages from writers in Kansas City trying to get in touch with Hillman, phone calls from others asking me about his five years with the Fighters and several from fans wishing him the best.
I know Royals scouts Louie Medina and Rene Francisco were in Japan at least twice this season and, thinking about it now, I am sure they were here not only to look at Japan’s talented players who may some day have major league value, but also to get a better look at Hillman and wonder if he would be as good a fit in western Missouri as he has been in southwest Hokkaido.
I think he will be.
The Royals have been to the World Series twice since they joined the American League along with the Seattle Pilots as an expansion team in 1969. They lost in 1980 to the Philadelphia Phillies in six games, but won the 1985 World Series in seven over the cross-state rival St. Louis Cardinals.
But they had great players then; among those in the field were George Brett, Willie Wilson, Frank White, Hal McRae, Amos Otis, U.L. Washington, Willie Aikens, Darrell Porter and even a guy named Clint Hurdle, currently managing the Colorado Rockies in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox.
Well-known pitchers included Dennis Leonard, Larry Gura, Paul Splittorff, Rich Gale (later a 1985 Japan Series hero with the Hanshin Tigers), Bret Saberhagen, Charlie Leibrandt, Danny Jackson, current San Diego Padres skipper Bud Black and the quintessential closer, Dan Quisenberry.
Managers then were Jim Frey, who brought the 1981 Royals team to Japan for a post-season tour, and Dick Howser, who led that 1985 K.C. club to its only World Series title.
Hillman may not have a roster full of stars as those teams did 22 and 27 years ago, but you can bet he will make the most of what he’s given, just as he did here with the Fighters.
Joe Posnanski, in his Oct. 19 column in the Kansas City Star, wrote about Hillman’s hiring, “. . . The Royals got the top guy on the draft board. This really should work. And as we approach another World Series the Royals did not come close to reaching, that’s a sweet word. Should.”
Posnanski, by the way, in a show of how excited his is town about Trey, is here to cover the ongoing Japan Series at the domes in Sapporo and Nagoya.
Meanwhile, spoiled sports such as Isao Harimoto and Keiji Osawa, the guys who seemingly knock everybody on those Sunday morning TV talk shows, criticized Hillman for leaving the Fighters on Oct. 20, to appear at a news conference in K.C. the following Monday.
I can’t agree with them. He had already wrapped up the Pacific League Climax Series title, and he would be back from the U.S. and in Sapporo three days prior to the start of the Japan Series. The club could practice just fine without Hillman being there and be just as prepared going into the Japan Series.
Win or lose against Chunichi, and in the upcoming Asia Series, Hillman will have left his mark, not only in Sapporo and all of Hokkaido, but also around Japan. He will be remembered for a long time, and I, for one, am planning a trip to mid-America to check out the Royals at Kaufmann Stadium next season if the opportunity presents itself.
I might take a train, I might take a plane but, if I should walk, I’m going just the same. Goin’ to Kansas City.
As Joe Posnanski wrote, this should work.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com