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Open mind key to Hillman’s success

by Robert Whiting

First excerpt in a two-part series of updated “You Gotta Have Wa”

The most successful American manager in Japan turned out to be a relative unknown named Trey Hillman. His achievements were all the more remarkable, because they entailed an almost complete turnaround from the way he had operated in the United States.

Hillman, a University of Texas graduate, had played only three years of professional ball (in the Cleveland Indians farm system). He then retired to become a coach and then subsequently a manager in the New York Yankees minor league organization, where he won three manager of the year awards, and went on to become director of player development for the Texas Rangers in 2002.

Hillman’s talent was motivating players. He was 180 cm and physically unimposing, but he was capable of delivering speeches so powerful that he could bring a room to a hushed silence. He also excelled at one-on-one persuasion, demonstrating a special knack for bringing out the best in each individual and had a deep moral streak (“I’ve never cheated on my wife,” he would say proudly. “And I try not to cuss.”) that manifested itself in 2003 when he turned down an offer from owner Tom Hicks to manage the Texas Rangers. Managing the Rangers had been Hillman’s lifelong dream, but just days earlier he had verbally accepted an invitation to manage the Nippon Ham Fighters. Even though Hillman had not yet signed a contract and was still legally free to go wherever he wanted, he said no. He had given his word and that was that.

Once in Japan, Hillman tried to implement the American brand of baseball he had employed for years. He tried to rein in some of the excesses characteristic of the Japanese game that he believed were harmful, like the so-called “guts drills,” and the tendency of coaches to haul off and punch their players on occasion, a violent legacy of Japan’s martial arts — and the traditional approach to high school baseball they had spawned. For example, Nippon Ham’s minor league manager, a man named Tetsushi Okamoto, slugged a rookie shortstop for making an error that let in two runs, knocking him to the ground. As the player curled up into a ball on the dugout floor, the farm team manager continued to beat him.

The youth, as others before, had simply accepted it, because that was the way of things. Such episodes happened from time to time. One of the most famous incidents of that genre involved Kazumasa Kono, a Giants infielder who had run off the field during one game with only two out thinking the side had been retired. For that indiscretion, an angry coach had whacked him in the buttocks with a bat, so severely that Kono was unable to sit for three days. This became known in Japanese baseball circles as the famous Ketsu Batto Jiken or “Ass Bat Incident.”

American pitcher Jeremy Powell, playing for the Yomiuri Giants in 2006, witnessed a similar exercise in behavior modification when a Kyojin coach kicked a player for making a base running error, said player not so much as uttering a word of protest.

When Hillman heard about the Nippon Ham farm team assault he went to the general manager to complain, threatening to resign if the organization tolerated any more of that type of behavior. The next thing Hillman knew, the farm team manager was in his office apologizing. He told Hillman that he just hadn’t been able to help himself, that it was the result of the way he himself had been trained in high school. He also said he would resign himself before he let Hillman leave.

“In my culture, I would never treat a dog that way,” replied Hillman, rejecting the offer. “Please don’t do that again on my watch. The players in this country have to go through enough as it is. We don’t need to beat them up on top of it all.”

Hillman, like the first incarnation of Bobby Valentine, was constantly subjected to second-guessing by his purported underlings. The manager would hold a meeting to lay down a practice schedule only to have head coach Kazuyuki Shirai and front office personnel hold another meeting amongst themselves to discuss it and determine what was and what was not appropriate before said schedule was actually implemented. Since Hillman did not have anywhere near the level of authority Valentine now possessed, there was nothing he could do but acquiesce and stand by.

“I understood it,” Hillman drawled, “but it really bothered my pitching coach Mike Brown. ‘You’re the manager, dammit,’ he’d say. ‘What the heck is going on?’ It was just their way of processing new — and strange — information and of keeping wa.” But we had to have so many sidebars, as I used to call them, that it reminded me of Judge Lance Ito’s court.”

One big bone of contention was, not surprisingly, the sacrifice bunt, which the Nippon Ham cognoscenti wanted him to use every time a runner reached first with none or one out to gain the psychological advantage of an early, though minuscule lead — all important in Japan. Hillman, for his part, thought the sacrifice bunt was a pointless exercise, a waste of an out. ‘Twas far, far better, in his view, to play for the hit, the walk, the home run and the big inning.

“I got the psychology part,” said Hillman, “So I did what I could to at least try and get a run in the first inning, even though, at that time, we were too pitching poor to play for one run. But to me it was still a crutch.

“I thought that Japan’s passion for small ball was still nothing more than a legitimate excuse to avoid trying for the big inning and risk failure. It provided a certain comfort level for the players to say,’OK we will play for the one run instead of the riskier alternative.’ “

Hillman’s big ball mentality combined with his insistence on American-style low pitch counts and a tendency to exercise the quick hook, particularly upset battery coach Fujio Tamura, who signaled his feelings by emitting a big sigh, rolling his eyes and sucking wind, conveying the message to anyone in the vicinity that the team had absolutely no chance in hell.

The Fighters finished with a losing record that first year (62-74-4), fifth in a six-team league. At the team’s fall camp in November, infielder Makoto Kaneko approached Hillman for talk about what he thought was the biggest problem with his American manager’s regime: the Hillman regime, the lack of konjo, or fighting spirit. Kantoku-san, he said, “We know we need to fit your philosophy into our mind-set. But we still need more practice. If the players don’t spend enough time on the field practicing under your leadership, then we don’t feel we are doing our job.”

Over the course of several also-ran or losing seasons, Hillman lengthened the daily training camp from two hours to four, then six, then nine.

“It went against everything I had ever experienced in American ball,” said Hillman, “But I thought if that’s what they want in order to feel right about their game, then so be it. I used the longer time in practice for extra defensive work.”

Fortunately, in 2006, Nippon Ham, now ensconced in Sapporo, was blessed with an emerging young pitching corps of great talent, led by a 196-cm, 20-year-old flame thrower, Iranian-Japanese Yu Darvish, whom Hillman believed to be one of the best pitchers on the planet. (The long-haired, dark-featured Darvish was also becoming a teen heartthrob, posing semi-nude on magazine covers and scandalizing the sports and entertainment world by impregnating and then marrying one of Japan’s top young actresses, all before turning 22.) The combination of great pitching, an improved outfield that would win three Gold Gloves and the advantage of playing in the cavernous Sapporo Dome, a facility with vast foul areas, all combined to make the one-run philosophy feasible. Much to everyone’s amazement, Hillman became a passionate practitioner of the sacrifice bunt, setting a new franchise record with a total of 133, triple the amount of the year before, which even then had been higher than that for most MLB teams. The Fighters won 82 games, also a franchise record and the 2006 pennant in the process.

The team sailed through the playoffs and defeated the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series in five games. Fittingly, a key play was a run-tying squeeze bunt in the final game. Hillman picked up a truckload of awards, among them something called the Ryuko-go Taisho (The Grand Popular Word Prize) for popularizing shinjirarenai (unbelievable), his spontaneous outburst on the Series victory, as well as, of course, Manager of the Year.

His achievements were lauded throughout Japan in the highly popular NHK program “Closeup Gendai,” in which the hostess Hiroko Kuniya pointed out that the American kantoku had become the first foreign manager in Japan to move from a philosophy of besuboru to a philosophy of yakyu. It was high praise.