It has been a hectic two weeks, to say the least, for Trey Hillman.
One minute, Hillman, who guided the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to a Japan Series title in 2006, was preparing to return for his third year as bench coach for the Houston Astros. The next, he and his wife were hosting officials from the SK Wyverns, of the Korea Baseball Organization, at their home, and then he was on a plane to South Korea for a brief introduction to the team he’d been hired to manage.
“It’s a lot of information really quickly,” Hillman, now back home in Texas, told The Japan Times over the phone. “Since I’ve been through it before with the Japan experience, it’s moving a little slower than it would if I had not been through that.
“The other thing that’s vastly different is that I did not have a previous relationship with anyone in Korea. When I joined the Fighters, I knew two executives and my bench coach. But I didn’t know anybody from Korea, and I was actually quite shocked that they had targeted me. Evidently they had targeted me a while back, but they didn’t let us know until about two weeks ago. It moved very quickly.”
Hillman and his wife had dinner with the SK president, general manager and international director at their home on Oct. 20. He was on a plane a week later to finalize the details in Los Angeles before heading to South Korea to meet his new team. SK announced the signing on Oct. 27. Hillman has a two-year deal worth $1.6 million, including a $400,000 signing bonus, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News.
Hillman had a strong bond with many of his Fighters players, notably infielder (now a coach) Makoto Kaneko, whom Hillman said was adept at telling him what he needed to hear, whether positive or negative. He began laying the groundwork for the relationship with his new players during his visit last week.
“It was great,” Hillman said. “Spent a little over an hour with the players. I wanted to talk to each guy individually. I spent a few minutes with each player. Then I went back inside and spent a little over an hour with the media, then I met with the team captain again. I’d met him, but I didn’t feel like I’d spent enough time with him, so we met for a while.”
Hillman, who managed the Kansas City Royals from 2008-2010, said he was happy in Houston and hadn’t been seeking another managerial position. He’ll now become the first man to manage teams in NPB, MLB and KBO.
“Honestly, we just kind of felt like this was God’s plan telling us this is where He wanted us at this point and time in our lives,” the 53-year-old Hillman said. “We were perfectly happy going back with the Astros. It’s a good group of people and a young, talented team and I enjoyed being the bench coach.”
Hillman joined the Fighters in 2003 and spent five years with the team. He won a Japan Series title and a pair of Pacific League pennants (2006 and 2007) and reached the postseason three times. He feels his time in Japan will help, but won’t necessarily make his new job any easier.
“It’s good that I’ve got that experience, but every experience is different,” he said. “I want to be cautious to say that anything about it is going to be easy. I think all things that end in championships require hard work, and that’s what I’m going over there to do.”
The Fighters have maintained many of the things Hillman helped put in place and have continued to be successful. On Saturday, the team, which has been a mainstay in the playoffs, defeated the Hiroshima Carp to win its first Japan Series championship since the one Hillman helped deliver 10 years ago.
He was happy for the team and also for retiring pitcher Masaru Takeda, who was a member of the 2006 squad.
“Just a great competitor,” Hillman said of Takeda. “He took the ball anytime we needed him to take the ball.”
Hillman hopes he can bring that type of success to the Wyverns, who finished sixth in the 10-team KBO in 2016.
“I’m so happy that the Fighters did it again this year,” Hillman said. “That’s one of the most satisfying things to me. That the system that we put in place with Nippon Ham has maintained. They held onto the model, so to speak, that we all put in together. That’s what I want to do in Korea.
“That’s going to be part of the learning curve,” he added. “Korea is not Japan. I’m sure there are some similarities, but I’m sure there are some major differences as well. It’ll be my responsibility to get up to speed on that as quickly as possible.”