Hillman embraces new opportunity with Astros

by Wayne Graczyk

Happy New Year to all readers of the Baseball Bullet-In, and we will start 2015 with an update on the new job of former Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman.

He was named a bench coach in October for the Houston Astros under new field boss A.J. Hinch for the coming season.

Hillman checked in with his thoughts about the team and his new position.

“I am thrilled to be part of the Astros major league staff for 2015 and excited about the infusion of young players (general manager) Jeff Luhnow and the staff have injected into the system in the last three years,” Hillman said.

“I am also excited to work with A.J. and the rest of a very experienced staff.”

Houston already had some extremely talented players as Japanese fans saw during November’s major league All-Star tour when MLB standouts came to Dai Nippon for a tune-up game against a combined Hanshin Tigers-Yomiuri Giants unit, followed by five official games and an exhibition contest against the Samurai Japan team.

Specifically, the trio consisting of infielder Jose Altuve (the 2014 AL batting and stolen base champion) and outfielders Dexter Fowler and Chris Carter showed what promise there is in the Astros lineup Hinch and Hillman will send up to the plate during the coming year. Hillman says off-season deals have made the Astros even stronger.

“Adding (pitchers Luke) Gregerson, (Pat) Neshek and (infielder Jed) Lowry will certainly help the younger members of the roster,” Hillman said. “I’ve had several opportunities to be around the owner, Jim Crane, and the front office. It is very exciting to see their passion and willingness to build a championship franchise.”

The Texas-based Hillman will always be remembered in Japan for his success managing the Pacific League Fighters for five seasons, 2003-2007. He led the smooth transition of the franchise from Tokyo to Sapporo in 2004 and took the Fighters to the Japan Series in 2006 and 2007, winning in ’06.

He was the first manager in the pro career of current Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish and was always well respected by all of his Nippon Ham players, opponents and the fans in Hokkaido and around the country.

Following his hiring by the Fighters in late 2002 and impressive showing, three other Japanese teams subsequently brought in American managers. The Chiba Lotte Marines re-hired Bobby Valentine in 2004, the Hiroshima Carp appointed Marty Brown in 2006, and the Orix Buffaloes went for Terry Collins a year after that.

After losing the 2007 JS to the Chunichi Dragons, Hillman was given the chance to fulfill his dream to become a major league manager when he was named skipper of the Kansas City Royals. He guided that American League club from 2008 until he was let go midway through the 2010 season.

Hillman returned to uniform in 2011 as bench coach with the Los Angeles Dodgers under manager Don Mattingly and served in that capacity until being dropped following the 2013 season. In 2014, Hillman served as special assistant for major and minor league operations with the New York Yankees.

Now he’s back in the dugout with another MLB team on the rise, and he could not be happier.

“I am hoping to be (with the Astros) for many years to come,” said the 52-year-old Hillman, and it should be pointed out that Sunday is his birthday.

A devout Christian and family man, Hillman also had a message for fans in Japan, saying, “I miss being in your country with my beloved Fighters and continue to stay in touch with many friends in Japan, especially those on my home island of Hokkaido. My family and I love your country and hope to go back again one day.

“I always enjoy seeing the Japanese players in the major leagues here in the U.S. May God bless your country in 2015 and please always know, when we think of Japan, nothing but love comes into our thoughts.”

With his personality, experience, sharp baseball mind and connections, it would not be surprising to see him return someday as manager of a major league club or a team in Japan. For now, we offer our congratulations on the new gig with a promising team and happy birthday wishes.

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