VERO BEACH, FLORIDA - These days, you’ll find Trey Hillman, the former Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters skipper, serving as bench coach for the Houston Astros.
In other words, Trey is ‘Stros manager A.J. Hinch’s righthand man.
Um, if the Astros are in the first base dugout, that is.
Managers like to occupy the seat or spot closest to home plate. So, if the Astros are situated in the third base dugout, Trey can be found to the left of Hinch, TECHNICALLY making him Hinch’s LEFT-hand man.
Either way, you get the picture — Hillman is almost always by Hinch’s side.
Second in command, Trey is. Should the Houston field general get the ol’ heave-ho by an umpire, Hillman would take over the reins of the ballclub.
But, like MAS was, you may be wondering what EXACTLY are the duties of a big league bench coach, other than filling in for his tossed skipper?
“It’s my job to think along with the manager without being intrusive,” Trey explained to MAS.
“A.J. will bounce things off me and want my input.
“He wants information with the expectation you’ll have a solution.”
Part of Hillman’s duties, are in his words “clerical” in nature.
“I print out and keep track of the dugout lineup card and I’m in charge of documentation that is given to us by our front office — like defensive charts (for various opposition hitters), stuff like that.”
Then if Hinch wants to know, say, which opposing right-hand hitters are still available to pinch hit or lefties who could still be used in relief against the ‘Stros, Trey darn well better have the answer and quickly, too.
“You have to keep all this information forefront in your mind in case he asks a question,” says Trey.
And Hillman’s responsibilities don’t start with the game’s first pitch. He’s in charge of organizing Hinch’s “program” — what pre- and in-game things the skipper wants done daily and how.
“I usually coordinate the activities of other non-pitching coaches like the infield, base-running and hitting coaches. The pitching coaches report directly to A.J.”
Oh, and Trey usually pitches “at least one round of batting practice” and still finds time to hit ground balls to infielders during BP.
MAS observed Hillman closely during an Astros contest.
When Trey wasn’t attached at the hip to Hinch, he was hopping around the dugout like a peg-legged man in a butt-kicking contest, tending to his myriad duties and counseling players.
Of his chief assistant, Hinch said: “He’s got organizational skills and he’s got a good baseball mind just to be sitting next to.
“He’s so well-rounded. There isn’t a situation he hasn’t experienced.
“And,” continued A.J. “he’s gifted with people — that’s his biggest strength.
“He brings the same energy and attitude every day and it’s his consistency that the players like. He’s really having an impact.”
The ‘Stros have gone from finishing last or next-to-last the previous four seasons to surprise American League West leader for most of this campaign.
Hillman deflected any credit for that success to the Houston front office.
“They did a real nice job of adding some key veteran pieces in the offseason,” Trey offered.
Still, you would think being a bench coach, first with the Los Angeles Dodgers the previous three seasons, and now with the Astros would be a bit of a come down, after being a skipper for so long.
Not for Trey.
“I’m really happy where I am,” the 53-year-old Texas native told MAS. “I (managed) for 20 years, that’s a long time to do it.
“Now I enjoy helping other guys.”
Five of those twenty years (2003-07) were spent with the Nippon Ham Fighters ballclub, which he guided to a Japan Series title in 2006.
That success led to an MLB managerial stint in Kansas City from 2008-10.
Though things didn’t end well there, MAS feels Trey doesn’t get nearly enough credit for laying the foundation of the present Royals ballclub that last year reached the postseason and World Series for the first time in 29 years.
After the team improved markedly in Trey’s first season at the helm (best record in five years), the Royals then receded a bit in Hillman’s second campaign — a normal thing during a team’s rebuilding progression, particularly after a big first-year jump.
Rather than staying the course, though, desperate K.C. honchos panicked and dumped Trey 1½ months into his third year and brought in Ned Yost to manage and eventually reap the dividends last AL title season.
“I hope I was a very small part of getting it going in the right direction,” said Trey, humbly. “I do feel a little pride if I helped turn things around.
“It would have been nice if management had been a little more patient,” Hillman added with a shrug. “But when you don’t win ballgames as a manager, you’re held accountable.
“It’s always disappointing because when you’re let go, it’s like someone telling you you don’t have the ability to do the job you were hired to do.”
Yet, there’s no burning desire on Trey’s part to prove he DOES, indeed, have the ability to finish the job as an MLB skipper.
“I’m really not seeking a manager’s job in the United States; — honestly I’m not,” he said.
At this point, MAS sensed a return-to-managing caveat.
Is skippering in Japan again NOT out of the question?
“I would be open to doing it over there,” Hillman admitted. “Obviously, if the Fighters had a need, that would be my first choice.”
MAS then asked Trey what he missed most about Japan.
“My friends over there,” Hillman said. “I had a great time with the players and the staffs I worked with.
“We’re still very connected, especially with friends in Sapporo.”
Hillman, in fact, plans to return to Japan in late November, as a speaker with the Billy Graham Crusade.
A devout Christian, Trey sets an excellent example of how to do things the right way — on the baseball field and in everyday life.
Followers of Christianity learn early that God The Father already has a right-hand man — His Son.
But further down the line to his right, God has other helpers also — including a high-character devotee working for him here on earth: Trey Hillman.
Hillman is a guy on whom The Man Upstairs — like A.J. Hinch — can depend.
If they play ball up there, though, Trey could be also be lined up to The Big Skipper’s left.
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