As he prepares himself to manage a team in South Korean pro ball, Trey Hillman intends to take a slower approach than he did when he first showed up in Japan 14 years ago.
Hillman, a longtime minor league manager in the United States, managed the Pacific League’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for five seasons and led them to two Pacific League pennants. He is now returning to Asia as skipper of the SK Wyverns in the Korea Baseball Organization.
It will be the 53-year-old’s first managerial job since running the American League’s Kansas City Royals from 2008 to May 2010. Since then, he’s worked for three organizations, twice as a major league bench coach. Famous for attention to detail and preparation, Hillman is throwing himself into his new task, where he will be the first man to manage in three of the world’s elite baseball circuits.
Although his own studies are progressing at a rapid pace, Hillman said once he is on the field, the quality of what players retain will be more important than the quantity of information he gives them.
“I need to go slower. I needed to do that in Japan,” Hillman told Kyodo News at this month’s baseball winter meetings near Washington.
“I’ll tell you what they’ve done so far. I’ve got three language skill lessons that my interpreter came up with. I got to interview my interpreter and I’ve already got to spend a lot of time with him. I’ve got to spend a lot of time with my bench coach. I’ve been over and back twice. They put together a tremendous external hard drive that’s got defensive highlights, pitching highlights, good game info, bad game info, base running. They’ve given me a pretty good structure with which to study.
“I’m just trying not to ask of them too much too fast, because I want them to retain what they’re doing.”
Although Hillman’s Fighters reached the postseason in 2004, there was speculation he was on his way out after a poor 2005 and a slow start in 2006.
Some of the difficulties were cross cultural, as he failed to understand the gravity with which practice and small-ball tactics resonated in Japanese players’ psyches. But by the start of the 2006 season, many issues had been settled and the Fighters got better and better as the year went on, culminating in a Japan Series championship.
The Fighters kept him for 2007, when the club won its second straight pennant only for Hillman to abruptly leave. He returned home to be closer to his two teenage children, but was then offered the Royals job. There, after a career in minor league ball and Japan, Hillman collided with big league culture for the first time.
The Royals were rebuilding under general manager Dayton Moore, with talent in the minors that didn’t make an impact until 2012 under Hillman’s successor Ned Yost.
“The first learning point is that you don’t win without players,” Hillman said. “You hope you can be a difference maker. You hope that you can come up with the right guys at the right time, having career years at the same time.
“I was hoping to hold on until the cavalry got there. People got impatient with it and ownership wanted a change. When I took the job, they had made a commitment to be patient and after two-plus years they weren’t in the mood to continue that patience with me.”
Hillman, who helped shape the Fighters into one of the top two fielding teams in the history of Japanese pro baseball, wanted the Royals to frequently take infield. The rapid-fire pregame team fielding practice, an everyday ritual in Japan, had become a lost art in the majors.
“We did it on occasion,” he said. “They weren’t real fired up about it but they did it. We didn’t do it as often as I’d have liked to, just because I read that. It was the old jokyo handan (situational awareness) thing. At the major league level in the United States it’s about 10 times as much about the wa (harmony). Keep those guys as happy as you can.”
“The schedule, until you’ve experienced it — as I had not until I got to Kansas City — (is a huge difference) not having that one day off a week. Looking back on that now, I wished I had already had that experience of being in the major leagues before I came to Japan.
“I probably would have done a better job about balancing what their needs are.”
South Korean ball will again be a new frontier for Hillman, although he’s had glimpses of teams during his time with the Fighters and of Korean major leaguers Lee Dae-ho and Kim Hyun-soo this past season in his role as Houston Astros bench coach.
“They know how to have fun,” Hillman said.
“They looked like they were enjoying themselves. I try to get out and watch the home team work and they both looked like they were really good workers.”
Coincidentally, when asked about Hillman, Astros manager A.J. Hinch said much the same about his departing right-hand man.
“I’m losing a really good man, a good worker, someone who was there for the players,” Hinch said. “Nothing gets by this guy. His attention to detail is arguably as good as anyone I’ve been around in the game.”