KANSAS CITY — Trey Hillman is one of the few big league managers who has never coached or played in the majors.
Will that matter?
“It all depends on what you believe is major league baseball,” the new skipper of the Kansas City Royals said Monday. “In my humble opinion, I’ve been a major league manager for the last five years. We get after it in Japan.”
After being introduced Monday as the Royals’ 15th full-time manager, Hillman got ready to return to Japan to manage the Nippon Ham Fighters in defense of their Japan Series championship.
A veteran of 13 years of managing in the New York Yankees minor league system, the 44-year-old Hillman built the Fighters into one of the model franchises in the Japanese major leagues.
It’s not as though he’s a stranger to American baseball, though. After playing college ball for Texas-Arlington, Hillman spent several years as a second baseman in the Cleveland Indians system, getting as high as Triple-A.
Nevertheless, for a big league manager never to have been a player or coach in the majors is highly unusual.
“On many levels and on any given day, the quality of play (in Japan), I believe, is as good as it is here in the United States at the major league level,” Hillman said.
His inexperience in the major leagues, he said, is not something he views as an issue.
“I have no anxiety about that because the game of baseball is the same all over the world. There are different styles and different ways of playing it,” he said. “Really, what matters is the foundational relationships that you can build with your players and putting them in the best possible position to be successful.”
With his wife, Marie, sitting on his left and his father and two sisters in the front row before him, Hillman declared this one of the best days of his life. He will replace Buddy Bell, who finished out the season after announcing in August that he would step down.
The Royals, despite signs of improving, finished last in the AL Central for the fourth year in a row and have not been in the postseason since winning the 1985 World Series.
“I really couldn’t be any happier today,” Hillman said. “I’m a hungry guy. I do not like to lose. I like to start from the ground up and build in such a way where it’s going to be maintained for many years to come. I’m a long-haul guy, too. I’m a loyal guy. I’m bleeding Royal blue already. I’m thrilled to be here. It’s a wonderful day in my life.”
The Royals’ announcement that Hillman had been hired came one day after Joe Torre declined a one-year offer to continue managing the New York Yankees, and Hillman said he already had accepted Kansas City’s offer by then.
Might the Royals’ new manager have been a candidate in New York? He was, after all, Manager of the Year at three levels during his time in the Yankees organization.
“Well, if you read the press, you would think so,” said Hillman, who has maintained a close relationship with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
“I think that there was a good chance of that simply because of my relationship with Brian Cashman. I understand I don’t have a very good bubble gum card. And I understand the needs in that market of having a good bubble gum card. But if anybody has the gumption and the guts to make Trey Hillman a candidate in that market, it would be Brian Cashman. Brian and I have been friends for 17 years.
“I’ll have to default to Brian. He’s really the only one who would know whether I would have been a serious candidate.”