New Royals skipper is up for the challenge
Originally Published: November 10, 2007By Jim Allen | Special to ESPN.com
TOKYO -- Trey Hillman's five-year Japan odyssey has come to an end. Although he is taking over as manager of the Kansas City Royals, Hillman has left a mark in Japan.After his Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters won the Japan Series in 2006, the franchise's first national title in 44 years, the Fighters were on the brink of a historic season in 2007 before being felled in five Series games. "Of course, it's disappointing that it's over," Hillman said after the Chunichi Dragons ended his tenure by retiring all 27 Fighters in a 1-0 perfect-game victory Nov. 2 in Nagoya. "You want it to last as long as it can, especially with the group of guys who are here." After winning the Series last year, the Fighters lost three key players: third baseman Michihiro Ogasawara, the 2006 Pacific League MVP; outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, the most marketable player in Japan; and left-handed setup man Hideki Okajima.
Players tried to do too much, and the team struggled early on, but the Fighters never gave up. With the addition of several untested players, Nippon Ham nearly became the first club to win the interleague title, regular-season league title, playoffs and Japan Series. They finished three wins shy of a nearly perfect season with an underpowered team few expected to get to the promised land. If milking the most wins out of the available talent is the test of a manager, Hillman and his staff deserve high marks for their 2007 season. Although his team had extreme speed as well as pitching and defensive talent -- 21-year-old Yu Darvish may be the best pitcher in Japan -- the Fighters' success was all about execution and, Hillman says, character. Hillman was brought in because Nippon Ham wanted a new manager to spearhead its move from Tokyo to the northern island of Hokkaido. He was a familiar face to the organization, which knew him from its long affiliation with the Yankees. (He spent 13 years managing in the Yankees' minor league system.) When Hillman arrived, the parent company was embroiled in a scandal, and he took it upon himself to help however he could, turning the team into a PR engine despite its tiny footprint in the market. The new skipper instantly went to the people in the organization to share his vision and learn theirs. "[The vision] encompasses what a Fighters player is," Hillman said. "It's not just physical ability. It's a tremendous deep commitment to the organizational goals, providing the best product for the fans. Play until the end, never giving up and playing the game the right way with total respect for the game of baseball and ultimate respect for who we perform for, our fan base, and who we represent, Nippon Ham." Until Hillman came along, there was no clear concept of what it meant to play for the Fighters or work in the organization. With few chances for growth in Tokyo's crowded baseball market -- the team was one of six within a 70-minute train trip from the center of Tokyo -- the Fighters' move to Sapporo in 2004 opened many doors. Energetic Hillman was a perfect fit for the organization's needs on the field and off, where he was an excellent spokesman and turned players on to the rewards of giving back to the community. People who think making winners out of the Royals will be hard should consider the challenge Hillman faced when he arrived in Japan. Although no one doubted his track record for player development, knowledge or passion, Hillman was learning to swim in a completely new culture by diving in at the deep end of the pool. Building relationships and networks with diverse individuals is what Hillman does, but it was difficult when he couldn't speak the language or even pronounce most names at first. "It was tough trying to get around names," he said. "During meetings, we'd be grading out players, and someone would say, 'That left-handed pitcher you're talking about is our minor league second baseman.'"
AP Photo/Toru TakahashiTrey Hillman takes over a Royals team that hasn't been to the playoffs since Dick Howser guided them to the 1985 World Series title.
It's the same situation as I dealt with in the past. I'm accountable for wins and losses.
--Trey Hillman on taking the reins in Kansas City
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