Commentary

Hillman adamant about changing Royals' losing ways

Updated: April 25, 2008, 12:41 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- High above the puddled sidewalks, Royals general manager Dayton Moore sits in the Dick Howser Suite wearing a perfectly pressed pair of gray slacks and a dead-serious gaze. He was in this same building past midnight just hours ago, humbled over a 15-1 loss to the Indians, chatting with his new skipper about everything except that wretched game. They knew there would be days like these, and that every "You're the man!" chant in early April would inevitably drift to "You [insert-your-favorite expletive]!"

It's three weeks past fairy tales, and Moore looks tired but hopeful because today is another day to make things right. Lightning streaks across the eastern sky, and the shower turns to a downpour.

[+] EnlargeTrey Hillman
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesAfter a 6-2 start to 2008, Trey Hillman's Royals have already run into hard times.
"I don't think we're playing," Moore says.

Three floors below, Trey Hillman is deep in thought, too. He emerges from his office with his white baseball pants planted on a unicycle. He does one quick spin through the clubhouse, then whizzes past the lockers and the men playing cards. As Hillman rides away, his goateed face reveals a boyish smile.

"He is," outfielder Joey Gathright says, "a big goofball."

Goofy? Maybe. But in Kansas City, when a clubhouse can still smile nearly a full month into the season, that's considered progress. Hillman's major league debut has been marked with the euphoria of sweeping the Tigers in the opening series, the feel-good moment of taking two out of three from the Yankees while his father looked on from the stands, and the reality of dropping seven straight games.

But panic -- better yet, apathy -- hasn't taken over, not when Hillman is here. He walks into a room, whether in an uncomfortable suit or a powder-blue uniform, and suddenly a long-suffering sports town has hope. They see Hillman as the gritty young manager who gathered his team at home plate for a 15-minute lecture on baserunning after a 4-3 victory … in spring training. They hear the stories of how he brought a bunch of Japanese baseball players together for a championship without being able to speak their language.

Most of all, Royals fans see Hillman as one of them. A few years back, his Nippon Ham Fighters were in the middle of a serious rut when Hillman showed up in a wig, fake glasses and tattered clothing.

"I'm from another planet," Hillman told the team, which coincidentally went on a roll right after that meeting.

He wasn't that far off.

*****

Royce Hillman is a kindly old gentleman with a Texas twang who introduces himself as "Trey's daddy." He doesn't talk about it much, but the elder Hillman once made hearts flutter, too. He had a rocket arm strapped to a teenage body and led his West Texas State football team to the Tangerine Bowl. But Royce gave up those dreams before Trey was born. By day, Royce was a teacher, a coach and, eventually, a principal. At night, he worked in the Rangers' ticket booth at Arlington Stadium while little Trey tagged along.

The boy seemingly could do everything -- football, baseball, basketball and choir. He had the lead role in "Bye, Bye, Birdie." Royce says his son, who had a Christmas CD made in Japan, has a beautiful voice.

"Well, I'm prejudiced," he says. "But I thought he did."

But unlike the bonus babies Trey coached in the Yankees' farm system, nothing, in baseball, came easily for him after high school. At the University of Texas at Arlington, he was considered a scrappy, tenacious ballplayer who put in long hours to hit .442 his senior season. He was drafted by the Cleveland Indians, but never could get past Double-A ball.

"Failure was never an option," says Dave Owen, a former UT-Arlington shortstop who now serves as Hillman's bench coach, "and really, that's pretty cool."

At 25, reality set in for Hillman, who had two options -- spend one more season fighting for a promotion or become the youngest scout in the country.

It took two years as an Indians scout, then 12 as a manager in the Yankees' farm system, sleeping in tiny hotel rooms while his sisters bunked on bathroom floors, before Hillman finally got his shot to make decent money and become a big league manager … in Japan.

I was never part of the Royals' system before six months ago, but from the day I was hired as manager, I will fight tooth and nail to do everything I can for the reputation of this organization.

--Trey Hillman, Royals manager

The Fighters offered him one year to turn around a historically floundering franchise. Hillman said he'd need two. In his second season, the team made it to the playoffs. In his fourth season, Nippon Ham won the Japan Series and the Konami Cup.

"He definitely changed the Fighters," says Ken Iwamoto, Hillman's translator for five years. "We were losers for a long, long time, and he changed that team around. It was not only about a team, but he also created a lot of fans. I can humbly say he changed the entire island of Hokkaido. Baseball is now the biggest sport in Hokkaido. I'd say he's a big part of history."

Aside from missing his family, who spent just part of the year in Japan, the language barrier was by far Hillman's biggest challenge. How does a man who loves to talk get by in a world where no one understood what he was saying? He had Iwamoto, whom Hillman now considers a part of his family.

But Hillman needed more. When he needed space, he'd ditch Iwamoto and communicate with his players through drawings and hand signs. He'd walk off, alone, and talk to himself.

"I talk a lot," Hillman says. "I apologize up front to players and coaches for talking a lot. But I'm passionate about what I do, and my language has been suppressed for five years."

*****

Back in America, Hillman never really stops talking … or displaying his emotions. He'll defend a young player in a slump or wrap an arm around an infielder who needs a lift. He'll speak his mind, even when it seems to smack against decorum.

Nearly two months later, "the home plate meeting" from spring training still has legs. It is talked about on message boards and radio shows. It is used as an example -- for right or wrong -- of how Hillman can get tough.

Critics said it must've been embarrassing, calling out big league veterans in front of a sizable crowd. In reality, less than 6,000 people saw it -- the Arizona Diamondbacks and roughly 5,500 fans wandering home from a meaningless Cactus League game.

"You can think that it's college, high school kind of stuff, but it's all about getting in and getting the meeting off," says veteran second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. "He had to get it off his chest. Everyone was there, and he did."

Moore says the meeting has been overblown by the media. No doubt the local media needs all the material it can get after covering 12 losing seasons in the last 13 years. Moore watched the lecture from his office window along the left-field line, then turned to a co-worker.

"This guy," Moore said, "has got a chance to be really special."

They are like-minded and quickly bonded during a two-day interview session last fall in Japan. Neither man is willing to put a number on the 2008 season. While fans might be happy with the Royals going .500, Hillman and Moore won't put a lid on expectations.

But back to the lecture: Moore didn't see it as a coach's rant. He saw a passionate man quickly addressing an issue and establishing consistency. Had Hillman laid back and dismissed it as an early mistake in spring training, how could he command his players' attention in August?

"I think it's good for our game," Moore says. "Go ask George Brett what he thought of it. George Brett thought it was really impressive. And Trey Hillman wasn't trying to make a statement. Trey Hillman was trying to be himself.

"I didn't even think anything of it, because I know where the guy's heart is. His heart is with the players."

*****

It is two hours before the first pitch when Hillman walks to the end of the dugout to meet a sick 11-year-old girl and her little brothers. Just before Hillman shakes hands, an adult introduces them.

"This is the manager. He tells everybody what to do."

Hillman chuckles.

"Did you guys see the game last night?" he says. "Fifteen to one. Know whose fault that is?"

The kids shake their heads, and Hillman places his thumb on his chest.

He blames himself for everything: the losing skid, the blowout, the storm system that doesn't seem to lift. Hillman rubs his fingers through his graying beard -- Moore wishes he'd shave that thing -- and seemingly has the weight of a town on his back. But he'll never show it.

In Hokkaido, Iwamoto says, his former players will stream into the Fighters' clubhouse when it's long after bedtime in Kansas City, searching through the paper, hoping Hillman's team won. They'll wonder if he still has the wig. And for one moment, their planets won't seem so far away.

"I was never part of the Royals' system before six months ago," Hillman says, "but from the day I was hired as manager, I will fight tooth and nail to do everything I can for the reputation of this organization.

"I love high expectations. Raise 'em. I didn't come here to get 10 games better than last year. That's not me. If you get somebody who comes to be 10 games better than last year, I'll show you somebody who's not very passionate about what they're doing."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.

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