Has there ever been a profession where the Peter Principle is more prevalent than baseball? Politics, maybe? Professional football coaches? The Royals have seen their share. The Royals have only had seven general managers, and while it’s too early to grade J.J. Picollo, the track record of his three predecessors leaves little to the imagination. The most recent GM, who we all know and love, has recorded three winning seasons in 16 full years on the job. What was his reward for that? They promoted him, of course!! I rest my case.
Since baseball is firmly entrenched with hiring what is called “baseball lifers”, the principle is alive and well. When the Royals went shopping for a new manager after the 2007 season, new GM Dayton Moore evidently wanted to buck the trend of hiring a recycled field general. When the hiring of Trey Hillman was announced, I must admit, I was a little surprised. I was thinking more on the lines of a Lou Piniella or Buck Showalter-type. Basically, someone who knew what the hell they were doing and had a firm hand on the wheel. Someone who could teach young talent what it took to win.
Hillman came to the job with credentials. The Yankees, for whom he managed in their minor league system, thought enough of Hillman that he was once considered a top candidate for that job, whenever it might open. In 2003, Hillman went to Japan to manage the Nippon Ham Fighters. I just love that name. The Ham Fighters. There must be something lost in translation between Japan and the United States since Ham Fighters makes absolutely no sense over here. Thank God for Google. It says Nippon Ham is the company that owns the team and Fighters is the mascot. That makes more sense. I’d love to be the person who designs the mascot. A fan from Japan fan could also look at some of our team names, such as the minor league Sugar Land Space Cowboys and not understand where that name came from either. I love that one too. I need to get shirts of those two teams.
Hillman excelled in Japan. In 2006, he led the Ham Fighters to their first championship in 25 years. It didn’t hurt his cause to have a young Yu Darvish throwing bullets. Hillman, a Texas native, was one of the finalists for the managerial openings with the Texas Rangers and San Diego Padres after the 2006 season. He was left at the alter by both teams, so he went back to Japan until Moore lured him to Kansas City. The hiring was praised by many baseball insiders, who gushed about Hillman’s commitment to fundamentals and his ability to get the most from his players. Even Joe Posnanski was an early fan, after watching Hillman manage in the Japan Series. One of Posnanski’s friends cautioned him with these words, “Yeah, but he’s never been in the big leagues”. In the end, those words were prophetic.
An early red flag came in spring training when after a game, Hillman gathered his players around home plate, and in full earshot of remaining fans and media, reamed his team out over their lazy baserunning habits. Granted, by the time these guys are professionals, they should know how to run the bases. Not all of them do, but they should. Dayton Moore loved the ass-chewing incident. Many vets on the team did not. Plus, Hillman was known to ride his unicycle around in the outfield. That has nothing to do with baseball, but if I were a player and saw my manager tooling around on a unicycle, my thought would be, “WTF is he doing, trying out for the circus”?
In Hillman’s defense, the team he inherited was old and bad. Jose Guillen was on that team. So was Mitch Maier and Tony Pena Jr. The pitching staff was Gil Meche, a young Zack Greinke, Luke Hochever, Joakim Soria and a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of. The front office was in the early stages of blowing multiple drafts. Free agent signings were mostly uninspiring. That first season, Hillman nudged his charges to a respectable 75-87 finish.
Things got a bit rougher in 2009. Billy Butler, Mark Teahen, Alberto Callaspo and David DeJesus were solid. Zach Greinke was outstanding and won the Cy Young. The rest of the team was warmed over garbage. They limped home with a 65-97 record. In 2010, the team started out slowly, only winning 12 of their first 35 games. In the end, even Dayton Moore couldn’t look past the record. He fired Hillman just days after giving him the dreaded vote of confidence.
”I think Trey’s done a terrific job...Trey is a tremendous leader. Somebody who is very consistent with who he is day in and day out. He’s exactly what our organization needs at this point in time,” said Moore, just days before the firing. Many speculated that owner David Glass had forced Moore to drop the guillotine, and perhaps so. Which begged the question, who was really in charge here?
The autopsy report showed that Hillman was often unable to connect to his players. His management of the pitching staff, especially his usage of Meche, drew round criticism. His lineups were often, shall we say, unusual. Hillman’s fate was quite possibly sealed during a May 9th game at Texas. The Royals went into the bottom of the 3rd inning holding a 2-0 lead. Luke Hochever ran into some trouble, loading the bases with no outs. Josh Hamilton hit into a fielder’s choice, which scored one. The next batter, the original Vlad Guerrero, hit a short fly to left for the second out. Elvis Andrus tagged and beat the throw from Scott Podsednik, whose arm was only slightly better than my grandmothers. Lost on everyone was the fact that Hamilton, on first, took second base without tagging up. Royals’ announcer Ryan Lefebvre was losing his mind as the Royals went about play. The second base umpire, Larry Vanover, patiently waited for the Royals to throw over for the third and final out, but they never did. Play resumed.
Hochever hit Ian Kinsler with a pitch. Hamilton and Kinsler pulled off a double steal. David Murphy hit a two run double to give the Rangers a 4-2 lead. The Royals lost that game by two runs. The point is, Hillman missed the play. First baseman Billy Butler missed the play. David DeJesus was in right field, and Mike Aviles was playing second, and they both missed the play. The Royals had so many blunders in the 2000s: fly balls that dropped between two outfielders. A ball that fell in front of an outfielder who was climbing the wall. A throw that nailed Ken Harvey in the back. Ken Harvey and a pitcher colliding. A mascot who almost put a fan’s eye out with a hot dog. But this play...wow, what can you say.
After departing from the Royals, Hillman coached for the Dodgers, Yankees, and Astros. In 2016 he was hired as the manager of the Korean League SK Wyverns. With that hire he became the first person to manage in Japan, MLB and Korea. In 2018, Hillman’s Wyvern team defeated the Doosan Bears in the Korean Series, giving Hillman the distinction of being the first person to win series titles in Japan and Korea. Hillman came back to the states for the 2018 season as first base coach for the Miami Marlins. He is currently on the Los Angeles Angels player development staff.
Hillman and his wife Marie, have two children, son T.J. and daughter Briana, who is married to former Royal fan favorite, and one of baseball’s true treasures, Brett Phillips. In the end, the stage was too big for Hillman. Had he gone the traditional route, coaching in the big leagues first, then managing, he might have gotten his feet under him which could have led to a successful career. Who knows? Sports are funny that way.