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The World’s Most Successful Manager Will Coach First Base for the Marlins

After winning a title in South Korea this year, Trey Hillman will return to MLB on Miami’s staff sporting hardware from the two highest-level non-American baseball leagues. Only time will tell whether he can add an MLB championship to his résumé.

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On November 15, Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich received the most prestigious individual honors of the MLB regular season, the AL and NL MVP awards. On the same day, a hemisphere away, Trey Hillman was also receiving a prestigious distinction: He was named an honorary citizen of Incheon, South Korea’s third-most-populous city. “I wasn’t expecting that,” Hillman says. “That was really nice. They gave us a really nice plaque, and I guess that’s like the key-to-the-city-type deal here in the States. They made a big production out of it.”

Hillman earned the honor for managing Incheon’s baseball team, the SK Wyverns, to a championship in the 10-team Korea Baseball Organization, the country’s top league. He was only the second foreign-born manager in KBO history, which dates back to 1982, and the first to win a title. Hillman, who had previously steered the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to a 2006 title in Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s highest league, and the Kansas City Royals from 2008 to 2010, was also the first to win a championship in the NPB and the KBO and the first to manage in MLB, NPB, and the KBO.

The day after accepting his plaque, he took a 12-hour flight back to Texas, his home state. After two years in Incheon and 295 days away from his ranch in Liberty Hill, the book was closed on his KBO career. Although Hillman, who’ll turn 56 in January, had been tempted to stay, he was more tempted by proximity to his family: his wife, Marie, who had gone back and forth from South Korea four times; his two adult children; his 84-year-old father; and his stepmother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and broken her hip close to the start of the season. Family brought Hillman back, but it couldn’t break his bond with baseball; instead, the latest relocation offered an opportunity to add a new team and a new task to a career that spans several roles and more than 30 years. Earlier this month, the Marlins hired him as their first-base coach for 2019.

Even among baseball lifers, the class of sun-weathered wanderers who begin and end their professional lives in uniform and rarely stray far from the dugout, Hillman’s history stands out. Like almost all coaches, Hillman had a stint as a pro player. Although the versatile infielder went undrafted after graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington, he signed with the Indians and played three minor league seasons from 1985 to 1987, topping out at Double-A. A two-true-outcomes player who never hit a home run in pro ball, he amassed a .179/.311/.214 slash line. After managing only a .487 OPS in A-ball at age 24, he transitioned to a scouting position, covering Texas and Oklahoma for the Indians from late ’87 through ’88.

Scouting was a brief blip in Hillman’s decades in the dugout. In 1989, he joined the Yankees’ A-ball club as a coach, and in 1990, a 27-year-old Hillman made his managerial debut with the Low-A Oneonta Yankees. It went well: He managed the team to a 52-26 record and a New York–Penn League championship, the first of his trio of titles. He continued to serve as a skipper in the Yankees’ minor league system through 2001, spending seasons at every level en route to Triple-A. Over 12 summers, he amassed an 855-771 record (.526 winning percentage) and won three league manager of the year awards. Along the way, he managed each member of the Yankees’ so-called Core Four then watched them go on to greatness while he soldiered on far from the bright lights of the Bronx.

In 2002, Hillman joined the Rangers as the franchise’s farm director. That was a one-year bridge to his breakthrough role with the Fighters, although it could have become a much longer engagement. Hillman had known the Fighters for years because of a working agreement between the NPB team and the Yankees. The Fighters would send a few players to Yankees camp every year, accompanied by interpreter Toshi Shimada, whom Hillman befriended. Shimada later became a Nippon-Ham executive, and in mid-2002, he encouraged the team to hire Hillman. Before Hillman had signed a contract with the Fighters—but after he’d signed an agreement in principle—the Rangers reached out to Hillman about possibly succeeding manager Jerry Narron. Hillman had a lengthy “pseudo interview” with Rangers GM John Hart and owner Tom Hicks, and while no official offer was extended, he got the sense that one would be if he were to stay. “I was led to believe in that conversation that they were very interested in me being their manager,” Hillman says.

Hillman was interested, too; he’d grown up less than 2 miles from the site of the Rangers’ ballpark, and his family still lived in the area. Hillman asked the Fighters whether they’d release him from his deal, but the team told him it had already made too many plans for their first foreign-born manager. “As difficult as it was from an emotional standpoint, thinking about leaving the country for a two-year commitment as opposed to moving back to your hometown and possibly managing a major league team … it was an easy decision, because I’d already given my word,” Hillman says. Instead of hiring Hillman, the Rangers brought in another Yankees alum, Buck Showalter. As promised, Hillman went to Japan.

The Fighters were in need of outside intervention. Since their first and only title in 1962, they had been overshadowed by their cotenants in the Tokyo Dome, the Yomiuri Giants, who drew far larger crowds. The Fighters had finished 61-76 in 2001, which was an improvement over their last-place, 53-84 record the previous season. “No team has been in a deeper funk than the Fighters,” The New York Times wrote.

Hillman didn’t turn the team around overnight, but he did make its funk more fun, practicing a slightly looser leadership style than was typical at the time. (“Unlike other teams, the Fighters smile and laugh,” a Japanese journalist told the Times in 2003.) Gradually, he helped restore the team to respectability, then took it back to the top. In 2006, Hillman’s fourth year at the helm, the Fighters—aided by second-year pitcher Yu Darvish—posted the best record in NPB’s Pacific League and went on to win the Japan Series, making Hillman the second foreign manager to win an NPB title, one year after Bobby Valentine became the first.

In late 2006, Hillman interviewed for the Rangers’, Athletics’, and Padres’ managerial jobs, but he came up empty on all three. He then returned to the Fighters, who again finished with a league-best regular-season record in 2007 but this time lost in the Japan Series. By then, Hillman had his next gig lined up: The Royals had hired him to manage the major league club in 2008, which would mark his first big league job in any capacity.

Speaking of funks, the Royals hadn’t won a World Series since 1985, which was also the last time they’d made the playoffs. “We were in a rebuilding stage in Kansas City, and when I got the job, ownership knew that it was going to be, at a minimum, probably a five-year plan,” Hillman says. It would end up taking eight, but Hillman wouldn’t last nearly that long, becoming the last in a line of seven full-season Royals managers who failed to end the playoff drought.

In 2008, the Royals improved by six wins, giving them their best winning percentage in any season between 2003 and 2013. In 2009, though, they sank to 65 wins, and an 11-23 start to 2010 cost Hillman his job. Royals GM Dayton Moore—two days after saying “Trey’s done a terrific job” and calling him “exactly what this organization needs”—reluctantly told Hillman he was done on May 12, after Kansas City’s seventh consecutive loss, but the brain trust let Hillman manage one more game, hoping the Royals would snap the streak. They did, winning 6-4 behind Zack Greinke. Hillman broke the news to the team after the game, and Moore made it public, briefly losing his composure when speaking to the press. “He’s the man that fired me and still one of my absolute most favorite people that I’ve ever worked with,” Hillman says.

Ned Yost, who’d been axed by the Brewers in 2008 and later joined the Royals as a special adviser, moved down to the dugout and, during the 2015 championship season, became the longest-tenured and winningest manager in the franchise’s lackluster managerial history. Even Yost endured two-plus losing seasons before the Royals jelled into a winning team. “You can’t win championships without good players,” Hillman says. “You can’t keep your job without good players. … We just weren’t very talented at that time.” The team’s highest-paid player, outfielder José Guillén, totaled negative-3.0 WAR in his three Kansas City seasons, and one contemporary Royal describes him as a “major clubhouse distraction,” which made Hillman’s job harder.

Joe Posnanski wrote at Sports Illustrated (and later reiterated) that, aside from the club’s lack of talent, Hillman had failed because he hadn’t been in an MLB clubhouse before and never really recovered from not knowing at first how to behave around big leaguers. “I would disagree with that,” Hillman says, adding, “I really didn’t feel like that was the case. I’d been running games as a manager in a dugout for a lot of years before I entered that [job]. … I didn’t feel like the speed of the game or the stage that I was working on was something that was shattering or … a major impact [on] my psyche to where I couldn’t perform my duties.”

Hillman says he tries to fuse the best qualities of the managers he observed during his years with the Yankees, emulating both Showalter’s “organizational and preparedness skills” and Joe Torre’s “patience and direct, calm approach [to] broaching tough topics.” The Royals did make mental lapses on Hillman’s watch, but he succeeded in maintaining Torre-esque equanimity. “Trey was very calm and concise in his words, deliberate in his actions, and positive in his demeanor,” says former Royals pitcher Brian Bannister, who played for the Royals during Hillman’s whole tenure. “He saw the best in people.”

Cast adrift from the Royals, Hillman joined the Dodgers as the bench coach under Don Mattingly in 2011, serving for three seasons before being fired in October 2013 (which seemed to be as much about Mattingly’s much-maligned moves as it was about Hillman). He spent 2014 as a Yankees special assistant, then bench-coached for the Astros under A.J. Hinch from 2015 to 2016. Aaron Tassano, a former scout for the Cubs, Rays, and Astros who overlapped with Hillman in Houston and now serves as scouting coordinator for the KBO’s Samsung Lions, recalls Hinch “lauding [Hillman’s] incredible organizational skills” and describes Hillman as “a kind, nonjudgmental, patient type of guy” who’s nonetheless “not afraid to let you know he’s the one in charge when need be.” Tassano, who got his master’s in applied linguistics from Busan University of Foreign Studies, says, “There’s clearly something about Trey that appeals to East Asian cultures,” adding, “He’s humble [and] very family oriented. Those attributes tend to play well over there.”

Hillman had just signed a contract to return to the Astros when another opportunity in Asia presented itself: The Wyverns came calling, offering Hillman $1.6 million over two years to try to accomplish in the KBO what he’d once achieved in Japan.

“I really didn’t have any plans of managing again,” Hillman says. “I had already had 20 years of that.” Yet the more he considered the offer, the more excited it made him. A contingent of Wyverns executives went to Texas for a face-to-face meeting with Hillman, who says, “We just kind of clicked from the get-go.” The Wyverns had won three titles from 2007 to 2010, but they’d finished below .500 in each season from 2013 to 2016. For the third time, Hillman would be taking over a team in distress. It would mean passing up extra time on his MLB pension plan and giving up working within driving distance of his ranch, but he decided to do it.

In Japan, Hillman had initially resisted and then increasingly conformed to Japan’s baseball culture, eventually lengthening practice times and calling for sacrifice bunts because that was what his players preferred. In the KBO, though, Hillman wouldn’t defer to tradition. With the Yankees and Astros, he’d witnessed the benefit of an analytical approach, and he intended to export it to Incheon, which he disclosed in his interview with the Wyverns. “There were a lot of raised eyebrows and a lot of question marks, just because they had never gone as deep into the analytics as I had in some of my previous jobs,” Hillman says.

In Asia, managers aren’t middlemen, as they are in the majors’ modern, front-office-centric structure. “The manager is at the top of the food chain,” Hillman says. “You run things the way you want to run them.” Hillman, the second foreign-born manager in KBO history, wanted to run them in a revolutionary way. “We just put in a whole new plan,” Hillman says.

Statistical translations indicate that the KBO is somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A in quality, which Tassano says seems fair. “The pitching is behind both Japan and Major League Baseball, especially from a power standpoint,” Hillman says, estimating that only one or two players per pitching staff touch the mid-90s. As a result, there’s plenty of power on the offensive side, and shifting—which Hillman pioneered with the Wyverns—tends to work well. “We put in shifting, and we did it pretty radically,” Hillman says. “I had to do, I would say, close to 20 interviews about the shifting in the first half of the first year, in 2017. And then, honestly, by after the All-Star break, every team in the league was shifting.” In the U.S., some still call the infield overshift the “Boudreau shift,” after Indians manager Lou Boudreau, who made it famous in the ’40s. In South Korea, they call it the “Hillman shift.”

The Wyverns were aggressive in remaking a moribund roster. “The Asian cultures, both Japan and Korea, have a tendency to sometimes hold on to the veterans out of sentiment and remember some of the glory years, even after their skill sets deplete a little bit,” Hillman says. The Wyverns brought in younger players who hit well. In 2017, they set a single-season record with 234 homers, 56 more than the second-place team. This year, they led the league again. Hillman encouraged his hitters to cut down on K’s by spreading out their stance, choking up, or aiming for the opposite field with two strikes, and as he had in Japan, he urged his pitchers to try to dispatch opponents in three pitches or fewer. The Wyverns also benefited from other imports: In 2018, former major leaguer Jamie Romak tied for second in the league with 43 homers, and former Rays farmhand Merrill Kelly, who signed with the Diamondbacks this month, anchored the rotation.

Just as in Japan, Hillman broke the managerial mold by joking and celebrating with his players. “The KBO and the NPB both, they’re not used to a lot of direct contact from the manager,” he says, adding, “I just explained that I had to manage to my personality, and I wanted them to be comfortable.” In a nod to convention, he typically included coaches in his meetings with players, which were numerous. Asia, Hillman says, is “the land of meetings,” including daily staff meetings and daily medical reports, although he largely did away with traditional postgame meetings.

Asked how he handled the language barrier, Hillman says “not very well.” A lot was lost in translation, and Hillman sometimes consulted bilingual team members without his interpreter’s knowledge to make sure his messages were being conveyed clearly. Even arguing with umpires required his interpreter’s help, although his annoyance needed no translating.

With the Wyverns, the resistance Hillman encountered mostly flowed from his ideas, not his nationality. “That part of it was probably a little smoother transition in South Korea than it was in Japan,” he says. “I think they might be—in the baseball world, at least—a little bit more open-minded.” Although he hired former Yankees colleague Dave Jorn as pitching coach and former Valentine underling Lyle Yates as a quality control coach, Hillman also inherited coaches who had to be convinced. “Change is not always comfortable,” he says. “There were some major bumps in the first year, as far as continuing to build relationships while you’re putting in a new plan, and getting people to trust the plan, and citing examples of how you’ve seen it utilized and work in the past.”

That plan paid off with a winning record in 2017 and—in half the time it took in Japan—a title in 2018, as the Wyverns won 4-2 in the Korean Series, upsetting the juggernaut Doosan Bears, who went 93-51 during the regular season and finished in first by 14.5 games. Hillman went home a hero.

After 33 years in the game, Hillman has links to most teams, but he has a lot of links to his new team, the Marlins. In Miami, he’ll be reunited not only with Mattingly and fellow former Dodgers coach Tim Wallach, but also assistant hitting coach Jeff Livesey, whom Hillman coached in the minors; third-base coach Fredi González, whom he managed against in the minors; and VP of player development and scouting Gary Denbo, whom he worked with for years with the Yankees and the Fighters. And then there’s Derek Jeter, the sculpture-averse CEO, whom Hillman managed in A-ball when the future Hall of Famer was a teenager in his first professional season. “[I] picked the CEO up at the airport and drove him through Burger King before getting him settled in his hotel,” Hillman says. In Incheon, Hillman had his own branded burger, but he’s not looking for fame; if he were, he wouldn’t find it in the box by first base. He just wants to teach and to keep being a baseball man. Like Mattingly, he’s signed for one year, but he says he’s “very hopeful” that his time in Miami “can be a multiple-year thing.”

There are two ways to tell Hillman’s story. In the first framing, his career is a series of close calls. Hillman was managing one level away when the Yankees won their 1999 and 2000 championships. He accepted the Royals job just before Joe Torre declined a one-year offer from the Yankees in October 2007; in an alternate universe, Hillman might have gotten the call to manage the team that Joe Girardi won a World Series with two years later. (Hillman says he’s “not sure” whether he would have been considered for that job.) His successor in Kansas City later took the Royals to back-to-back Fall Classics and won one of them. Hillman also left the Astros for the Wyverns right before Houston’s 2017 title (which he says made analytics an easier sell in South Korea).

But crying over possibly spilt titles presumes an MLB-centric worldview, which Hillman doesn’t hold. “What he’s done is impressive and historic,” Tassano says. “I’m not sure we’ll see this sort of achievement again anytime soon.” Hillman doesn’t daydream about alternate timelines or regret the sliding doors that twice sent him overseas; a religious man, he considers each new stage of his career an act of divine providence or planning.

If that’s the case, God has been busy. According to data provided by Baseball-Reference query wizard Dan Hirsch, only three managers—Al Pedrique, Bill Plummer, and Edwin Rodríguez—since the minor league reclassification in 1963 have managed at eight professional levels, including winter leagues. B-Ref classifies Hillman as one of several skippers with experience at seven levels—but B-Ref doesn’t have data on KBO managers, which means that Hillman is actually also at eight. B-Ref may be missing stints (or lumping together time at different winter or indy levels) for other skippers lower on the list, but on a league level, Hillman has a claim to a tie for the title of most-traveled manager.

It would be satisfying, on a narrative level, if an odyssey like Hillman’s led back to a big league managerial job—and, ultimately, a chance at adding another title to his eclectic collection. When he announced his departure from the KBO, a few people with ties to teams stateside asked whether he wanted to manage at the major league level again. “I said, ‘Not really,’” Hillman says. “I really get a kick out of helping the manager more than I aspire to be a manager.” But that doesn’t mean he’d decline if another offer fell into his lap. “I certainly wouldn’t shun anyone’s interest if they said, ‘Hey, come in here and tell us what you know, and tell us why you’d be a good manager,’” Hillman says. “But to go out and solicit it, and do the political phone calls, and try to get people in my corner, and politick for managerial openings … it’s really not my style.”

A famous Princeton study suggested that increasing one’s income beyond a certain point—about $75,000, circa 2010—doesn’t improve one’s day-to-day mood (although it may augment a deeper sense of fulfillment). Maybe managing works the same way: If you’re in a dugout, neatly filling out lineup cards with the names of pro players, the details don’t matter. “You go to spring training, no matter where you’re at, with what club or at what level or what country—it really doesn’t matter,” Hillman says. “You go with the goal of being a champion, and it really is every bit as thrilling to win the New York–Penn League championship as it is to win the Nippon Professional Baseball championship and the KBO championship.” Then again, an MLB championship might be just a tiny bit better. So far, Hillman has no way of knowing. But one of these years, if divine intervention or complete coincidence wills it, he might find out for sure.

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