KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Trey Hillman's going-away present was one final game. His previous 358 as manager of the Kansas City Royals were a collective failure, disastrous enough to warrant his firing less than a quarter of the way into his third season. And still, the franchise offered him a parting gift.
Hillman was axed Thursday morning, and there he was that afternoon, in his uniform, wearing his No. 88, treating it just like any other day, any other ballgame. It was nothing of the sort, of course. He was gone after the game, no matter its outcome. This was merely a chance for closure, a kind gesture for a company man who simply wasn't good enough at his job.
Manager Trey Hillman's two-plus seasons of ineptitude ended Thursday. A look at his run with the Royals:
|YR||W||L||Finish in AL Central|
And he won. Gone was the seven-game skid that, in part, got Hillman canned. In the books was the first victory for Zack Greinke(notes), the reigning American League Cy Young winner who somehow went into mid-May without a win. Done, in all likelihood, was the major league managerial career of Trey Hillman, on his terms, with the most bittersweet win of his life, a 6-4 triumph over Cleveland at Kauffman Stadium.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity to get to manage today," Hillman said. "You don't want to go out on a seven-game losing streak. That's for sure."
Losing defined Hillman's tenure in Kansas City. He came from Japan, where he led the Nippon Ham Fighters to a Japan Series championship, had a bar named after him and was feted nationwide. Here, he was just another Royals manager who couldn't make lemons into lemonade.
The Hillman years were a succession of nadirs. Following a game in his first spring training, he chewed out his team on the field – a no-no that lost him respect in the clubhouse which he never gained back. Hillman's managerial philosophy vacillated almost daily, and he was sensitive to the second-guessing that accompanied his inconsistencies. Tactical geniuses can thrive without bedside manner. On-field flakes survive as long as they unite their 25 players. Managers without either characteristic always fail.
"It wasn't surprising – at all," Hillman said. "It really wasn't surprising. … It's kind of like a sixth sense. You can feel it. You can feel it coming."
The reality punched Royals general manager Dayton Moore repeatedly over the weekend against the Texas Rangers. First, Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt(notes) dropped a popup – and Hillman fined him for it, setting quite the ugly precedent: Bad play equals no pay. Then he left Gil Meche(notes), the Royals' iffy-armed starter, in for 128 pitches with the team trailing 3-2. The most egregious mistake came in the series' third game: Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton(notes) somehow ended up on second base despite failing to tag up on a flyout. None of the nine players on the field, nor the two dozen more Royals personnel in the dugout, noticed he hadn't tagged.
Though Hillman blamed first baseman Billy Butler(notes), the ineptitude traced its way back to the manager's office and all the way to Arkansas, where owner David Glass lives. Glass spoke with Moore. The words resonated. Moore, who as recently as Monday backed Hillman, whacked his hand-picked manager.
"There comes a point in time where you need to make changes," Moore said. "And we've got to make changes what's best for our organization long-term."
Tears pooled in Moore's eyes Thursday. He paused for 15 seconds to gather himself. This hurt. Not only was Hillman's failure his, too, Moore regarded him as a friend and kindred spirit. They spent more time together than with their families. Sports breeds workaholism, and Moore and Hillman never quit on the Royals, never quit on each other. They simply never got it right.
"Sometimes things work in this business," Hillman said, "and sometimes they don't."
They didn't, though it did not prevent Moore from trying to give Hillman a final chance at doing what he so loves. Even if he wasn't a good major league manager, Hillman relished the challenge. Thirty people get to manage a big league ballclub at any given time. Baseball men spend decades trying to get one shot, and to see it wither away – to not just understand its finiteness but know the exact point at which it would end – could have destroyed Hillman.
Instead, when Moore spoke with him Thursday morning and offered him the chance to wear his uniform one more time, "I didn't hesitate," Hillman said. "I can tell you that. I knew how many games in a row we'd lost. I know how hungry this community is, and ownership, and everybody to see us win. Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made. That might've been one of them. I don't know if it was a difficult decision for him to come in and say, 'Here's an option.' I just wanted to appreciate it."
He swallowed hard.
"I'm glad we won."
Hillman didn't celebrate the victory any differently, nor did his players. This was no win-one-for-the-Gipper situation. The Royals didn't know Hillman had been fired. Neither did his coaching staff. Secrecy was part of the pact. Only after Hillman called a postgame meeting – a rarity following a victory – did the players sense something was awry.
He gathered them in a room and spoke, for three minutes, with the team he guided to a 12-23 record. Hillman said he had been fired and that he appreciated managing them. He said: "You've got 127 games. Get it right." And then he retreated to a news conference.
Inside the clubhouse, the Royals sat stunned. "It was grim," outfielder Mitch Maier(notes) said. Players didn't shower. They just watched the in-house TV feed and saw Hillman talk for 32 minutes, thanking people and discussing his deficiencies and replaying what must now seem like an odd scene: sitting in his office earlier this season and talking strategy with Ned Yost, the Royals special assistant who will take over as manager for the rest of the year.
There was regret in his voice, and disappointment, too, but no bitterness. Hillman managed in the major leagues, and he could always say he won his final game.
"It's on your mind," he said. "You don't have a guarantee you're going to be in a dugout again, much less a major league dugout. I was very appreciative of the fact of getting to be in the dugout. But I kept having to remind myself, 'Stop thinking about what you've got to cover after the game. You've got a game to manage.' It was pretty challenging.
"But the goal was achieved."
After he wrapped up his final words in a Royals uniform, in his No. 88, he left the room with his head held high. After two-plus years of losing, Trey Hillman, the only unemployed man to ever manage a baseball game, went out a winner.
- Trey Hillman