SURPRISE, Ariz. – Here's the thing about Trey Hillman: After a 15-minute conversation with him Friday afternoon I pretty much have decided the Kansas City Royals not only will win the World Series but also will be out practicing their first-and-second bunt coverage 20 minutes after the last out. Then they'll carry the bus back to the team hotel.
It was cold here Friday. It was wet.
Players hopped around at their positions, shaking the chill from their early-camp joints. Those who were not on the field huddled in small groups in foul territory, maybe discussing the virtues of fungo bats as firewood and infield tarps as temporary shelter. They looked about one more brisk gale from going Donner Party on the groundskeepers, who leaned on their rakes nearby, suspecting nothing.
Hillman, however, squatted behind the pitcher's mound during a simulation drill and pressed the Royals to make smart plays, to keep their balance, to make an effort to win a ballgame, right here, right now.
Spectators drifted away, lured by their car heaters. The grounds crew grew weary.
A drizzle rallied into rain.
But the Royals, at least one of whom (Billy Butler) hadn't been born the last time the team went to the playoffs, pounded their gloves and staggered onward, and Hillman loved it.
Asked later if he had considered maybe getting the boys out of the rain a little early, save it for another day, Hillman blinked hard a couple times.
"Never even thought about it," he said blankly. "Never entered my mind."
See, the thing is, he said, "I don't particularly care for [the weather], but it very possibly could be this way Opening Day in Detroit. We're gearing up for it. … You've got to be able to adapt and adjust."
Hillman calls it A-A-O. He calls it that a lot.
For a generation, and through all kinds of stabs at leadership, the Royals have been just the Royals, an often peripheral big-league franchise. Last season, one in which they finished last in the American League Central, was considered a growth season because they finished less last than usual.
But, you know, there's movement here. The electric intensity in Hillman – along with equally rapt GM Dayton Moore, who didn't miss a drill on Friday – filled the space between the raindrops. They'll put talented players – many of them still developing, but talented nonetheless – at nearly every position. There's life in the pitching staff, whose team ERA last season was a few hundredths of a run beneath the American League average.
In a tent outside the Royals clubhouse, surrounded by reporters, Hillman, I'm pretty sure, was the only one not shivering.
"I do know this," he said. "You cannot win a championship without the expectation of winning it."
By "championship," to confirm, he meant the World Series. In America. North America.
"Every year, somebody overperforms," he said. "That's what we have to do."
Already, he'd turned the moribund Nippon Ham Fighters into winners. Before that, he'd managed in the minor leagues for 12 years, all with the Yankees, distinguishing himself in an exhausting, often thankless routine.
"We wanted a manager here that everybody in our organization aspires to play for," Moore said. "Trey has those qualities that will attract players to him."
Now, it remains to be seen how Hillman drags some big hits out of those players and some runs out of a really poor offense. They're waiting on Teahen and DeJesus, hoping Butler and Gordon get it quickly, figuring with a little luck they all find their big-league bearings together. It doesn't happen very often.
"They do need to emerge and be the players who are producing and developing an attitude where every time we step on the field we believe we should win the baseball game," Moore said.
Otherwise, A-A-O, baby.
As Hillman told his players before their first full-squad practice, "I don't want to think about anything else but winning. And I want that now."
He doesn't want to hear about building an organization. Or the strength of the AL Central. Or the stud in the manager's chair in Detroit (whom, incidentally, he admires greatly), or the disparity in payrolls.
"Man," he said, "just worry about what you do. That's a different perspective for all of us. But that's what we have to do."
In the months since he took the job, Hillman has considered the intermediate goals, most set from outside the organization. How about getting out of last place? A .500 season? A three-year plan? You know, something realistic?
"That's it?" he said. "That's what you're looking for? Sorry, that's not it. Quite frankly, that's not good enough for me."
So, he'll demand wins, and all that goes into them, and he'll expect championships, and all the more that goes into them. He'll do it with a hard edge and an open door, building relationships on a soft field in late February, building expectations when they present themselves.
"And if people want to see me as crazy," he said, "I don't care."
- Trey Hillman