Former Royals manager Trey Hillman, now with the Astros, saw KC’s success coming

Houston Astros bench coach Trey Hillman threw during batting practice before Game 2 of the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium.
Houston Astros bench coach Trey Hillman threw during batting practice before Game 2 of the ALDS at Kauffman Stadium.

On the day he was fired, Trey Hillman emerged from a doorway outside the clubhouse and made a solemn walk across the bottom floor of Kauffman Stadium, to an interview room where general manager Dayton Moore and a room of reporters awaited.

On his final day as Royals manager, Hillman had watched as Zack Greinke led his team to a 6-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians. Then he went to discuss what he already knew. His days as a baseball manager in Kansas City were over.

The night before, on May 12, 2010, Moore had summoned Hillman for a meeting about his future. The Royals were 11-23 and fading early in another lost season. By the next morning, the conversation continued and his fate was sealed. Moore and the Royals were moving on after a 152-207 record in parts of three seasons. Hillman would manage one final game.

“Sometimes things in this business work,” Hillman said. “And sometimes they don’t.”

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Five years later, Hillman remembers his days in Kansas City and says he harbors no bad memories or ill will toward anyone in the organization. As he says this, he is standing on the infield dirt at Kauffman Stadium before Game 2 of the American League Division Series, where he is serving as a first-year bench coach for the Houston Astros. His old employer is colliding with his current employer in the postseason, and Hillman points out to the fountains in left field.

“I’ve always loved this stadium,” Hillman says. “The stadium is beautiful.”

Hillman was here in Kansas City during the stadium’s remodel, he reminds, in the days when there was a constant construction site beyond the outfield walls.

A career minor-leaguer who had found great success in Japan, Hillman came to Kansas City in 2008 to breathe life into a rebuilding franchise. He oversaw a club still in the early stages of Moore’s plan, and in those three seasons, the on-field renovations could never match the off-field ones. Hillman guided a roster of emerging talents (Alex Gordon, Billy Butler and Zack Greinke) and stop-gap measures (Jose Guillen, Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp). The marriage didn’t take.

You live and learn, Hillman says.

On certain days, Hillman would tote a unicycle out to the warning track and use it to exercise in the afternoons before games. The habit remains symbolic. The Royals were 75-87 that first season before dropping to a last-place tie in the AL Central at 65-97 during an injury-plagued 2009 season.

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Below the surface, a horde of talented prospects were coalescing into a powerful nucleus. But Hillman never witnessed the fruits of the Royals’ investments in their young core.

“There was no doubt in my mind that it would eventually get to where Dayton wanted it to go,” Hillman says now. “I had entire confidence that if he were given the opportunity to see the plan through, that he would make it very successful.”

After leaving Kansas City, Hillman spent three seasons as a bench coach for Don Mattingly in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dugout. He was dismissed after the 2013 season, the same year the Dodgers won the NL West for the first time in four years. After returning for one season to the Yankees’ organization, where he once managed in the minors, Hillman returned to the dugout this year, taking a job next to first-year Astros manager A.J. Hinch. The club exceeded expectations, finished 86-76, and vanquished the Yankees in the Wild Card Game in New York. The victory set up a reunions of sorts in the ALDS.

“It was good for us to get that win in New York,” Hillman says, “in that environment, and in the mystique, so to speak, of being in that stadium and in that venue. But actually Kauffman is louder. It’s louder than New York City is. It’s very, very loud.”

The Star's Andy McCullough and Blair Kerkhoff preview Game 3 of the AL Division Series between the Royals and Astros at 3 p.m. Sunday in Houston (TV: MLB Network). The series is tied 1-1.

In Kansas City, there are few traces of Hillman’s tenure left. Left fielder Alex Gordon and reliever Luke Hochevar are the only players left over from Hillman’s final season. (And it’s worth noting that in those days, Gordon was still struggling at third base and Hochever was still an embattled starter.) But Hillman remains happy for his former team, and mindful of those who gave him his first opportunity in the big leagues. On Thursday afternoon, he stopped for a moment to chat with Moore before Game 1.

Hillman says he doesn’t think about managing again, especially now. But his days in Kansas City taught him something, he says, and maybe someday he will get another chance. That discussion, he says, can come later.

“I don’t think about that,” Hillman says. “You always learn things through every experience, no doubt. But I don’t think about that. I want to be right now, in the moment, the best bench coach I can be for A.J. and the Houston Astros.”

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