In 2003, after 12 years as a minor league manager in the Yankees organization, and a brief stint as director of player development for the Rangers, Texas native Trey Hillman packed his bags and went East, becoming the manager of Sapporo's Nippon Ham Fighters.
In 2006, Hillman's Fighters won a Japan Series title, defeating the Chunichi Dragons, four games to one.
We talked to Hillman about the secret to his Japanese success.
Here's what he had to say:
I knew nothing. I studied as much as I could about the Japanese game before I came over. I scoured the Internet. I talked to players who had played over here. And I watched Tom Selleck in "Mr. Baseball" about 15 times, looking for little things that I might find when I arrived. I read a lot, and practiced saying Japanese names. I was used to saying American and Latino names, but it took some doing to get Japanese names to fit into my brain.
I wanted to show I had a desire to fit into the culture and a desire to learn. That's very important in Japan. I think if you come over and are resistant to the rituals and customs, on and off the field, you have a hard time. But if you come in and show them a willingness to learn, if you come in with an open mind and heart, you are welcomed by the people inside and outside of baseball.
The Nippon Ham Fighters called me late in the summer of 2002, after a time when the team had been down. They were in Tokyo at the time [they've since moved to Sapporo], and they were having a hard time competing with the Yomiuri Giants, who are like the Yankees in Japan. The organization decided they needed a big change, and they called me.
I was excited. I'd been interested in the possibility of managing in Japan for a long time. I had eight different Japanese players on my Hawaiian winter league team in the mid-1990s, and I had fallen in love with their work ethic, their dedication and their loyalty to the game.
I wanted to think deeply about what would and what would not translate from the American game to the Japanese style of play. My theory from day one was to take the best of both worlds. I had to be careful how fast I moved. You can't come in and shock a system. I remember I tried to move our guys to a five-man pitching rotation [six-man rotations are typical in Japan], and the move was too quick, and made the staff too uncomfortable. I'm a relationship, comfort-level kind of guy, and if you pay attention, you can feel the atmosphere drop when things aren't going well. If the atmosphere drops, your productivity is down throughout the team. People get uncomfortable.
Rituals and customs are very important in Japan. There are ways they like to do things, and have done them for years. If you ask them to deviate from that, you have to move slowly. Even though you may have the title of the boss, there isn't enough saki and power in all the land for you to accomplish what you want to accomplish. If you don't meet the guys on the same page, you're not going to get anywhere.
The Japanese players are a coach's dream. The loyalty and dedication, the willingness to work, it's outstanding. When I was with the Yankees, I believed we were doing it right, and that our players throughout the development system were the cream of the crop in terms of their effort and skill. But the Japanese players, my guys with the Nippon Ham Fighters, they will flat work all day. They are on a mission. They do not let up. And that's part of their comfort level, actually. They want to be immersed in the game.
My first couple of years here I held shorter practice sessions in spring training, trying to emphasize quality more than quantity in terms of preparation, but I had guys who were very uncomfortable with the change. The best way I can put it is that it wasn't satisfying their internal needs, it wasn't consistent with their individual sense of how to be ready to play the game.
Is it different than the game in the West? Yes. Is it inferior? No.
--Trey Hillman on Japanese baseball
I try to make observations long before I make changes. I've probably listened twice as much as I did when I coached in the United States. I struggle with the language, and there are customs differences. But the guys are great guys, and they want very much to be excellent ballplayers.
We've come to each other from two different sides of the world, really. I have things to teach them, and they have things to teach me. One thing that I've learned over time is that there is a logic here, that pretty much everything that goes on in this country makes a kind of sense, socially. So I have come to see the way the players approach drills and practices, with such intensity and focus, as something that's part of how people throughout the culture think about their work and their responsibility to do something great for the good of the whole group, or organization, or community.
I've brought things to it, too, I hope. I've tried to bring consistency and a positive approach. I've tried to have fun with the players, and let them know when I think they're doing a good job, and communicate to them that the game is something you work at, but the game is also something that's fun.
The feeling for baseball in Japan is so strong. It's like going to a college football game. The fans are the most fanatical fans you ever want to see. I've been to Yankee Stadium when it's going crazy, but I told our fans here that, as far as I'm concerned, they're the No. 1 fans in the world. I mean that sincerely. In 2005, we had a fifth-place finish out of six teams, and I remember it was the last homestand of the season. We had no chance to make the playoffs, and we were drawing 30,000 fans a night for that series. They are so crazy for baseball, and so loyal to the Fighters. It's incredibly rewarding to be a part of it.
When I first came to Japan, I thought there was a significant gap in the level of play between East and West, but that gap is narrowing rapidly. If people didn't wake up to the strength of Japanese baseball with the World Baseball Classic, then they just weren't paying attention.
It's a different game in Japan. We play more for one run than the big inning. The players are different: Japanese players are in better condition in terms of their lower-half agility, and American players are stronger with their upper bodies. But what we play over here is major league-caliber baseball.
I know there are people in the West who hear that kind of statement and laugh at it, but I truly believe it. I truly believe the realities are changing and the gap is narrowing.
There is tremendous pitching here, for example. Enough good pitching that I don't believe our team has to rely on paying more for foreign players to come over here and pitch. We are a small-market team, and we've tried to emphasize growing our own talent.
There is a growing feeling in the West, I think, with the signing of [Daisuke] Matsuzaka and [Kei] Igawa, that Japanese baseball is becoming a quality minor league system for major league baseball. I don't think that's the way it should be in the long run. I think the game is going to go global. I really do. I think we're on a crash course for some sort of truly international competition somewhere down the line.
I tell our players and our team and our organization that the best way to be a part of that, and to keep Japanese players in Japan as a part of that, is to understand, as I've come to understand, how good Japanese baseball truly is. For years, we've all thought that it was inferior to baseball in the West, and maybe it was, but that's changing. I want to see Japanese players remaining committed to Japanese baseball because it is every bit as competitive as baseball in the major leagues. I want to see it begin at the grassroots level, with kids in the schools who believe this game is as valuable and impressive as I believe it is.
Is it different than the game in the West? Yes. Is it inferior? No.
There will be more and more developments in the direction of baseball being a global game in the years to come, and Japan will be a big part of that. There are economic difficulties here, and we see that with teams sometimes eager to post a valuable player like Matsuzaka. But I think the way to address that in the long run is to tell the kids of Japan, at a young age, that Japanese baseball is for real, and is every bit as important as baseball in the West.
Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com.