New Royals skipper is up for the challenge

TOKYO -- Trey Hillman's five-year Japan odyssey has come to an end. Although he is taking over as manager of the Kansas City Royals, Hillman has left a mark in Japan.

After his Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters won the Japan Series in 2006, the franchise's first national title in 44 years, the Fighters were on the brink of a historic season in 2007 before being felled in five Series games.

"Of course, it's disappointing that it's over," Hillman said after the Chunichi Dragons ended his tenure by retiring all 27 Fighters in a 1-0 perfect-game victory Nov. 2 in Nagoya. "You want it to last as long as it can, especially with the group of guys who are here."

After winning the Series last year, the Fighters lost three key players: third baseman Michihiro Ogasawara, the 2006 Pacific League MVP; outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, the most marketable player in Japan; and left-handed setup man Hideki Okajima.

Players tried to do too much, and the team struggled early on, but the Fighters never gave up. With the addition of several untested players, Nippon Ham nearly became the first club to win the interleague title, regular-season league title, playoffs and Japan Series.

They finished three wins shy of a nearly perfect season with an underpowered team few expected to get to the promised land.

If milking the most wins out of the available talent is the test of a manager, Hillman and his staff deserve high marks for their 2007 season. Although his team had extreme speed as well as pitching and defensive talent -- 21-year-old Yu Darvish may be the best pitcher in Japan -- the Fighters' success was all about execution and, Hillman says, character.

Hillman was brought in because Nippon Ham wanted a new manager to spearhead its move from Tokyo to the northern island of Hokkaido. He was a familiar face to the organization, which knew him from its long affiliation with the Yankees. (He spent 13 years managing in the Yankees' minor league system.)

When Hillman arrived, the parent company was embroiled in a scandal, and he took it upon himself to help however he could, turning the team into a PR engine despite its tiny footprint in the market.

The new skipper instantly went to the people in the organization to share his vision and learn theirs.

"[The vision] encompasses what a Fighters player is," Hillman said. "It's not just physical ability. It's a tremendous deep commitment to the organizational goals, providing the best product for the fans. Play until the end, never giving up and playing the game the right way with total respect for the game of baseball and ultimate respect for who we perform for, our fan base, and who we represent, Nippon Ham."

Until Hillman came along, there was no clear concept of what it meant to play for the Fighters or work in the organization. With few chances for growth in Tokyo's crowded baseball market -- the team was one of six within a 70-minute train trip from the center of Tokyo -- the Fighters' move to Sapporo in 2004 opened many doors.

Energetic Hillman was a perfect fit for the organization's needs on the field and off, where he was an excellent spokesman and turned players on to the rewards of giving back to the community.

People who think making winners out of the Royals will be hard should consider the challenge Hillman faced when he arrived in Japan. Although no one doubted his track record for player development, knowledge or passion, Hillman was learning to swim in a completely new culture by diving in at the deep end of the pool.

Building relationships and networks with diverse individuals is what Hillman does, but it was difficult when he couldn't speak the language or even pronounce most names at first.

"It was tough trying to get around names," he said. "During meetings, we'd be grading out players, and someone would say, 'That left-handed pitcher you're talking about is our minor league second baseman.'"

Two years ago, Hillman admitted his Japanese language ability still stank, but he has connected on a personal level despite a style of communication here that was as alien to him as the words themselves.

In Japan, where saving face is essential, there is an elaborate method for stating disagreement without being confrontational. The system, called tatemae, often leads to misunderstanding even among native Japanese. Hillman -- without the background to distinguish between a "yes" that actually means "you've got to be kidding" and a "yes" that means "I agree completely" -- had a heck of a mountain to climb. Little by little, he got players to open up and say what they thought, not what they thought he wanted them to say.

A catalyst in the process was his ability to reach his veteran shortstop, Makoto Kaneko, whose communication skills were a match for Hillman's own.

"If you've got a booger hanging out of your nose, he'll come up to you and say, 'Hey! You've got a booger hanging out of your nose,' " Hillman said. "From that standpoint, he's not very Japanese.

"As far as communication goes, I achieved the level I wanted to get to, but you can't really be satisfied. You have to always strive to get better."

The message might be in a foreign language, but the essential element is reaching individuals, finding the best page for them to all be on, then enjoying the common effort and camaraderie. But at the same time, he's the boss and is evaluating all the time.

"I think my skill set, from a leadership standpoint in baseball, has grown," he said. "But more importantly, I think I've grown more as a human being, as a person. I think the residual effect of that is having an opportunity with this group of guys to have more success because I've grown as a person."

Whenever asked how his offense functioned this year despite having so few runners on base, Hillman cited the character of his players as the glue that held the championship effort together.

It's the same way he talks about his next assignment in Kansas City.

"I think they've got good front-office leadership because I think it's integrity based," Hillman said. "I think that things are well thought out, very calmly thought out without a whole lot of knee-jerk reactions.

"I think it's going to be a very good environment to work with a group of core players who want to win. I've had an opportunity to meet ownership, and there's no doubt in my mind that they want to win."

With the Fighters, Hillman was used to not having a big budget. He didn't seem to spend much time worrying about it, though.

"How good is the plan?" he said during spring training. "How good am I at making sure the plan is implemented and helping lead with what the plan is? How good are the coaches at motivating our hitters to work on the right things, our pitchers to hit the glove, our defenders to make the routine plays, our hitters to concentrate on OBP?"

It's the same situation as I dealt with in the past. I'm accountable for wins and losses.

--Trey Hillman on taking the reins in Kansas City

A year ago, when interviewing with the Rangers, Padres and Athletics, Hillman was asked what he wanted to bring from Japan, and the answer was those things he felt would lead to winning more games -- such as taking infield more often. How his ideas are implemented, however, will depend entirely on what he learns from talking to individuals.

"I don't think I'll have any trouble getting the support to do the things I want to do on the field," he said. "That part of the equation is not an anxiety situation for me. I feel confident that I've adjusted enough over here. I have a history of adjusting and working along with people, rather than dictating and mandating.

"I think that if we can stay with ... the plan on the field and the plan from the front office, and bring a few pieces in to help us get that going ... we can win a championship.

"It's the same situation as I dealt with in the past. I'm accountable for wins and losses. I go into that knowing that and do the best I can with the pieces that I have. Don't complain."

When his Fighters' run finally finished, Hillman congratulated the opposing manager and wished him well in the upcoming Asian Series against the champions of Taiwan and South Korea.

"[I feel] disappointed to lose," Hillman said. "But at the same time, as well as they performed, you've got to congratulate them and be happy for them -- as difficult it is for us."

Jim Allen covers baseball for The Daily Yomiuri in Japan.