Struggling Royals fire Hillman

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Even as the losses piled up, Trey Hillman never lost the respect of his players or the Kansas City Royals' management.

It was evident in the way the Royals allowed him to manage one last game, in the tears that filled general manager Dayton Moore's eyes as he spoke about the man he hired to rebuild a struggling franchise.

Those losses were just too hard to overlook.

The Royals needed a change and, tough as it was, Hillman had to take the fall.

Hillman became the first manager to get fired this season, bowing out with a graceful exit and a win in his final game on Thursday.

Former Milwaukee Brewers manager Ned Yost will move from the front office to replace Hillman in the dugout for the remainder of the season.

"I love Trey Hillman, I love him as a ... ," said Moore, who needed several seconds to compose himself before continuing. "Obviously, it's a very difficult decision. The process is very difficult, relationships that are formed are very strong, but at the end of the day we've got to make decisions that are best for our baseball team and our organization long-term and that's the conclusion that we made."

Hillman had been considered a manager-in-waiting after spending 12 years in the New York Yankees' organization, where he won several manager of the year awards in the minors, and five more years in Japan. The 47-year-old built a reputation for working well with younger players, being attentive to details, possessing good communication skills.

He just didn't win enough in Kansas City.

The Royals went 75-87 his first season in 2008 but then dropped to a last-place tie in the AL Central at 65-97 in an injury-plagued 2009 season.

Kansas City came entered this season with high expectations after adding a few new pieces and Zack Greinke back following his AL Cy Young Award last season.

Instead, the Royals seemed to take another step back.

The bullpen was a disaster-in-waiting for the second straight season, several starters struggled and the Royals couldn't score for Greinke, who was winless in seven starts before Thursday despite a 2.15 ERA.

Kansas City got off to a slow start, had a dismal 3-8 road trip that ended with a four-game sweep at Texas last weekend and plummeted to the bottom of the AL Central with a seven-game losing streak.

Hillman, who had been criticized at times for his handling of the bullpen and in-game decisions, was 152-207 in two-plus seasons with the Royals, including 12-23 this year.

"There won't be any second-guessing," he said. "I have the ultimate respect for the people I work for, but to put it into perspective, sometimes things in this business work and sometimes they don't."

His replacement has plenty of experience.

Yost became the Brewers' manager in 2003 and was fired late in the 2008 season with the team in the playoff race. The Royals hired him last winter as a special adviser for baseball operations, starting speculation that Hillman was on his way out.

Yost was not in Kansas City on Thursday but was expected to be at the helm for Friday's game against the Chicago White Sox.

"Ned, obviously, has been through what we're going through today," Moore said. "A lot of similarities to Trey, actually, as far as the energy, the relational skills that he has with people, somebody who knows our system."

It still wasn't an easy decision to replace Hillman, at least from an emotional standpoint.

Hillman had formed a strong bond with Moore and the players, his professionalism and straightforward-yet-easygoing approach rubbing off on everyone inside and outside the Royals' clubhouse.

He was just as gracious with the media even after being fired, waiting around until Moore was done with his announcement to take questions from reporters and thank nearly everyone in the organization for more than 30 minutes.

"This game is a roller coaster, but the one thing that stayed consistent over the last couple of years was his character, the way he approached us every single day," right-hander Brian Bannister said. "I know he gave 100 percent to us all the time. He was a man I was proud to play underneath. He was a man I looked up to."

That's why they gave him a chance to manage one last game, to go out with a win, not a lengthy losing streak.

Moore and Hillman started talking about the move after Wednesday night's late-ending 4-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians and picked it up again less than 12 hours later. Moore made the decision but then made the rare, heartfelt gesture of giving Hillman the option of managing one last game.

There wasn't a doubt.

Telling no one but his wife, Hillman tucked his emotions inside and tried to treat the game just like any other while taking in the surroundings for one last time.

The Royals finally did score some runs for Greinke and the Royals won 6-4, though it was already too late for Hillman, who broke the news to his surprised team in a brief training-room meeting after the game.

"It's on your mind because you don't ever have a guarantee that you're going to be in a dugout again, much less a major league dugout," Hillman said. "I was very appreciative of getting a chance to be in the dugout, but I had to keep reminding myself stop thinking about what you've got to cover after the game, you've still got a game to manage. It was pretty challenging, but the goal was achieved."