By Coop Daley
As JapanBall ventures into new tours, new opportunities, and new ventures in 2021, “Chatter Up!” is becoming one of the more interesting showcases of the new year. With each honored guest bringing more to the table for international baseball discussion, there’s almost no room for error, with everyone bringing their A-game and performing like it’s the bottom of the ninth with two outs. After last month’s showcase with Miami Marlins’ General Manager Kim Ng, who could possibly be next?
It turns out we didn’t even have to leave Miami, as Marlins’ Third Base Coach and Defensive Coordinator Trey Hillman joined the call to discuss his managerial work in Major League Baseball (MLB), Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), and the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). Hillman, who won both the Japan Series and Asia Series in 2006 with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, as well as the Korean Series in 2018 with SK Wyverns, took the time to discuss how he got his start in Japan, which he said truly was the Major Leagues:
“I signed a two-year deal in the Fall of 2001, to be the Director of Player Development and the Field Coordinator (for the Texas Rangers),” Hillman said. “I remember the date, it was June 22nd, 2002, and I’m standing in the kitchen here at our home right where I am now in Central Texas, and I get a call from Japan, from Toshi Shimada… he said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know – we’re very interested in you coming to Japan and being our manager next year…’ The very next morning, I was flying to Oklahoma City, and Grady Fuson was meeting me there, our Vice President of Player Development Scouting. And I told him, ‘Hey, I got a call from Japan last night.’ And he was so graceful, he said, ‘You know, you signed a two year deal to be with us and be with me specifically, but it’s not a matter of what’s best for the Texas Rangers, it’s a matter of what’s best for Trey Hillman and his family.’”
In the 70-minute discussion, Hillman touched on a wide variety of topics, largely centered around his managerial tenure with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. Hillman, who became the second foreign-born kantoku(manager) to win the Japan Series (previous Chatter Up guest Bobby Valentine was the first), vividly remembers being tossed in the air during the doh-age celebration, calling it “the best roller coaster you’ve ever been on in your life.”
“I tell you what, man, I’ve had more doh-age than anybody deserves to ever have,” Hillman said. “You know… it never crossed my mind until about the third toss, maybe I’m really, really naive, but I never thought about them dropping me. I just thought about the joy of those guys in that circle celebrating what we had done, and it was extremely humbling to think I was the guy that was getting tossed up. So it’s very humbling… you just look at that, and you go, ‘Seriously, is this really happening?’ And then when it happened again in Korea, they tossed me up in the air there too, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is very, very special.’
Hillman also took the time to discuss his managing philosophy, calling his practices and mentality largely “relational.” With 37 years in professional baseball, Hillman attributed his success to the great relationships he keeps with his coaches, players and superiors, even saying that his current job with the Marlins is to “serve Don Mattingly.” In the discussion, Hillman said that his managing style is “new school, old school,” and touched on the dynamic relationship between analytics and gut feeling in the modern game:
“You know, the analytics, this computer stuff, it’s spot on,” Hillman said. “I mean, it is really, really good. So I would have to go 60% analytics, 40% gut, but the gut part comes with all the prep work that a manager needs to do, and a coach for that matter, with your ‘pre-series’ meetings: whether or not you’re gonna shift or not shift Freddie Freeman and why, and who’s pitching? I would say that [of] the 40% of that gut, I would say maybe 50% or 40% comes from your analytics before you get into that series.”
While Hillman’s focus is now with the Marlins’ defensive strategies, he also mentioned that he was open to a reunion with the Fighters as they march forward in their efforts, with a keen eye to their new stadium opening in 2023. Hillman, who’s impact was felt throughout the “Fighter family” with his managerial style and motto of “Shinjirareni!” (Unbelievable!), called the Fighters his first true “Major League” experience, emotionally remembering his first time experiencing a game with his new team:
“I remember looking at Kazuyuki Shirai, we’re standing for the Japan national anthem in the third base dugout at the Seibu dome, and he understood enough English, and I felt like I was filled with the Holy Spirit to say, ‘Say this to your Japanese brother,’” Hillman said. “I looked at him and I went, ‘Oh, my goodness. This is my first day in the Major Leagues…’ So the most impactful thing for me is that God-blessed day in Seibu, where I actually spent my first major league game, and it was in the country of Japan. And I tell people this all the time, I grew up my whole life, praying and asking God, “Please let me be a major league shortstop. I want to play big league shortstop.” And I’ve said this 1,000 times, I bet: “God’s got a great sense of humor. He didn’t let me be a player in the major leagues, but he allowed me to make it to the major leagues all the way over in Japan.”
Hillman also took the time to discuss helping a young Yu Darvish use the fallout he received for posing semi-nude for a magazine as a learning moment, singing and tumbling practice with the Fighters’ mascot, and sharing lasagna with former Tohoku-Rakuten Golden Eagles General Manager Marty Kuehnert. To read these conversations for yourself, you can check out the full transcript of the call here, or even watch it yourself on our YouTube channel.
With its reach ever expanding, “Chatter Up!” has become a true hall of discussion for the international game, and we’re beyond excited to invite Hillman into its ranks.