Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hillman Exits With Class

The detachment between professional athletes and coaches and their fans is greater than ever. The players are making gobs of money that most of us could only ever dream about. In the youtube and twitter era we've fallen into, coaches and players have become extremely robotic and predictable in their choice of words to the fans and media in fear of the negative backlash their honesty could result in.

In turn, we've somewhat become trained to view them as if they're actually robots. When Peyton Manning throws an interception or LeBron James misses a shot, it's completely unacceptable. The cheers turn to boos in no time, and happy fans turn into savage, bloodthirsty monsters whose hunger can only be satisfied by more victories and championships. We're relentless.

As fans, we forget that the people we're bashing and criticizing are fathers and mothers and daughters and sons and so on. Really, we forget they are human beings.

Every once in awhile as fans, we're put in awkward positions because of this. The human being inside an athlete or coach will show for a moment. Sometimes a player will cry after winning it all. A coach will cuss out a reporter after a tough game. And sadly, there are times when a player or coach becomes ill and has to leave the sport, possibly for good.

When this happens, as fans, we come to an odd realization. Things are put in perspective. It's almost a feeling of guilt. Or shame.

I found myself feeling that way today while watching Trey Hillman's final press conference as manager of the Kansas City Royals.

This was obviously a tough decision for General Manager Dayton Moore.* When he made the initial announcement, he was choking up and had to stop at one point to collect himself. Moore handpicked Hillman from Japan where he had much success, and promised Royals fans that the two together would be the key to the organization finally turning the corner.

*This decision may not have been Moore's at all. My guess was Moore prefered to let Hillman's contract run out at the end of this year, and then not retain him. There's a lot of speculation as to whether or not the manager's firing came straight from the top. While some may see this as a good sign, possibly that owner David Glass is showing he won't tolerate losing, I see it differently. If Glass wants to show us he wants to win, it's time to open up the checkbook and raise the payroll. Stepping on Moore's toes and trying to do his job for him only shows that Glass has no clue how to run a successful operation. Of course, we already have Wal-Mart as evidence of that.

This was Moore's first hire, let's not forget. The tears in his eyes were mostly because he had to fire someone who had become his friend, but also because today was the official public admission that his first major organizational decision was a mistake. Hiring and firing managers is something only unsuccessful general managers get in a habit of doing. By firing Hillman, Moore has put the pressure and potential blame solely on himself, at least in the eyes of ownership. If the tide doesn't turn soon, he'll surely be next.

It was surreal watching Hillman address the Kansas City media for the last time. I mean, we all knew this day would come, but few of us thought it would be this quick.

His eyes were watery and his voice scratchy, but his head was held high. The manager whose job we've been calling for since mid-last season finally opened up to us. He told us how he and Moore had talked late last night, after a shutout loss to the Indians and the Royals' seventh in a row, about how it was probably time for a change. He spoke of going out on top, so after the official decision was made this morning, he vowed to manage his last game today in hopes of leaving with a victory.

He also talked about how new manager (at least for the rest of this season) Ned Yost will have a clean slate to work with; Hillman didn't want any of the ex-manager's stuff sitting around the office for Yost to work around, and he was hoping to get started cleaning his things out right after the press conference.

He thanked many people, mostly insiders and coaches within the organization and around the league. Somewhat surprisingly, he thanked the media, too. You could really feel that the man just had the weight of the world taken off his shoulders. Hillman never spoke with such freedom in his pre- and post-game interviews, and maybe that's part of why things went south.

He made it clear he felt better days would come for the Royals, sooner rather than later. He so desperately wanted to be the man to turn the Royals around, and probably put too much pressure on himself in the process.

Anyway, though, Hillman left the Royals today with class.

The guilt I felt today was not because of my or anyone else's criticism of the manager. He was deserving of most-to-all of it.

The guilt stems from the shock I felt when Hillman spoke today. I saw a person and not a machine. He spoke differently. He was unrecognizable. It was almost eerie. I had forgotten that beyond the uniform and the manager and the baseball machine was just a man. No longer having to choose his words carefully, he was refreshingly honest. It's something that doesn't happen very often, and as a fan, you really have to appreciate and savor it.

After the meeting with Moore this morning, Hillman told only his wife of the bad news. The other coaches and players had no idea what was about to happen. Somehow though, they played like they knew.

Down three runs with another wasted Zack Greinke start looming, the Royals stormed back for a 6-4 victory. Greinke picked up his first win of the year. The team seemed to be playing with a little heart - it was weird. There were smiles all around, and there were no sacrifice bunts to be seen. Even Hillman was smiling more than usual. We should have sensed the end was near.

It seems only fitting everything would come together in the last game for a manager who saw things almost never play out the way he wanted. Now, Hillman has plenty of time to reflect on the majority of the other 300 or so games that didn't go well as he says goodbye and good luck to a team and city that could certainly use some.


  1. I dunno' if I feel too sentimental about this one, Eli. I feel little pity nor sympathy for a manager who tolerates the ineptitude displayed by the Royals, both in the field, and in the batter's box. I think back to the excitement I felt at his hiring, figuring "This is the guy who is going to change our lethargic team-playing," Instead, being sickened at the ever-continued sloppy play and lack of patience at the plate. C'mon- this organization is a train wreck, and Yost will be the next failure of a once-proud organization that is broken from the top-on-down. I try my best to get behind this team, and they give me NO reason to feel as though my efforts are worthwhile. Back in the mid 80's, I would look at the AL East standings, and Cleveland would always be 30-some games back-- I would wonder: "How can those fans tolerate 30 years of losing teams?" --I guess I know how it feels now....

  2. By the way, 810AM posted an interesting fact: NO CURRENT TEAM THAT HAS BEEN IN A WORLD SERIES HAS HAD A LONGER PLAYOFF DROUGHT THAN THE '85 ROYALS. Someone brought up the Montreal Expos, but it was nixed because they are in DC, a city which has 'suffered' for all of 2 (or 3?) years.

  3. Your asterisk about payroll is misguided. One problem with the Royals is that Glass HAS expanded payroll, but GMDM has done it poorly. Farnsworth/Guillen/Etc. illustrate there is a problem with identifying free-agent talent. I, like you, hope that the other attributes (identifying, developing prospects) eventually outweighs this apparent deficiency of Dayton Moore.