As everyone knows, the Royals have been the kind of team that, when they go on the road, an opponent's most die-hard season ticket holders plan their summer vacations. Their attraction value has been nil (unless you count Joey Gathright jumping over cars as an attraction) since the early 90's. But the truth is, like a foul-faced pug or a dorty Himalayan cat, the Royals have been so ugly that they're actually beginning to look good.
Years of mediocrty have left the farm system with high draft picks which have resulted in a fresh crop of young, highly-talented Major league-ready players. Quality prospects are beginning to line up like the rows of corn so prevalent around Kansas City.
Add to that a fresh-faced and hungry general manager, Dayton Moore, who cut his teeth assisting one of the finest general managers in the game, Atlanta's Jon Schuerholz, and the Royals have at least put a swagger back in their step if not put the league on notice that they're for real.
If it was new general manager, Moore and the hope of the team's young prospects that brought back that swagger in 2007 then it was the hiring of manager Trey Hillman that brought the muscle this past fall.
Hired in October, not many people outside of baseball (or Japan's Hokkaido island) knew much about this journeyman Texan who never played or managed at the Major-league level.
Hillman had spent the previous five seasons as manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, going toe-to-toe in Japan's Pacific League with fellow ex-pat and Chiba Lotte manager, Bobby Valentine. Two of those five seasons, the Ham Fighters won the pennant and once went on to be crowned champions of Japan.
Like Valentine did in 1996 with the Mets, Hillman now returns from the Far East tasked with awaking the Royals from their decade-long slumber. For a team that has been mired in old school managing and dried-up baseball legacy (see managers Bell, Peña, Boone), Hillman comes with no pretenses.
As a minor league player in the Twins' and Indian's systems, he never hit a home run during his three seasons of play. He was caught stealing more times than he was successful and posted a career .179 batting average.
After hanging up his cleats, Hillman went on to scout for the Indians in 1988 before joining the Yankees as a minor league coach in 1990. In his first year as coach of the Oneonta Yankees of the NY-Penn League, Hillman claimed the league's best record and championship. The Yankees promoted him the very next year to signle-A Greensboro where he coached Derek Jeter during the young shortstop's first two professional seasons.
He continued his minor league coaching career in 2001 and took a position in player development with the Texas Rangers, having been revered as the Yankees' best minor league mentor of the previous decade. And for all those years, Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner took the credit.
Now, with the job that perhaps no one else would want, Hillman might be the only one who can succeed. It certainly won't be easy. He'll have to start slowly, give Alex Gordon confidence to take his game to the next level, get Billy Butler's bat in the lineup everyday, help Zach Greinke not to worry so much, inspire RF Mark Teahen to hit more than 7 homeruns, find consistency in the bullpen, get enough Sunday matinee tickets for all Mark Grudzielanek's friends at the retirement home, keep José Guillén honest, and of course, make sure Joey Gathright doesn't hurt himself playing with those cars.