Henning: A.J. Hinch is interested in Tigers. How interested are they in him?

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

A heavy question, really two questions, frame the Tigers’ managerial hunt as well as the candidacy of celebrity skipper A.J. Hinch:

► 1. Do the Tigers want, or need, Hinch when he is perhaps hours from coming off a year in exile dating to the Astros’ sign-stealing flap?

► 2. Does a hot ticket like Hinch want the Tigers when they haven’t seen a break-even season since 2016?

The answers, with certainty, are:

Yes, and yes.

A potential roadblock sits alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. It’s the White Sox job. It’s premier. A team that already made this year’s playoffs could morph into something of a South Side mini-dynasty, thanks to all the prizes already in Chicago’s lineup and on its farm.

Hinch is aware of this in detail and has shown the baseball cosmos that he is perfectly equipped to take a team with gifted young talent and steer it to a World Series. That’s the kind of hire a team historically likes to make after it just jettisoned one Rick Renteria.

It is known Hinch will be interviewed by both the White Sox and by the Tigers. What happens during those interviews, with Hinch as much interviewing the teams as they size him up, will decide where he next works.

The White Sox made some noise a few weeks ago when Tony La Russa, who is 76, was known to be of appeal to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who wouldn’t object to having La Russa return to the team he first managed back in the ‘80s.

But a La Russa-White Sox reunion is probably far-fetched. At least if Reinsdorf sticks to internal assurances that White Sox general manager Rick Hahn is free to hire Hahn’s choice.

It seems, logically, that Hinch would want the White Sox and vice versa when he has shown in Houston that he can win a World Series with blue-chip lineup pieces galore.

It’s hard to imagine, on surface evidence, that this marriage won’t happen.

But there are no guarantees. And one reason is: Those in position to know understand Hinch is deeply intrigued by the Tigers.

Tigers’ allure

He cannot schedule interviews until the World Series ends, he cannot discuss a baseball job or anything relating to it as he wraps up his one-year, sign-stealing sentence. But remember that Hinch spent time in Detroit in 2003 and knows the team, town, and what’s sprouting on the Tigers farm.

He knows Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, and has a good relationship there. He knows others in the Tigers front office, which offers cultural assurance.

Above all, he knows what happened in Detroit shortly after he left in 2003. He is aware of how an old baseball town hugs its team when that team is competitive. He is up on the four times season attendance beat 3 million from 2007-13. He knows the Tigers TV and radio markets are lush, all because the hunger for baseball in Detroit is a 120-year-old story of endless passion.

This is not a leverage situation, this impending Tigers interview that the front office has not denied is about to happen as early as this week. Hinch can be persuaded by the Tigers, if the interview and their zeal to bring Hinch aboard make this an essential union.

It’s probably up to the Tigers there. If they think this is the manager to take them for another long playoff ride, then Detroit has the capacity — contractually, and in selling him on a team’s future — to make this Hinch’s next stop.

Those familiar with a 46-year-old man’s thinking can appreciate how two options might be weighed.

The White Sox already are winners. They could dominate the American League Central Division for years to come — emphasis on could.

The Tigers are about where the White Sox were two years ago. They have a fertile farm system and talent that’s about to pop. In important ways, the team somewhat resembles the gang Sparky Anderson was happy to skipper in 1979, five years before that group won a World Series.

Hinch knows all of this. He is aware of Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson. He knows all about Tarik Skubal. He would bet along with the Tigers that Casey Mize, for all the bumps he had during the past summer, will be a sterling big-league starter.

He knows about the past year’s draft, which looms as a possible difference-maker. He understands, also, that Chris Ilitch’s ways as the Tigers’ de facto owner are not, in fact, in opposition to his late father’s heavy-spending style.

He has been informed, and will know during his interview, that free-agent dollars will be spent when the right players, at the right time, are available — and when they’re as interested in the Tigers’ reconstruction as Hinch is known to be.

Hinch understands, too, that downtown Detroit was one of the best urban stories in American pre-pandemic and that the energy there wasn’t short-term. This is not the team, nor the town, he last spent time with in 2003.

The Tigers should know this, also, as if there’s any doubt: They need a box-office splash. They need to hit a home run.

Comerica Park’s customers haven’t gotten excited, ticket-buying excited, since the days when Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Victor Martinez, and Prince Fielder were brought aboard by way of free agency and Mike Ilitch’s checkbook, or when Miguel Cabrera and Gary Sheffield came via Dave Dombrowski’s trade hand.

Hinch would be a billboard bonanza. And never mind the tsk-tsk crowd that’s great at viewing anyone’s sins but its own.

Sign-stealing should be non-issue

Hinch had his part, tacitly or more deeply, in the Astros’ sign-stealing sham. That he twice took a ball-bat to one of the spying cameras during Houston’s 2017 season doesn’t exonerate him, which is how a manager earns a firing and a year away from baseball.

But unless you’re disposed against forgiveness, unless you’re from the sphere that isn’t afraid to cast stones because your personal record is as spotless as four inches of fresh powder at Vail, then what happened at Houston should not disqualify Hinch.

Not for a second.

What matters is what his camera-smashing acts said loudly and clearly to a team that had an institutional tolerance — from GM to players — for bad acts.

It’s what Hinch said last Feb. 7 that matters.

“It happened on my watch,” Hinch said. “I’m not proud of that. I’ll never be proud of it. I didn’t like it, but I have to own it, because in a leadership position, the GM and the manager are in position to make sure that nothing like this happened, and we fell short.

“I should have had a meeting, addressed it, and ended it.”

This was a degree of penitence you did not initially see from Hinch’s boss, GM Jeff Luhnow, nor from Alex Cora, an ex-Astros accomplice who last year lost his job managing the Red Sox.

Unfortunately, the urge, from too much of the holier-than-thou camp, is to cross arms and say: Sorry, you’re tainted. You’re no man for the Tigers.

And that’s the biggest load of trash since the green truck just pulled up curbside a few minutes ago.

Self-righteousness isn’t much of a virtue in sports, or in life. That’s because we’re all flawed. All of us.

What matters is the person, and the record, over years. And in Hinch’s case, the file gleams.

What matters more are those who can look at this episode objectively, and not with condemnation that tends to make the critic feel better about himself or herself.

Ignore all of that. All of it. For reasons the Tigers front office should understand implicitly. That crowd, whether at the ballpark, or hanging out in a Twitter niche, isn’t going away. And shouldn’t be listened to.

It’s not your core constituency.

A broader, brighter, more goodness-oriented galaxy is what 120 years of baseball in Detroit is all about.

That greater populace is what the Tigers need to have faith in as they figure out who gets this next manager’s job.

If there’s a better person than Hinch, or if the White Sox leave the Tigers no choice, then move on and hire smart. But if there’s a way for a team that needs Hinch to secure him, then proceed with a crowd-pleasing appointment that’s way overdue.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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