AJ Hinch was at home in Woodlands, Texas, Tuesday night, as he said, counting the outs as the Dodgers secured their first World Series title since 1988.
What that final out meant to Hinch was freedom. His year-long suspension for his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal was over. He could resume his career. He could start interviewing for manager vacancies.
Thirty minutes later, his phone rang. Tigers general manager Al Avila’s name came up on the caller ID.
“AJ, this is Al, and I’d like you to get on a plane tomorrow and come up to Detroit.”
“Absolutely. Book it. I’ll get to Detroit as soon as possible.”
After two days of rather exhaustive interviews, the Tigers on Friday officially made the 46-year-old Hinch the 39th manager in club history, signing him to a three-year contract.
“I’d like to thank Chris Ilitch and Al Avila for giving me a chance and the opportunity to get back in the dugout to lead this historic ballclub,” Hinch said. “The last year was the most difficult of my life. It gave me time to reflect, which was such a big part of this process.
“Everything that has transpired over the past year, personally and professionally, has put so much in perspective for me, and re-enforced how important it is to do things with integrity and honesty.”
Subscription: Niyo: AJ Hinch is taking a chance on Tigers, as well
By the end of the interview process, both Ilitch and Avila were convinced Hinch had paid proper penance for the mistakes he made in Houston. They were convinced, too, that he met every criterion they were looking for in a manager.
“It’s his overall baseball acumen,” Avila said. “He understands analytics, and he knows how to use it. And he’s got tremendous baseball experience and he can blend both. He can talk to both an analyst and a baseball guy.
“He’s a well-rounded, experienced guy, but he can also communicate it and execute it. I was looking for a difference-maker. I was looking for a guy I could partner with to lead this team to a world championship.”
Still, there are those in the baseball community, including a vocal minority of Tigers fans, who don’t think Hinch deserves to get a second chance to manage this quickly. He understands.
“It’s been a large topic in my life, and I continue to reflect back and grow and try to decompress from something that was really wrong,” he said. “That is part of my story. It’s not the Tigers’ story. I understand the questions. I understand how wrong it was, and I am sorry for that.
“I’ve said it before and I will say it again and again, I’ll never forget that feeling that I had throughout the past year as I navigated through it all with my family. But you quickly get to the exciting times of getting back and leading a group of men again and establishing what Tigers baseball is going to be about.”
Major League Baseball’s exhaustive investigation of the Astros’ sign-stealing methods revealed that Hinch neither masterminded nor sanctioned his players using a replay monitor to decode signs and twice he destroyed video monitors with a bat.
He was suspended for his failure to stop his players from cheating, and he took accountability for that.
“Throughout the interview process it was clear that AJ had learned from his situation in recent months, and it has changed him in profound ways,” Ilitch said. “Quite frankly, it’s exactly what we wanted and needed to hear. AJ provides a wealth of knowledge and experience, and we’re proud to have him lead our team.”
Still, Hinch will have to win over the players, several of whom — pitchers Matthew Boyd, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris — may have been victimized by the Astros’ sign-stealing methods.
“Absolutely, those will be tough conversations,” Hinch said. “I will have them one-on-one, and I will have them as a team. But there is a clear message — that it is part of my story, part of my career and it’s not a part of the players I’m going to be managing.
“I’m sorry they are going to have to deal with it, but this is our reality. What’s wrong is wrong, and it was very wrong. I will make sure everybody knows that I feel responsible because I was the manager, and it was on my watch, and I will never forget it.”
Hinch won 418 games, two pennants and a World Series in his five years in Houston. But he also managed a rebuilding Arizona Diamondbacks team, and he played on the 2003 Tigers’ team that lost 119 games.
“I just remember we dog-piled after we won the last game because we avoided 120 losses,” he said, laughing. “But there is something symbolic about that. That was a low point in this historic franchises’ history. But it was also the beginning of what was next for Tigers’ baseball — a really good run of difficult teams to beat.”
Two trips to the World Series and four straight Central Division titles came between 2006 and 2014.
“I was here when expectations were low,” he said. “But you don’t have to drag that into the future. You don’t have to have a losing record. You don’t have to accept the fact that nobody is predicting the Tigers will do anything but get better.
“Players will resonate to what is possible. We have a lot of work to do, but good times are coming. We have to put in the work to make sure it happens.”
Hinch said his first order of business was to personally contact each player on the roster and to select his coaching staff. Asked about the style of play fans can expect to see out of his teams in Detroit, Hinch said:
“My favorite style of play is winning. I don’t care how you win. I don’t care if you win with your legs, win with pitching or win with the home run ball. Your job when you show up every day is to win that game.
“I told Al, you are going to give me the team you are going to give me. My job is to maximize that particular team.”
AJ Hinch managerial record
2009: 58-75 (.436)
2010: 31-48 (.392)
2015: 86-76 (.531) – Lost ALDS vs. Royals
2016: 84-78 (.519)
2017: 101-61 (.623) – Won World Series vs. Dodgers
2018: 103-59 (.636) – Lost ALCS vs. Red Sox
2019: 107-55 (.660) – Lost World Series vs. Nationals