Henning: How new manager AJ Hinch went from Tigers catcher to the catch

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Al Avila was sitting at home, in Bloomfield Hills, on Oct. 27, watching the final innings of World Series Game 6 and itching to make a phone call.

As quickly as Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes headed for the mound for a hoist-and-hug of pitcher Julio Urias, which would close the 2020 World Series, Avila was ready to dial the name he had been waiting for weeks to summon:

AJ Hinch.

There was only one problem.

He had to wait.

Avila’s wife, Yamile, who had been taking in the final innings alongside her husband, had begun late in the evening to feel badly. Shortness of breath, blood-pressure soaring — this wasn’t good.

Instead of phoning Hinch, Al Avila instead rang Tigers team doctor Michael Workings, who advised taking Yamile to Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield.

Although she would spend the night at Henry Ford, Yamile was fine. Al, who was with her until 2:30 a.m., was free to make his call, from Henry Ford, about 30 minutes later than intended.

At his home in The Woodlands, Texas, 30 miles north of Houston, a man answered.

Twelve hours later, Andrew Jay Hinch was on a first-class flight from George Bush Intercontinental Airport to Detroit. An hour after touchdown, he was pulling up in a black Metro Cars limo and checking into The Townsend Hotel in Birmingham. A couple of hours later, he was dressing for a 6:30 p.m. dinner at Hyde Park, a Birmingham steak house, where food and wine and conversation would flow until 10:30 p.m.

By mid-day Friday, about 60 hours after Avila’s call from Henry Ford, Hinch was being unveiled as the 39th manager in a charter American League club’s 120-year history.

Cup of coffee plants roots

How the Tigers and Hinch came together four weeks after Ron Gardenhire called it quits is chronology that began at the most unlikely of times. It was conceived in 2003 when Hinch had a 27-game cameo as catcher on the worst Tigers team in history.

It was then that Hinch first got acquainted with a baseball town and team, albeit one enduring a 43-119 death-march. It was then that he got to know Avila, who in 2003 was a year into his job as Dave Dombrowski’s assistant general manager.

The professional relationship — it could be classified as a friendship — grew as baseball acquaintances so often tend to rise in baseball’s business world. The two bumped into one another through the years, at Winter Meetings, or, when the Astros and Tigers played a spring-training game in Florida.

Hinch, a Stanford grad whose big-league playing days ended in 2004 after playing in only four games for the Phillies, was on his way not only to a managing career that would bring gold, but that also through his pre-managing years would see him work as a minor-league operations manager for the Diamondbacks, and as professional scouting director for the Padres.

Avila had a list of 15 candidates he and his team interviewed in the weeks after Gardenhire departed. Three of those men had been so strong as to offer Avila safe options if Hinch either decided to take a White Sox job then wide-open, or if it became clear through his conversations in Detroit that the Tigers weren’t a fit.

But it was Hinch, whose reputation despite one toxic episode was as strong as his record, that the Tigers understood could overwhelm them.

And he did just that during a Wednesday-Thursday flurry of meetings, conversations, and unwitting salesmanship. All the dialogue, all the insights into a man that already had been affirmed from contacts across baseball, convinced the Tigers there was one person who combined managerial experience, an exceptional ability to lead men, and an intellectual gift for every aspect of big-league life, from dugout to clubhouse to the front office and beyond.

That much was made clear Wednesday night.

Connections, chemistry

Avila had intended to host Hinch and a Tigers contingent at his home, where Yamile would throw together one of her famed feasts. But her previous night’s ills and hospital discharge Thursday morning quashed plans there.

Dinner would be at Hyde Park, a couple of blocks from the Townsend.

They entered the restaurant wearing COVID-19 masks: Avila, Hinch, front-office lieutenants David Chadd, Jay Sartori, and Sam Menzin, as well as Chris Ilitch, who has been Tigers ownership steward since the death of his father, Mike.

Heading for a tucked-away private dining room, spaced-out in pandemic protocol around a long table, the men dropped their masks and bored into the thick of an evening that seemed to have been half as long as the four hours it spanned.

The chemistry was instant. Baseball talk, casual gab, easy humor, serious matters. The spectrum of dinner conversation had all parties concluding, even quickly: The Hinch-Tigers marriage could work. 

The restaurant venue appealed to Avila, a fun-lover who prefers casual settings to board-room formality that can sometimes conceal a person’s broader facets.

Not only would the Tigers draw a bead on how Hinch might lead a reviving big-league team, there would be personal glimpses bosses wanted, and needed, to see.

What does the person you’re thinking of hiring find funny? What makes him amusing and maybe even endearing? What can you learn about a husband, and father, and a man who becomes the persona most attached to your team’s profile?

How, especially, does all of that square with the fact AJ Hinch, with a World Series ring on his skipper’s finger, spent the past year in baseball jail serving a one-season sentence for having been part of a shameful sign-stealing culture during Houston’s enchanting 2017 season? The Tigers had to sort this one out. From owner’s office to the Tigers clubhouse, there were worries Hinch had too deeply sullied himself, along with a general manager (Jeff Luhnow), coaches, and players who all were judged to have had knowledge, and even acceptance, of a sign-stealing scheme set up by a spy-camera and trash-can audio messages sent to hitters.

The Tigers steadily over two days came to a conclusion:

Hinch’s personal record and integrity had never been questioned ahead of the Astros sign-thievery. Rather, he had a reputation among those who knew him best, and longest, for being above reproach.

The Astros at-large, and Hinch singularly, could be said to have been lulled by an institutional acceptance of mischief and misdemeanors that were closer to a baseball-grade felony.

The Tigers asked themselves one question: Knowing what anyone knows about clubhouse peer pressure, how many — including some of the Astros’ heaviest attackers — would have acted differently?

Avila knows by heart the Gospel words: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

In Hinch’s case, the Tigers were comfortable that forgiveness was not rationalization. Not on their collective values scale. They had tuned into Hinch’s contrition last winter, which beat anything the others involved had been saying — or more often, had not been saying as the punished headed for a year of mostly silent exile.

Hinch never had pleaded locker-room acceptance as an excuse when he was banished last January. Nor had he completely gone along with the Astros plot. It was known that twice he had taken a bat and smashed spy-camera-monitors during the 2017 season. But he acknowledged that he should have, and could have, taken a different, more assertive stance.

He had said as much after Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office passed sentence, suspending Hinch and Luhnow for a year. Alex Cora, then the Red Sox manager, as well as Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who all were part of the 2017 Astros staff or roster, also left their jobs, although Cora has since been hired back at Boston.

Hinch’s mea culpa during a February interview with Tom Verducci, of Sports Illustrated, was saturated in sorrow and accountability. The Tigers had taken notice.

Not long after sharing all his remorse with Verducci, Hinch called Avila — among a wide swath of Hinch’s baseball contacts — to talk about how he should handle his year on the sidelines. There was no clue that eight months later the Tigers would need a new manager.

Timing is everything

Gardenhire was in charge. For all the Tigers knew, he would still be on the job in 2021 when Hinch was scheduled to be free. No, the conversation with Avila was simply a matter of Hinch seeking counsel on restoring a baseball career that at the time, for a young manager, was equal parts triumph, shame, anguish, and anxiety.

By autumn, time and perspective had altered Hinch’s status markedly. Within baseball’s tight sphere it was clear Hinch would be returning to a dugout, probably soon.

And, now, as October wore on, the Tigers just happened to be looking for a new skipper. So, too, were the White Sox after they parted with Rick Renteria.

In this romancing of a seemingly redeemed Hinch, the Tigers now had competition — major competition from a division rival that cracked this year’s playoffs and is loaded with young talent.

In fact, Hinch was as interested as the White Sox appeared to be.

He was scheduled to leave Detroit at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, for a 4 p.m. flight to Chicago and for what figured to be serious talks with the White Sox. For the Tigers, this would be tough recruiting, keeping him from Chicago’s South Side. The White Sox were a team deeper into their rebuild, flashing more prime-time flesh at the moment than did a Tigers club still waiting for most of its farm crop to mature.

But that was before Thursday morning news crash-landed.

Hinch got a call from the White Sox. They were canceling his Friday interview. The Tigers got the bulletin, as well: Tony La Russa was going to manage the White Sox, with owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s affinity for La Russa perceived as quashing GM Rick Hahn’s suspected preference for Hinch.

With the White Sox no longer an option, the flight to Chicago was canceled as Avila got serious talking contract with a man whose interviews had been a steady stream of home runs.

Hinch broke for occasional phone calls to his wife and attorney, as legal verbiage was fine-lined, and as thoughts on the GM-manager relationship continued, all as afternoon gave way to evening in the third-floor executive offices at Comerica.

The two would not leave for home until 9 p.m. Hinch rode with Avila to Birmingham where, starved and exhausted and ready for nothing more than a night in his hotel room, he learned he was too late for room service. His option would be takeout from the nearby Townhouse restaurant and bar: an artichoke-dip appetizer and grilled-chicken entrée.

As celebration meals, it would do just fine. All that remained before he crashed into bed were calls to his mother and a few close friends, informing them he was headed for Detroit.

Erin, also, was destined for one more phone call as she packed for a Friday morning flight to Detroit and an afternoon press conference introducing her husband. She needed to bring a suit, shirt and tie for a man whose formal attire had been limited to a sport coat for Wednesday night’s dinner.

Although nothing was signed until Friday morning, the Tigers knew they were about to add a name on a par with some of the box-office players they had signed during their playoff heyday of 2006-14.

In fact, they were about to make their biggest managerial splash since hiring Sparky Anderson in 1979.

The contract was reported, inaccurately, as a three-year package. Although neither party is offering details, it is understood there is perhaps a longer deal in place. Or, quite possibly, the agreement carries options, or even an opt-out should Hinch decide after however many seasons that he wants a different team — or, given his history and future-GM pedigree, maybe a loftier job.

Hinch’s already-broad background had played into Detroit’s thoughts, absolutely, and into Avila’s uncertainties as autumn deepened and the 2020 World Series approached its grand finale.

The Tigers, of course, knew about Hinch’s previous dalliances in baseball development and scouting. He did not choose Stanford’s scholarship, or earn a degree there in psychology, because it sounded cool. He did not attend the Winter Meetings in 2003, at age 29, and with his big-league playing career not yet completed, because he needed a December break.

Hinch had the smarts and dimension to make baseball, at any potential level, his career. He was going to steep himself in front-office education, conversations, and contacts at baseball’s annual business convention, the Winter Meetings. Even before he turned 30.

Once Gardenhire had exited, Avila knew Hinch’s resume could invite a front-office job in scouting, development, whatever. If he were to go that route, Hinch conceivably could replicate his 2009 path when he swung from overseeing Arizona’s minor leagues to the Diamondbacks’ manager’s office as a May replacement for Bob Melvin.

These potential options and potential wooers, all tied to a 46-year-old man’s personal portfolio, meant the Tigers had a major selling job to do as Hinch flew to Detroit.

But not as much, perhaps, as they might have thought.

Interest was mutual

Hinch had done his Tigers homework as if it were a Stanford final exam. He wowed the execs with how deeply he knew Detroit’s farm system — names, where they might be on a Comerica Park timeline, and their level of potential. Not many of the 15 men interviewed had come close to Hinch in his command of Tigers prospects.

Hinch, for his part, was more intrigued by Detroit than most appreciated. Yes, if the White Sox had called and given him the proverbial “this can all be yours” red-carpet invitation to take over a super-skilled young roster, Hinch likely would have bit.

But he liked the Tigers opportunity, genuinely. For several reasons.

He knew that baseball in Detroit carries cachet and brand-name voltage, 365 days a year, which few MLB towns this side of St. Louis and Cincinnati can match.

It helped that he had no uncertainties about his boss, Avila. They knew each other too well. Their reputations were established.

And he understood that with Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and others, all on various schedules to help in large ways at Comerica Park, he had a chance to be part of an ascending long-term contender — much the way Anderson had viewed the Tigers in 1979.

If there were reservations, they probably rested on ownership. Hinch knew all about late owner Mike Ilitch’s largesse. But what about the new man in charge, Chris Ilitch? What would be his philosophy toward building a contender and, ideally, a championship club?

Any doubts there didn’t last much past the first glass of wine at Hyde Park.

Chris Ilitch had made it clear, in a genial and straightforward way, that the Tigers would not be passive when it came to spending on development — or adding essential free-agent parts. Would he be writing $214 million checks as his dad did with Prince Fielder? Would he be tossing a couple hundred million more at semi-desperate add-ons in the fashion of Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton?

Probably not. But it would all depend.

What Hinch came to understand is that Chris Ilitch would not fear, not for a moment, paying for difference-makers that made sense to a GM and to a manager — a manager, it should be noted, who might have been the ramrod in an 11th-hour deadline deal in 2017 that sent Justin Verlander to the Astros.

And so there was comfort, fairly immediately, that what mattered most to Hinch — sound ownership, a trusting GM relationship, sizzling young talent on the farm, managing a team in a town crazy about baseball — all stacked up with the Tigers.

Verlander, in fact, had helped there, offering Hinch assurances about ownership and front-office ways, as well as Metro Detroit’s culture. From an ace pitcher for two teams, and from a man who has a heavy bond with the Tigers, Avila got deeper X-rays into how Hinch functioned, primarily, as a clubhouse-and-field general.

Avila had gotten the same assurances from another of Houston’s hotshots, George Springer, whose debriefing was one more reason the Tigers knew they had their man.

As long, at least, as the White Sox cooperated by bringing on La Russa.

Decisions aligned. The Tigers and Hinch were free to team up. And, at some point Wednesday, the Tigers just might have violated a pandemic’s protocol. It seems handshakes and back-pats sometimes have a way of happening in baseball, ever so spontaneously.

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

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