It had been 455 days since AJ Hinch last showed face inside Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros.
He was on his way out as the manager, fired from his job because of the team’s sign-stealing scandal.
It had been 1,258 days since Hinch won the 2017 World Series, followed by a victory parade through the city amid the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. It brought the community together.
“That attachment was real,” Hinch said.
And it had been 2,387 days since Hinch became the manager of the Astros, leading a once-forgotten franchise, desperately trying to escape a prolonged rebuild, to four postseasons, two World Series appearances and one championship from 2015-19.
But on Monday, Hinch — as the manager of the Detroit Tigers — returned to Houston’s Minute Maid Park, the place where he found his way as a winning manager, built innumerable relationships, uplifted a town and raised his family.
“It’s home for me,” Hinch said.
Hinch was last inside the ballpark Jan. 13, 2020, when Astros owner Jim Crane fired him, and then-general manager Jeff Luhnow, for his role in the sign-stealing scandal. The plot gave the Astros an unfair advantage en route to winning the 2017 World Series. (The cheating wasn’t uncovered until 2019.) Hinch said he has “stayed in touch” with Crane.
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On that same day, MLB suspended him for a full season. Tigers general manager Al Avila, about 30 minutes after the 2020 World Series ended in October, began the process of hiring him.
“It’s going to be a little weird,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, the 2017 American League MVP, said ahead of Hinch’s arrival with the Tigers. “I wish him the best, just not in these next three games.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker, Hinch’s replacement, added: “AJ did some great things here for this team, this organization and this town. He paid the price for whatever happened. I think they ought to embrace him like he deserves to be embraced.”
Hinch stepped off the Tigers’ plane Sunday night, gathered his belongings and went to the hotel with his players and coaches. Because of COVID-19 protocols, he couldn’t stay at his house with his wife and children.
He saw them Monday outside of his old stomping grounds.
“Being home but not being quite home is a little bit different,” Hinch said. “Seeing my family from a distance, not the best thing it could have been, but it was all we could do. We made the most of it.”
Hinch walked through downtown Houston to get a coffee Monday morning. He wore a mask, but his 6-foot-1 frame is all too noticeable for locals. They had watched him stand the dugout, call to the bullpen and celebrate on the field during his five-year tenure.
After all, Hinch helped give them a reason to cheer for the Astros.
“The fans have just been tremendously supportive to me,” Hinch said. “We went through hurricanes, playoff runs, two World Series and then one of the ugliest departures. That’s established a great relationship between me and the fans around Houston.”
Hinch wouldn’t say if he takes pride in the 2017 World Series.
“That’s difficult,” Hinch said. “I have largely stayed quiet about all of that because it’s very personal to me. I do believe we were wrong in the behavior and decisions that we made in 2017. My relationship with that time is complicated. It’s very personal. It’s something I take very seriously.”
He feels guilty for being the manager in charge and not doing enough to stop the Astros from stealing signs from the opposing teams with cameras, video replay room technology and banging on trash cans.
And Hinch understands the severity of his mistakes.
“I will continue to apologize … and continue to repeat how wrong it was,” Hinch said. “We’re going to have to live with that for the rest of our careers.”
Hinch’s career has him in Detroit, and he compares the 2015 Astros and 2021 Tigers. “Eerily similar,” Hinch said. Think about it: Two franchises gasping for air after being suffocated by the rebuilding process, with Hinch at the helm to instill a winning mindset.
Now, his journey to revive the Tigers — after a rocky start to the season — has him back in Houston.
“This is where I call home,” Hinch said. “My daughter is in school here. I have a daughter who graduated high school here. We own property here. I come home here. My best friends are here.
“Houston is home, and it’s because of the way my family was embraced when I first got here and ultimately through some of the best times and some of the lowest times.”
But the homecoming in Houston only lasts three games, from Monday until Wednesday, before the Tigers travel to the Oakland Coliseum for a four-game slate against the Athletics.
In Oakland, fans chastised their AL West rival Astros with boos, trash cans and cardboard signs throughout the four-game season-opening series. The Los Angeles Angels fans tormented the Astros in Anaheim, as well. Because spectators weren’t allowed in stadiums last season, they’ve been waiting for nearly two years to attack.
Hinch seems in line for a similar welcome.
“Yeah, no, I’ll handle it,” he said.