AJ Hinch didn’t know if he’d get another chance. Detroit Tigers sure glad he’s theirs

Detroit Free Press

CHICAGO — It feels like forever since AJ Hinch has talked about himself.

That’s part of what made him a great manager of the building-it-back-up Detroit Tigers in 2021. But Hinch was the main character of this season’s story: his success in forming a winning culture, his passion for the job and his return from a suspension.

He felt under the weather in Chicago ahead of Friday’s series opener. Rarely late to chat with reporters before each game, he canceled Saturday’s session to rest. His body recuperated from his non-COVID illness by Sunday, so he made time to get personal about his first season with the Tigers.

Later that day, his team beat the American League Central champions, the Chicago White Sox, to end the year with a 77-85 record and a third-place finish in the division.

“The players deserve the credit for the work on the field,” Hinch said Sunday morning. “I mean, the players really bought into everything that me and the coaching staff were trying to accomplish this season. It starts with new routines, the defensive maintenance stuff that we tried to do, the early work program that we created, the hitters’ meetings that we did daily. Our daily schedule, the players were all in, from Akil Baddoo, Rule 5 pick, to Miguel Cabrera, future Hall of Famer. They were all in from really the very beginning.”

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Nearly one year ago, Hinch traveled by plane to Detroit. He had an important meeting with Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch and general manager Al Avila.

Thirty minutes after the World Series ended Oct. 27, Avila called Hinch to set the whole thing up. The Tigers already had him on their radar, but they couldn’t interview him until his 2020 suspension ended. So when it did, Avila pursued him aggressively.

“First impressions matter to me,” said Hinch, who became the manager Oct. 30. “I loved the meeting with Chris and Al from the very beginning. They were very straightforward with me, on two fronts. One, there was an explanation of what the organization was all about, what the expectations were, where they felt like the progress was needed, and how they thought that I could be a perfect fit.

“The second part of it was diving into my past. Obviously, I had to openly answer questions that were very personal to me. I was not proud of coming out of the sign-stealing scandal, so it was sort of bear all feelings and emotions and experiences on both sides. That first meeting, to me, started off a really good partnership.”

Hinch never felt nervous.

After all, it was his fifth managerial interview.

His first-ever interview occurred in May 2009 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The organization transitioned him from director of player development to big-league manager, and he stuck around for parts of two seasons. He went through the interview process twice with the Houston Astros in September 2014, earning the job and keeping the position from 2015-19. (Hinch also interviewed with the Chicago Cubs in October 2013 for the managerial job that went to Rick Renteria.)

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Beyond the interview reps, Hinch felt confident and established as a manager. He took the Astros the World Series in 2017 and 2019, part of four postseason appearances during his five years in Houston. Many considered him the best manager in baseball for his ability to blend analytics and the eye test to get the most out of his players.

“I was excited because I didn’t know if any opportunities were going to come up this season,” Hinch said about his interview with the Tigers. “I had been contacted by the White Sox. I had been contacted by Detroit. I knew it was coming, then I went into preparation mode.”

Wait a second.

Does Hinch ever get nervous?

“Not really,” he said.

“The most nervous I’ve been as the Tigers manager was the first day of spring. I wouldn’t say nervous as much as just the anticipation of addressing the team for the first time coming out of all that has been my past, both good and bad. When we talk about my past, we talk a lot about the sign-stealing scandal, and that is just a portion of what my life journey and my journey in baseball has been about. Addressing that group for the first time, knowing as vulnerable and as emotional as I was going to be, I was a tick nervous.”

The sign-stealing scandal Hinch continues to reference occurred while he was managing the 2017 Astros. The plot to gain a competitive advantage wasn’t uncovered until 2019: Players used live video footage to illegally decipher pitching signs and banged on trash cans to distribute the information to hitters.

[ Explaining Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch’s role in Astros cheating scandal ]

The investigation from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred concluded that Hinch didn’t do enough to stop his team’s actions, even though he didn’t actively partake. He was fired by the Astros in January 2020 and subsequently suspended by Major League Baseball for the season.

Once the truth went public, baseball’s microscope focused on Hinch.

“It’s hard, but it’s reality,” Hinch said. “It’s not something I’m proud of. I’ll never run from it. I won’t ever forget it. I won’t ever get too comfortable. I mean, I’m not comfortable right now talking about it, but I understand that it’s going to be part of my story for the rest of my career and the rest of my life. My hope is the good outweighs the bad when it comes to everything else I’ve done in the game already to everything that I hope to do moving forward.”

Hinch spent the 2020 season, his first in 24 years, away from professional baseball. He had been involved in the game every year since the Oakland Athletics selected him in the third round of the 1996 draft from Stanford, where he majored in psychology.

He watched the sport from his couch, evaluating some of his favorite colleagues: Kevin Cash from the Tampa Bay Rays, Craig Counsell from the Milwaukee Brewers and Dave Roberts from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Watching full games, rather than catching the highlights, allowed him to reflect on his managerial style.

In these moments, Hinch wasn’t sure if he would ever get another chance to wear the uniform.

“It’s impossible not to appreciate being back in the game,” Hinch said. “Maybe you don’t quite ever appreciate something, or how much you love something, until you don’t have it. It humbled me that there’s only 30 of these jobs, and they’re not forever in general, and they’re certainly not forever if you don’t lead the right way.

“It’s what makes you a better leader, a better person. Having a bad experience, I guess I look at it as an opportunity to build off of that and makes things better. I’ll never forget my past. I’ll never forget how low I felt after that experience in Houston, but I can’t continually relive it. I just can’t.”

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Getting a fresh start with the Tigers, Hinch turned the page, but not before the sign-stealing scandal became a focus of his hiring process and introductory interactions. He reached out to his players to kickstart relationships, explain his preferences and, of course, to apologize for his role in an incident that tarnished the integrity of the game.

An emotional Hinch addressed his players as a group on the first day of full-squad workouts for spring training in Lakeland, Florida. After discussing his past demons, Hinch held up a picture of the Commissioner’s Trophy — the hardware given to the winner of the World Series.

The Tigers were predicted for another last-place finish in the AL Central, a spot in the standings that had become too familiar over the previous five years, but Hinch wasn’t going to let his players accept those lowly expectations.

“When you take over a team that is not accustomed to winning, that doesn’t hold itself to the bar of a playoff team, it has to start with belief,” Hinch said. “You have to start to talk about winning, believe that you’re going to win and then let the results be what it’s going to be. From Day 1, I just wanted them to know I was all about winning. … There’s real credibility that’s brought when you talk about winning and you’ve done it. I wanted the players to feel that.”

ACE OF THE FUTURE: Casey Mize sets ‘foundation’ for ace status with developments in rookie year

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But the season started terribly.

The Tigers were 9-24 after May 7.

“When the coaching staff met together before the spring started, we talked a lot about a six-month process,” Hinch said. “We weren’t going to tally our wins up until after the six months, and I didn’t care if that was on the low end or the high end. I didn’t know what this team could be.

“We were just trying to win today’s game. The single-game mindset really helped us get through a miserable first 33, 34, 35 games. Had we not had that view, I think it’s easy for a coaching staff to ride the roller coaster. When the players look at you, and they see that panic or that fear or that frustration, the season can really spiral out of control.”

The rest of the way, the Tigers went 68-61. They struggled in AL Central matchups but posted a winning record — 39-36, to be exact — against teams above. 500.

Rookie starting pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning made crucial developments under pitching coach Chris Fetter, while relievers Gregory Soto, Michael Fulmer, Kyle Funkhouser and Alex Lange stepped up in new opportunities. As for the position players, Baddoo and Jeimer Candelario established themselves, and veterans Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Schoop excelled in leadership roles.

“I’m proud to play for AJ Hinch,” Mize said. “We’ve built a great relationship. I look up to him a lot. … It’s just certain things about him. He’s got great leadership qualities, and he’s building a culture here that I’m so happy to be a part of.”

As Hinch gave the Tigers hope for the first time in a long time, many fans took a liking to him and were supportive of his work. There is a general agreement that he was the biggest factor in the organization’s improvements this season.

For Detroit’s acceptance, Hinch is deeply thankful.

“It’s not required,” Hinch said. “You don’t have to like or love or appreciate the manager, specifically one that was a little polarizing at the beginning. I hope to earn their respect. I hope to earn their trust. I hope they learn me as a person. … To have the fans really embrace this team and me as the manager has meant the world to me. I didn’t expect necessarily a warm welcome.”

A look into his family life

For the first time in Hinch’s career, he wasn’t always with his family and friends.

His wife, Erin, and two daughters, Haley and Kaitlin, lived with him in his Birmingham, Michigan, home during the summer. 

His oldest daughter, Haley, picked up a job in town before leaving for Loyola Marymount University in the fall. Kaitlin volunteered at a clinic, but she returned with her mother to the family’s suburban Houston home when high school began in August.

“One of the reasons we bought a place in Birmingham is once Kaitlin is out of high school, I think we’ll figure out what’s next for us,” Hinch said. “This job, it’s hard to forecast because you don’t know how much of a shelf life these jobs have. I’d like nothing more for that to last long enough to even consider it.”

Amid the transitions, Hinch stayed focused on winning with the Tigers.

“This season in general, I’ve sunk a lot of time and energy into the players,” Hinch said. “From a competitive standpoint, (my family) would have come back had we been in it (for the playoffs). I love having them around.”

With the 2021 season in the books, Hinch is excited to reunite with his loved ones. He has a flight booked for Tuesday afternoon, which will aid his return to Houston, but already seems eager to get back to the Comerica Park dugout — one of his favorite places in the world — in 2022.

“You miss out on a lot of your personal life when you’re at this level, and it’s all worth it, but I’m just looking back, I love my life away from baseball,” Hinch said. “I will watch every playoff game, so my offseason of no baseball won’t start until after Game 7 of the World Series.

“But I’m looking forward to reflecting back on what all we accomplished and then start to build what’s next. I won’t turn off for very long, though. Don’t worry.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter

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