Hinch takes lessons learned in first stint as skipper to Houston
By Alyson Footer
HOUSTON -- A.J. Hinch has been visible in the media circuit since he was hired to be the Astros' manager in September, and, as is the case with everyone who accepts a high-profile position, he's been asked to talk at length about himself -- past, present and future.
We're well-versed on the present, in that Hinch is taking over a team that improved greatly in the win column in 2014. Regarding the future, we've heard plenty about that, too -- the Astros, by all accounts, expect to contend sooner rather than later.
But Hinch's past has come up in conversation, as well -- specifically, the circumstances surrounding his first stint as a big league manager. At first glance, this wouldn't seem like a big deal. But it is, given how surprised the industry was when he was hired at the time, and how unpleasant the experience was for most involved.
"There are a lot of mistakes you make," he said. "And, as a 34-year-old, when I got that job, I was the youngest manager and I don't want that to come across as an excuse by any means. But I do think that you grow and you mature and you learn."
The year was 2009, and this was before hiring smart guys with college degrees and a decade or so of professional playing experience was de rigueur. Hinch was 34 years old and he was serving as the Arizona Diamondbacks' director of player development. The D-backs, off to a poor start, abruptly dismissed manager Bob Melvin, a wildly popular figure in the clubhouse. On May 8, Melvin was replaced by Hinch, widely considered a rising star in the front-office ranks but viewed by few as manager material, mainly because he had no coaching or managing experience at any level.
To say this maybe didn't go so well would be an understatement. The team, which was bad before Hinch arrived on the scene, didn't get any better. Day-to-day situations were handled poorly, a fact Hinch readily acknowledges today. While being young and inexperienced would be considered cool for a manager in more modern times, back then, it worked against him, along with just about everything else he was handed during a managerial stint that lasted less than two full seasons.
The topic probably isn't one that Hinch wants to repeatedly revisit, but given his new post with Houston, it's going to come up in conversation -- a lot, as Hinch is finding out. How he's handling it is notable.
Hinch, a former big league catcher and Stanford graduate, doesn't try to deflect the topic when it comes up. The memories aren't pleasant, but he did learn from it, and he surmised that it probably helped him, and partially led to what's happening now.
"When I first got the job, I had no experience, and it didn't go over well," Hinch said. "And now, part of the reason I got hired here is because of that experience. I can't knock the bad times and then use them to my advantage here in Houston. It's an interesting evolution of how these jobs are getting filled now."
Still, it can't always be easy to look back. Search "Hinch" and "D-backs manager" and you'll see articles written using the phrase "disastrous." His relationship with the D-backs front office was described as "strained." Players "revolted." And his hiring? One New York Times feature labeled that as having "ranked somewhere between inspired and bewildering, depending on one's patience for oddity." And that was before he had managed even one game.
Clearly, the next generation of first-time managers has had a much smoother time of it. Robin Ventura is still with the White Sox after being hired, with no prior experience, in 2011. Mike Matheny was next, hired by the Cardinals after they won the World Series in '11. The Rockies then hired Walt Weiss, who was coaching his son's high school team when he was brought in to be skipper in '12. The Tigers hired Brad Ausmus following the '13 season.
Hinch has far more front-office than managerial experience, and, as he acknowledges, his story is still being written. Count his new boss as one who is certain things will be different this go-around.
"I think A.J. has good self-realization of what happened," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "The situation was difficult and he was new at it. I did a lot of work on it the first time I interviewed him, and I did a lot of work on it this time. I wanted to make sure. He learns from every experience he's had."
So what exactly happened?
Hinch declined to get into specifics that could make the period of time sound more dramatic than it actually was. The issues seemingly were related to day-to-day maintenance every manager is tasked with -- a daunting undertaking considering how many people he has to manage on a daily basis and how different those people are from each other.
"Where you can learn more is when you react to situations, whether it's a player's happiness coming out of a game, a guy's place in the batting order," Hinch said. "Any of those are distractions from what you're trying to do, which is win the game."
A more experienced manager -- one who has a history of winning, or at the very least has been around the game for a while -- would surely be given more leeway. But the combination of a bad team, one that would be bad no matter who was managing, and an inexperienced leader who in the eyes of his players hadn't yet paid his dues can, and usually does, create a toxic environment.
Hinch's basic personality is far from antagonizing. If he was cranky, or arrogant, or not that bright, a clubhouse mutiny would have been less surprising. But Hinch is none of those things. If anything, he's a guy who just fits in.
That's probably one of the reasons why Luhnow didn't worry about the past when hiring a replacement for Bo Porter.
"Sometimes, it's not so much the person, it's the situation," Luhnow said. "If you have someone that's unusual or different and they're put in a situation of authority, there's going to be some reaction no matter who he is."
A successful second run as a manager would obviously help the narrative along, but until that happens, conversations will invariably filter back to his ill-fated days in Arizona. No one understands that more than Hinch.
"The coverage is so intense in these jobs," he said. "The responsibility is so grand. The visibility is so high. I know it going in. I understand the scrutiny, understand the responsibility.
"I knew I was going to have to talk about this. I talked about it in the job interviews I've had since then. It's a reality, and the bottom line is you can't run from that. As a manager, you have your record and you have your experiences. I'm not proud of the games we didn't win. But I am proud of how I handled it."
After leaving the D-backs in 2010, Hinch joined the Padres' front office as assistant GM and vice president of pro scouting. He resigned from his post earlier this season, shortly after GM Josh Byrnes was dismissed.
That's not what people want to talk about, though. So, Hinch talks about it, too.
Referencing the famous words uttered by Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy a few years back -- "I'm a man! I'm 40!" Hinch, now precisely that age, laughed and said, "Maybe that's my new mantra."
The Astros, a club that has reached the point where rebuilding needs to start to give way to actual victories, were in need of a reasonable liaison to link together a forward-thinking front office and a clubhouse of players who are more often than not set in their more traditional ways.
Having been part of both groups in his career, Hinch was seemingly the logical choice to meld together the two entities. Older and wiser and exceedingly humble, he seems to be up for the task, ready to make another imprint in an industry that grows more cerebral by the day.
"As more information has been accepted into clubhouses and into dugouts and to various jobs around baseball, there's been a focus on that," he said. "And that can be a strength and it can be an area where people challenge it. I get it. When you win enough it's seen as a positive and when you don't, you may be over-thinking things. The answer's usually in the middle.
"It's not about being the smartest person, it's not about being the most experienced on-field person. The answer's in the middle somewhere, and that's what I've got to find."
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.