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Hillman pulls a surprise in Surprise

Hillman pulls a surprise in Surprise

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Trey Hillman simply vanished. There was no trace of him at the Royals' workout on Saturday. Did anybody notice?

"If they don't, then I haven't done a very good job -- if somebody doesn't notice that I'm not here," Hillman said before slipping away.

"I did," pitcher Brian Bannister said. "But I wasn't going to ask why."

Hillman was back at Liberty Hill, Texas, on a two-day visit. He didn't tell the players he was going. Hillman spent two days overseeing the voluntary early camp, then went home.

"I think the skip got us," pitcher Luke Hudson said. "He got us doing those agility drills. Now he's on a plane laughing. The joke's on us."

This was planned weeks ago. Hillman would start camp, then fly home to surprise his kids, T.J. and Brianna, and spend a last pre-camp weekend with his wife, Marie. He'd just disappear from the players' view.

"I'll just evaporate. It'll give them a breather for a couple of days," he said. "You know how it is -- when the manager is around there's a little bit more intensity."

Another reason: "That allows some time for people to talk behind my back ... I like to have people talk behind my back, because it happens anyhow."

There didn't seem to be any furtive whispering, though. Oh, the agility dance steps prompted some good-natured complaining, but that was about it for Hillman bashing.

"He's full of energy, full of excitement. He's good, it sounds like he's going to be very intense, but very productive and I definitely believe we've got the right man," catcher John Buck said.

"I think the biggest part is that everybody around here believes that. So that's the first step -- everybody believes in what he's doing."

Just what can the players -- and Royals fans -- expect from Hillman?

A clue came Friday when he noticed the morning dew soaking his players' clothes during stretching. He made sure the grounds crew would mop up as much dew as possible each day. Yep, he's a detail man.

"We have to pay attention to all the details, and even though it's an invite-only and it's early, it needs to be a detailed camp and we need to emphasize that word to the players," he told the coaching staff the first day.

"I emphasized fun. I want to hear laughter, but I want it to be laughter in between concentration on work. I want us to enjoy our time at the field but I want us to enjoy it because we're doing it the right way."

OK, fine. The t's will be crossed and the yuks will be yukked at the proper time. How about a real grabber for the fans?

"I emphasized that from Day 1 we need to start talking, building a championship and not three, four years down the line," he said. "Let's plan on winning right now."

Doing that with a team that has made last place home for four straight years will not be easy.

There's not much raw power or sonic speed in a lineup that was abysmal in run-scoring last year. Hillman, who managed in the Yankees' system for 12 years and in Japan for the last five years, is known as able to adapt to what pluses his players give him.

"He's not going to do stupid stuff," said Dave Owen, his bench coach now and in Japan. "He's not going to try to make guys do stuff that they're not strong in doing."

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Hillman wants to enliven the summer nights at Kauffman Stadium with the unexpected. Not to mention catching the Tigers or the Indians with their pants down.

"The style I want is to be exciting. I don't want it to be predictable," he said. "I told Barney [hitting coach Mike Barnett] that I hoped people would say after playing us a couple of times: 'We don't know what the heck they're going to do.'

"Hopefully, we can massage and energize the offense a little bit by adding variables rather than just the occasional bunt five times a year, hit-and-run maybe 10 times a year, and the stolen base, which has not happened much."

Owen noted that approach worked well in Japan, where Hillman's Nippon Ham Fighters won titles the last two years.

"He kept those guys guessing. They had no idea what we were going to do. Again, that takes a guy that can think outside the box," Owen said. "He's very good at adapting and adjusting -- on the run, too, in the middle of the game, he's very good if something's not working."

Hillman prides himself on being a great communicator in his world of the baseball diamond -- if not exactly Ronald Reagan. All winter, he was on the phone to players. On the field, he's been face-to-face all over the place.

It's all about creating that mysterious aura that hovers over a team.

"I am totally accountable for massaging the atmosphere," Hillman said. "It's a long season, but it's a lot shorter if you're winning, it's a lot shorter if there's joy, it's a lot shorter if guys really want to be there and really want to play for their teammates and for the fan base. As corny as it sounds, that's what it is ... It's totally my responsibility to set the tone for that atmosphere. If it's a bad atmosphere that people don't want to be in, it's my fault entirely."

There's a video clip that's making the rounds -- Hillman in his Fighters uniform, raging around an umpire during a Japan League game. Apparently, an inferno lurks within this man with a penchant for detail, an affinity for the unexpected and schmoozing with his players.

"You better believe it. He's an easy-going guy, but there's a fire in there that's burning," Owen said.

The players might feel that warmth, too.

"There was a time in Japan when we'd been playing a few bad games in a row, and we were at that point where a manager needs to come in, and there are some guys that need to be aired out, and he got it through good," Owen said.

Even with the language barrier?

"I'm sure they didn't have a problem detecting his body language," Owen said with a chuckle. "They knew what he was saying."

Hillman was clean-shaven when introduced last fall as the new manager, but these days, he's been sporting a mustache and goatee. That won't endure.

"I will definitely not have it for our media day when we take all our official photos. I might shave it off next week some time," he said.

Players will be permitted to have neatly-trimmed facial hair but no long, flowing locks, please.

"Just watch the back of my hair and if it gets longer than mine, then you're out of line," he said. "I don't want to strangle things. I want some discipline, but I want some latitude."

Players couldn't watch the back of his hair this weekend. He'd disappeared. But he'll be back Monday morning, in charge again.

"If you can't work with him, you've got a problem," Owen said. "There's no grey area with him. He's a very straightforward person. He's going to tell you to your face and talk about things. But he's very easy to play for, he's fun to play for. I think our guys are in for a real good time."

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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