HOUSTON -- The coronavirus protocols in place this season for players, coaches, managers and others working in baseball meant Tigers manager A.J. Hinch wasn’t able to sleep in his own bed upon his return Sunday night to the city where he managed the Astros to the 2017 World Series title -- and where he remains a beloved sports figure.
Hinch, who still makes his offseason home in Houston, was limited to a quick visit with his wife, Erin, and the family dog outside the team hotel, where Hinch stayed instead of heading to his suburban home. His return prompted text messages from Astros players like Lance McCullers Jr. -- one of five remaining from the 2017 team. A morning walk in the familiar Houston humidity to get coffee Monday quickly served as a reminder for Hinch of how much he’s still appreciated by Astros fans.
“Recognizing me in a mask, I didn’t expect that, but I got it,” he said on Monday before the series opener between the Tigers and Astros. “The fans have been just tremendously supportive to me. We went through hurricanes, we went through playoff runs and two World Series and one of the ugliest departures. That’s established a great relationship with me and the fans around Houston.”
When Hinch came out on the field for batting practice about two hours before first pitch, there were handshakes and hugs from Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve -- two key members of the 2017 team -- and other players and coaches. A sign in the stands read, “Home is where the heart is, welcome home, AJ.”
Hinch said emotions would be on “full tilt.”
Just minutes before first pitch, the Astros played a tribute video on the scoreboard, and Hinch received a huge ovation before coming out of the visitor’s dugout to tip his cap to the crowd. “Thank you AJ,” the scoreboard read. Hinch and Astros manager Dusty Baker hugged at home plate when lineup cards were exchanged.
“A big thanks to the Astros and certainly the fans,” Hinch said after the Tigers’ 6-2 win over the Astros. “I mean, this place is very special to me. It's the only time I've ever been uncomfortable in this setting, in this building. I really do appreciate it. It touched me. I wanted to get out, tip my cap and let everybody know I appreciated it and get inside before I showed too much emotion. But it meant a lot to me.”
Hinch’s firing in January 2020 in the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal forced him out of the game for the entire ’20 season and led to some much-needed soul-searching. Once he was hired by the Tigers shortly after the World Series ended last year, he looked at the ’21 schedule and saw an early season trip to Houston. Even as the trip got closer, Hinch wasn’t sure what to expect.
“You don’t spend five years together and simply walk away and not have relationships,” Hinch said. “There’s a lot of people in the organization I care about, a lot of players, a lot of executives. [Astros owner] Jim Crane and I have stayed in touch. It’s a relationship that was built over a long time, and they’ve treated me fine.”
Hinch’s connection with Houston goes deeper than baseball. He was the manager of the Astros for only five years and reached the playoffs four times, including two World Series, but his inspirational on-field speech at Minute Maid Park eight days after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the area was an indelible moment from the 2017 season. The Astros had been displaced, but he had friends who lost their homes and some who nearly lost their lives. It was personal.
“Standing in front of that crowd and coming back and delivering a speech was probably the most nervous and most emotional I've been wearing a uniform,” he said. “That mattered to me, and the people in Houston have let me know that it mattered to them.”
The Tigers will play three games in Houston. Then Hinch will fly out with the team Wednesday and won’t return until the offseason. Each subsequent trip to Houston will be done with less fanfare. The emotions will lessen, and scars will heal.
“This is where I call home,” he said. “My daughter's in high school here. I have a daughter who graduated high school here. We own property here. I come home here. My best friends are here. I mean, Houston's home, and it's because of the way that my family was embraced when I when first got here and through some of the best times and, ultimately, some of the lowest times.”
MLB.com reporter Jason Beck contributed to this report