HOUSTON -- The last time A.J. Hinch was inside Minute Maid Park was Jan. 13, 2020, the date Astros owner Jim Crane told the skipper the club was parting ways with both Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. The stunning news came only minutes after Major League Baseball announced it was suspending Hinch and Luhnow for a full season for their roles in the sign-stealing scandal.
Hinch spent the next nine months away from baseball and immersed himself in his family and friends, enjoying a rare summer off. The Tigers quickly hired him shortly after his suspension expired at the end of the 2020 season. And now, only nine games into his tenure in Detroit, Hinch is headed back to Minute Maid Park with the Tigers for a three-game series against the Astros that begins on Monday night.
“I haven't let myself go there emotionally, on returning to Houston, until probably tonight after the game, and we get in and land in the city and I go to a hotel that I have never stayed at before as a visiting person,” Hinch said Sunday. “But it's home for me, so there's a lot of emotions that are going to be involved.”
The Astros hired Hinch at the end of the 2014 season to take over a franchise that was on the cusp of contention following a massive rebuilding effort that resulted in three consecutive 100-loss seasons from 2011-13. The upstart Astros won 86 games in Hinch’s first season and made a surprising jump to the playoffs. They would go on to win three consecutive American League West titles from 2017-19, winning at least 100 games each season.
The crowning achievement was a 2017 World Series triumph over the Dodgers -- a title that was later brought into question in the fall of '19, when it was reported the Astros used a player-driven system to steal signs during home games that season. The fallout rocked the baseball world, and Hinch's run in Houston, which included two AL pennants, came to an end. He went 481-329 as a manager with the Astros, where he was beloved by fans.
“The Houston fans have been incredible to me, both before the sign-stealing, after the sign-stealing, when I was the manager there, now that I'm not the manager there,” Hinch said. “The Houston fans have been tremendously supportive to me and my family. You know, it's home for me, and that city matters to me. The fans have been tremendous, and obviously, it'll be very emotional when I see them.”
Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, who won the 2017 AL Most Valuable Player Award, said facing Hinch was going to be “a little weird.”
“I’m looking forward to talking to him and I wish him the best, but just not the next three games,” Altuve said.
While Astros players have been booed on the road this year, their fans at home remain loyal. It’s expected that Hinch will get a good reception from the crowd, which is being limited to 50% capacity during the month of April at Minute Maid Park. Astros manager Dusty Baker knows all about managerial homecomings, good and bad, and said Hinch deserves love.
“When I went back to San Francisco, it was always a welcome homecoming,” said Baker, who led the Giants to the 2002 National League pennant before taking over the Cubs the next year. “When I was in Chicago, [the homecoming] wasn’t very warm at all. A.J. did some great things here for this team, this organization and this town. He paid the price for whatever happened here, and I think they ought to embrace him like he deserves to be embraced.”
MLB.com’s Jason Beck contributed to this report