'Connections' with players are Hinch's priority

In second Major League managerial stint, Astros skipper focusing on building relationships

October 10th, 2017

HOUSTON -- was not in the lineup. He was not thrilled, and Astros manager A.J. Hinch knew he owed his terrific young third baseman an explanation.

Hinch needed to get into a game, and to decide who wouldn't play, he'd put the names of his regular infielders into a hat and drew one.

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"So you picked my name?" Bregman asked.

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"I picked Correa's name," Hinch said, referring to Astros All-Star shortstop . "But I put it back in there and drew again."

Well, all righty then.

One thing Hinch has learned during two stints as a Major League manager -- one very successful, one not so much -- is that almost nothing is more important than building relationships and trust with his players.

Hinch's bond with Bregman was built shortly after he made his debut with the Astros midway through the 2016. Bregman was one of the most highly regarded prospects in the game and just more than a year removed from his final game at LSU.

Bregman started his big league career by going 0-for-18 and then 2-for-32. Fans complained that he needed to be shipped back to the Minor Leagues.

Hinch took the opposite approach. Early in the slump, he told Bregman he was moving him from sixth in the batting order to second.

"This move reflects what the organization thinks of you," Hinch told him. "And what I think of you."

When the slump continued, Hinch and Bregman talked again.

"You've got to be kind of lucky to be 2-for-32," Hinch said. "Someday, you'll be able to tell young players about this. It'll be a great lesson."

Hinch's message was that he hadn't lost an ounce of confidence in Bregman, and that Bregman shouldn't lose confidence in himself.

Bregman collected three hits a couple of days after that chat, and he was on his way to becoming precisely what the Astros projected him to be. In 194 Major League games, he has an .850 OPS, 52 doubles, 27 home runs and eight triples.

Bregman's game-tying home run off Chris Sale in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan on Monday helped the Astros throw a 5-4 knockout punch.

If Hinch's relationship with one player can reveal how he has changed in his second stint as a Major League manager, this might be it.

"I think I now understand the importance of connecting with players," Hinch said. "I think as a player, you have an opinion on what managers and coaches do. As a manager, you have a completely different appreciation of what it actually is and how much of the unknown you didn't know as a player.

"There's a lot about the game as a manager you need to govern that pales in comparison to the relationships and the connections you need with players. You don't learn that until you get in this job.

"Maybe that was my naive side of having not managed or coached in the Minor Leagues. Or maybe everybody just has to learn that at this level. The X's and O's are important. The connecting with the front office is important. But the No. 1 priority, if you want to be good in this job, is you've got to connect with your players and get the most out of them."

Hinch was 89-123 during parts of the 2009 and '10 seasons with the D-backs. He was just 35 when he got the job. Saddled with a bad club and some opinionated veteran players, things came unraveled.

In the years after that, as Hinch toiled in a variety of jobs with the Padres, he yearned to manage again. He was interviewed by both the Astros and Cubs, and the second time around, after the 2014 season, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow hired him.

The Astros made their first postseason appearance in a decade that first season -- 2015 -- and in three years since, only the Indians have won more regular-season games.

"In my heart, in my soul, I wanted to do it again," Hinch said. "In my own sort of self-protection mode, I didn't want a lot of people to know it, in case I didn't get the opportunity."

Hinch played for Art Howe and Gene Lamont, for Charlie Manuel and others during seven seasons with four organizations. He surely took a little bit from all of them. But when he reflected on the things he did and didn't do with Arizona, he remembers what he most admired about Manuel.

"I don't have the 'good old boy' in me that he does," Hinch said. "But his way of connecting with people was really good."

Hinch's players say some of the same things about their skipper.

"We go back and forth," pitcher said. "We've had times when we've almost come to blows about taking me out of a game. And then it's forgotten. I know he has what he sees as the best interests of the team at heart. That's all you can ask for."

Earlier this season, when pitcher Brad Peacock didn't like being removed from a game, Hinch could tell he was upset. He told him he wanted him to be upset, that he wanted him to go deeper into games as much as Peacock did.

"I don't slam my door on them," Hinch said. "I don't turn my back on them. I don't talk to them when they're good and not talk to them when they're bad. That's appreciated more than the unknown. When our players show up, they know what to expect from me."

This was a different kind of season for the Astros, and not just because they pretty much had the AL West wrapped up by the All-Star break.

When Houston was battered by Hurricane Harvey in August, Hinch put an eloquent voice to the city's turbulence. When the Astros were stranded in Florida while their city was ravaged by floodwaters, Hinch spoke through tears.

"We just want to go home, hug our families and see what we can do to help our city," Hinch said. "That's not a good feeling to know we can't do anything about it from here. We hope and pray that things are going to get better."

Hinch spoke of neighbors who'd strapped boats onto trucks and drove through neighborhoods to offer help.

"They're not rescuers," Hinch said. "They're not First Responders. They're just grown men that are trying to do something really good for people. Those stories, those images of people carrying babies across flooded streets, to be honest with you, I wish I was one of those guys carrying a baby. I wish I could help someone right now."

When the Astros returned home on Aug. 31, they dived into relief work, and before a cathartic return against the Mets on Sept. 2 at Minute Maid Park, Hinch took to the public-address microphone.

"We want to thank everyone in the city of Houston that's doing good for someone else," Hinch said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with your family.

"We wear this [Houston Strong] patch on our jersey for the rest of the year to represent you. So stay strong, be strong."

Later, Hinch said, "[That was] the most emotions I've ever had on a field, when you had our city under water and some fans that came out …"

When the Astros clinched the AL West, he began a wild clubhouse celebration by telling his players, "Look around this room. This might be the best team you're ever a part of."

When the Astros won the ALDS on Monday, Hinch called it "the next step." He also encouraged his players to celebrate and to appreciate what they'd accomplished.

For Hinch, he has tried to soak up bits and pieces along the way.

"What we do is not that easy, and you'd better be able to enjoy it as you're going through it," Hinch said. "You walk into that room every day and you're happy to be there. That's how I feel about managing this group."