Hinch: 'The good times are coming' to Detroit

October 30th, 2020

The champagne hadn’t dried from the Dodgers’ World Series celebration Tuesday night, 30 minutes after the final out, when A.J. Hinch’s phone rang. Tigers general manager Al Avila was calling.

“I still had Al’s number in my phone from all the years when I’ve known him in different jobs,” Hinch said. “I said, 'Hello,' and he said, 'A.J., this is Al, and I’d like to get you on a plane tomorrow.'”

Less than 72 hours later, Hinch was on a podium at Comerica Park with a Tigers hat and a managerial job again.

It wasn’t the first time Hinch had gotten a sudden call from Avila. He was a backup catcher in Spring Training with the Indians in 2003 when the Tigers acquired him at the end of camp for catching depth.

“Al was actually the one that came and got me out of a Spring Training clubhouse to tell me that I got traded to the Tigers,” Hinch remembered. “Now, I thought he meant the Detroit Tigers, but he meant the Toledo Mud Hens to start the year.”

Hinch eventually made it up to Detroit and played 27 games, including the season finale that the Tigers won to avoid a historic 120-loss season. It was his only year with the Tigers, who built up from there to reach the World Series three years later.

He returned Friday hoping to lead a similar comeback.

“I was here when the expectations were low and there was a lot of what’s-going-to-happen-next type feeling from fans, from players, from coaches, from everybody,” Hinch said. “You don’t have to drag that into the future. You don’t have to have a losing record. You don’t have to accept the fact that no one’s going to predict the Tigers to do anything but get better. And I think the players will resonate with what is possible.

“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of things to do between now and when a team is put on the field, but the good times are coming. We’ve got to go put in the work to make sure that happens because this fan base, this ownership group, this front office and these players, they deserve it.”

In the process, the redemption story might well include his own. Despite a World Series title with the Astros in 2017, a seven-game battle with the Nationals in last year's Fall Classic that ended exactly one year ago, five winning seasons in as many years in Houston and a .558 career winning percentage as a Major League manager, Hinch was out of baseball this season. He was dismissed by the Astros and suspended for a year as a result of Major League Baseball’s investigation of the Astros’ sign-stealing allegations.

The suspension officially ended with the final out of the World Series, which is why Hinch was counting down the outs in Game 6 like a Dodgers fan. The Tigers were the first to call, but they were equally efficient in discussing the situation.

“Coming into this managerial search, we already knew that A.J.’s diverse baseball acumen, knowledge of analytics and passion for the game were second to none,” Avila said. “However, we also knew there were some important conversations to have about A.J.’s time in Houston. Throughout that dialogue, he was clearly remorseful and used that time to reflect on the situation, and we believe he will emerge as a better leader because of it.

"This ballclub is entering an extremely exciting period, with young players primed and ready to make an impact at the Major League level. I’m confident A.J. is the best man for this job as we strive to bring a World Series championship back to the city of Detroit.”

The Tigers have known Hinch for years, beyond his brief playing tenure here. When Hinch worked a decade ago in the Padres' front office as their director of pro scouting, one of his top scouts was Scott Bream, who is now the Tigers’ director of pro personnel and a trusted assistant to Avila. They knew Hinch's ability to blend modern analytics with traditional player evaluation fit the profile of what they were seeking. As Avila and Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch said, Hinch checked all the boxes.

But the club also wanted to hear Hinch’s side. Not just what happened in Houston, but what he learned from it in his season away.

“I sat through all the interviews and meetings with A.J. when he came to meet with our ballclub,” Ilitch said. “And I can say I was impressed in all respects, but especially how I believe he’s grown from this experience in a positive way. For me, that meant a lot, because our town, our ballclub, our organization, we have high expectations for how we’re going to perform on the field in terms of wins and losses, but also how we conduct ourselves. And I believe to my core that A.J. is going to conduct himself in the appropriate manner in all regards based on what I’ve seen from him over these past couple years, and really over the last year.”

Said Hinch: “As I told Mr. Ilitch and Al both, that’s part of my story. It’s not the Tigers’ story. I understand how wrong it was, and I’m sorry for that. I’ll never forget the feeling that I’ve had throughout the past year as I’ve navigated this with my family.”

Hinch believes he’s a better leader than he was a few years ago, from that experience as well as from the two World Series runs. He believes he’s also better for his season away, a summer that included a bout with COVID-19 in September that he called scary.

“Players want authenticity,” Hinch said. “They want to be relatable. They want to see the things that you can do to help them become better. That’s got to be earned. I’ve got some relationships to build. I’ve got a lot of history and a lot of experiences to share. And we’ve got to do it pretty quickly, because when we get on the field, we’re going to expect to win that day’s game. And that mindset has to be instilled from the beginning of Spring Training.”

Hinch finished with a 481-329 record in five seasons as the Astros' manager. He won 101-plus games in each of his final three seasons, and he never finished with a losing record. Add in two years as D-backs manager in 2009 and '10, and Hinch owns a 570-452 record in seven Major League seasons. He also helped turn a collection of talented Astros prospects into a perennial contender.

The Tigers’ challenge tugged at Hinch’s player-development roots.

“I’m aware of where the farm system is,” Hinch said. “I’m aware of their recent Drafts. I’m aware of some of the development of the young pitching. And you look at some of the development that’s already happened, and some of the development that I think I can fast-forward with the help of a good coaching staff, it’s an exciting opportunity where this place is going.”