On October 31, 2017, Trey Hillman watched from his home in Austin, Texas, as the Houston Astros claimed its first World Series championship with a Game Seven win against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It was a surreal moment for the coach who had spent time with the Dodgers (2011–2013) and the Astros (2015–2016). In fact, had it not been for an unexpected set of circumstances that unfolded one year earlier, he too would have been in L.A., celebrating alongside Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and his old boss A.J. Hinch.
Instead, Hillman was enjoying his first offseason as manager of the SK Wyverns, a professional KBO League team based in Incheon, South Korea. While most in his position would have wrestled with the disappointment of what could have been, he was surprisingly confident in his decision to leave behind a contract extension with the Astros to pursue a unique opportunity halfway around the world.
“There's no other way to say it,” Hillman says. “It was a God thing. That's what it was. God's plan.”
Passions, Prayers & Plans
Since surrendering his life to Christ as a 13-year old, Hillman has held firmly to the belief that God has a plan for his life. The immediate plan was to pursue his two passions: music and baseball.
At the same time Hillman was turning heads as a star athlete in Arlington, Texas, he was also developing into a skilled vocalist and musician (guitar and drums). He led worship for his high school’s FCA huddle and continued in that role while playing college ball at UT-Arlington. Sometimes he would be asked to share his talents for FCA meetings at TCU in nearby Fort Worth.
But even though he wasn’t selected in the 1985 MLB Draft, Hillman knew in his heart that baseball was going to be the future.
“I remember during my prayer time after I went undrafted, I just asked God if He would bless me with the honor of being a professional baseball player,” he recalls. “I told Him I would do anything and everything I could to glorify Him through the game.”
Hillman’s prayer was answered. He signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Indians and spent the next three years bouncing around the club’s minor league system. After 162 games, however, it became clear that his plan to serve God through baseball was going to take a different path.
For the next season, Hillman stayed with the Indians as a scout. Then, he spent 12 years climbing the ranks within the Yankees organization as a minor league manager. Hillman’s impact was immediate. He led the A-level (short season) Oneonta Yankees to the New York-Penn League championship in 1990. Hillman then spent time at every other level possible including the A-level (advanced) Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League and the AAA Columbus Clippers.
During various points throughout that time period, Hillman worked with each member of the Yankees’ iconic “Core Four,” Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera. But perhaps more important was a relationship he developed with Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters president Tak Kojima and director of baseball operations Toshi Shimada through an agreement in which the Fighters would send players to participate in the Yankees fall league program.
Hillman left the Yankees in 2002 to join the Texas Rangers as director of player personnel, but Kojima and Shimada had something else in mind for the rising star—a job managing their Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) club in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
“It wasn’t anything I had ever expected or planned,” Hillman says. “But I felt secure in knowing that God had opened the door.”
Hillman had worked with a handful of Japanese players before but managing an entire team and working with Japanese executives and officials within a strikingly different culture would present the biggest challenge of his career.
“They view the game differently,” Hillman explains. “It’s not necessarily baseball. It’s work ball. They are going to work.”
In order to lighten the team’s load, Hillman began shortening workouts and focusing on quality over quantity. At first, it confused the players and even challenged their unique cultural commitment to Bushido or “the way of the Samurai,” a centuries-old code that emphasizes values such as courage, respect, honesty, loyalty, and honor. This led to an unusual encounter with shortstop Makoto Kaneko who approached Hillman during spring training.
“I understand what you’re trying to do, but in our culture, we place a high value on work,’” Kaneko explained. “If we don’t do enough work, we don’t feel like we’ve fulfilled our obligation to our fighting spirit.”
Hillman was thankful for the input and encouraged that his player would be comfortable enough to break through the traditional wall of authoritarianism to have that conversation. He took Kaneko’s words to heart and devised a way to blend his style with the needs of his players. But one thing Hillman wouldn’t change was his relationship-based style.
“I tried to make it a joyful atmosphere,” he says. “I wanted to turn that daily grind of the professional schedule into something that they looked forward to.”
As a self-avowed hugger, Hillman jokes that his touchy-feely approach was something that took a while for his Japanese players to, pun-intended, embrace. Pats on the shoulder and spontaneous bear hugs kept them on their toes. Towards the end of his first season, however, Hillman saw a gradual change.
“We were playing a home game at the Sapporo Dome when my centerfielder Hichori Morimoto ran by and slapped me on the butt,” he recalls. “That was very, very uncharacteristic, and my interpreter was actually quite shocked. I started laughing and said, ‘Okay. Here we go.’”
For the next five seasons, Hillman was blessed with talented players like Keneko, Morimoto, and a young pitcher named Yu Darvish who would later play for the Rangers, the Dodgers and (currently) the Cubs. In 2006, the Fighters finally hit their stride and broke through with a historic Japan Series title—the club’s first in 44 years.
Hillman’s popularity grew to near legendary proportions, as did his platform. Even before the championship, he was working with ministries like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to reach the Japanese people with the gospel. Hillman participated in a 2006 crusade in Okinawa and has since returned for events in Osaka (2010), Sapporo (2013), and Tokyo (2015).
And while those opportunities allowed for bolder proclamations of faith, Hillman was always well aware of the heavy responsibility he had been given in the clubhouse.
“Without trying to turn people off to my Christianity, I just talked to my players and staff about the basis for my faith system,” he says. “And the basis for my faith system was to love them and to serve them. That was something very different for that culture. Managers are put up on an extremely high pedestal. That wasn’t something I was very excited about. It was cool for about five minutes and then it got old. So I just continued to show my faith mostly through my actions but also with my words as the doors were opened.”
In 2007, Hakkaido-Nippon again reached the Japan Series but this time lost to the Chunichi Dragons. With that, it was time for Hillman to come home.
“It all ended beautifully,” Hillman says. “We still have some great relationships with many of the people there. Who knows? I might even go back and work there again one day if that’s God’s plan.”
The Korean Surprise
Hillman’s accomplishments in Japan preceded his return to the United States. While certain aspects of the baseball fan base can occasionally snub their noses at success in the Far East, executives and well-versed members of the media understood the significance of what he had done there.
But there was negative precedent as well. In 2005, Bobby Valentine led the Chiba Lotte Marines to its first Japan Series title in 33 years. His successful stint there led to speculation that a return to the Major Leagues was inevitable. In 2012, Valentine ended up with the Boston Red Sox for what ended as a disastrous one-year experiment.
Kansas City, however, wasn’t concerned about overhype surrounding Hillman’s international success and hired him to take over the team in 2008. He showed signs of turning the club around that first season with an improved 75-87 record, but a poor showing in 2009 ultimately led to his firing in May of 2010.
It was back to bench coaching for Hillman who’d never had much of a taste for big league media attention or its inherent politics. Three seasons with Don Mattingly in Los Angeles led to two years with A.J. Hinch in Houston with a year as special assistant to the Yankees squeezed in between. Both the Dodgers and the Astros were slowly developing into championship contenders.
After the Astros missed the 2016 playoffs by five games, Hillman comfortably watched the playoffs from home. His next two years were set with a one-year contract and an option for 2018. He was happy to work three hours away from Austin—close to home and working for a winning team.
That all changed when his phone rang during the third inning of the World Series between the Cubs and the Indians. On the line was a representative of the SK Wyverns who wanted to fly to Texas and interview Hillman for the team’s vacant managerial position. While the chance to manage in Japan wasn’t out of the blue, the opportunity to lead a club in Korea was shocking—a downright surprise.
Everything moved quickly from there and within two weeks Hillman had signed a two-year deal to become the second foreign manager in KBO history and the fourth manager in baseball history to manage teams in eight different professional divisions.
“Thankfully my wife Marie is an angel,” Hillman laughs. “She is very faithful and adaptable, just like anyone has to be in this crazy professional baseball life.”
For Hillman, the appeal wasn’t just about the challenge of going to a brand new place and putting in a new system but it was even more so about having another platform from which to profess his faith in a foreign country.
One of the first people to take notice of Hillman’s move to Korea was Will Thompson, a former college baseball player turned director of FCA Japan. Thompson had met Hillman at the 2013 “Celebration of Hope” event in Sapporo, which led to their ongoing friendship and joint ministry efforts.
In May of 2017, Thompson scheduled a trip to visit Hillman in Korea where he introduced Jin Kang, Chris Kim, and other key FCA Korea staff. Hillman quickly caught the vision for doing baseball ministry throughout the country. He also gave Kang and Kim an open door invitation to hold chapel services for his players and Bible studies for his coaches.
“Trey is probably one of the top 3Dimensional coaches out there,” Thompson says. “He’s the complete package. He’s the real deal. He was able to open a lot of doors that otherwise would have never been opened. It’s a really big deal in Asia to have access to the manager of a professional baseball team.”
Just like in Japan, Hillman’s goal was to put together a great team and use his position to show his players and coaches the love of God. Although not nearly as rigid as their Japanese counterparts, the Korean players also had to get used to their new manager’s style.
And it worked.
Hillman quickly became a favorite not just amongst his players but also with the team’s growing fan base. In one of his most famous moments, he was ejected from a game—with help from his interpreter—while passionately arguing a call at home plate. The stadium even sold the “Hillman Steak Burger” in his honor.
In 2018, Hillman cemented his Korean legacy when the Wyverns pulled off a stunning upset of the dominant Doosan Bears to claim the club’s fourth KBO championship. He also made history by becoming the first manager to win both the Japan Series and the Korea Series. A few days later, Hillman was named an honorary citizen of Incheon.
“It doesn’t always work out that good guys finish on top,” Thompson says. “But I thought it was really cool how God worked everything out in Korea for Trey to have so much ministry impact and win at the same time. It was a real testament of what a 3Dimensional coach looks like and the impact they can make.”
Love and Baseball
Hillman’s return to the United States was bittersweet. He had fallen in love with the Korean people and its culture but needed to tend to his aging parents and in-laws. In 2019, Hillman joined the Miami Marlins and has thus far enjoyed working with the team’s young players despite the positive results not yet showing up on the field.
And while Hillman concerns himself with impacting players today, Thompson wonders what Hillman’s impact has been on Asian sports culture.
“Asian baseball, especially in Japan, can be militaristic and very serious,” he explains. “They have bullying and corporal punishing issues in the sport. That’s why what Trey did in Korea and Japan was so unprecedented. He knew how to win the heart and speak to internal motivation.”
Thompson is hopeful that Hillman’s example along with FCA Japan and FCA Korea’s efforts to bring 3D coaching to the sports world there will be the beginning of much needed changes.
“That’s something we're always thinking about everyday in East Asia—how God will change the coaching culture here,” he says. “It’s going to take finding those influential coaches that will be the ones to take that philosophy to their own culture.”
Confirmation of that possibility recently came to Hillman in the form of an email from the Buddhist owner of the SK Wyverns.
“I’ll never forget when you told me that your priorities are God, family, and occupation in that order,” the man wrote. “When you told me that, I knew that we had a man of faith I knew that we had a man that was going to stay principled and focused on what needed to be done the right way in his life in order to do the right things for the team.”
Hillman doesn’t know what next year will bring. Thompson is happy to know that he hasn’t discounted a possible return to Japan. But no matter where Hillman coaches or manages throughout the rest of his career, you can be assured his motivation will first and foremost be all about expanding the Kingdom of God with his favorite Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 13:13, as his ultimate inspiration.
Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.
“I've failed many times, but I just try to love people where God has them right now, not where I think they should be,” Hillman says. “That's not my job. That's God's job to be their judge. My job is to just figure out a way to build relationships and figure out a way to love people wherever they are.”