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American idol in Japan

These days, Trey Hillman finds rest wherever he can.

It might be in the international terminal, as he awaits the next trans-Pacific crossover. Maybe it's tucked in among the cellphone calls and e-mail checks. Sometimes it's an idyllic moment with his family in the Texas hill country.

Trey Hillman
Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman

"There hasn't been a whole lot of rest," Hillman said recently from yet another airport, prior to a flight to New Zealand. "These last few months have been very hectic and very busy." Such is the life of a burgeoning sports icon.

Hillman ('91 BA) manages the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Major Leagues. In four seasons, he has turned the also-rans of Japanese baseball—a franchise that won only one pennant in 20 years—into the dominant team on the continent. The Fighters won both the 2006 Japan Series and the second annual Konami Cup Asia Series, a tournament of champions from China, Taiwan and South Korea.

"It was just incredible," he said of the championship experience. "It's indescribable, the feeling of elation that you have inside your head and inside your heart to provide millions of people with joy. Every night, you're playing in front of 45,000 fans … who are the best baseball fans anywhere in the world."

Last Nov. 18, 200,000 of them turned out for the Fighters' championship parade through downtown Sapporo. The next day, almost 40,000 more attended a fan fest event. "Our season runs from February through November, and you think they'd get tired of baseball," Hillman said. "But they don't. These people would just keep going."

Sort of like Hillman does, first as a player and now as a manager.

A 1992 inductee into the UT Arlington Athletics Hall of Honor, Hillman was an all-Southland Conference infielder three times during his playing days (1982-85). His .442 batting average as a senior is still a single-season school record. Former UT Arlington baseball coach Butch McBroom told UTA Magazine in 2002 that Hillman "was an outstanding college player who gave you everything he had the whole time he was on the field."

The Cleveland Indians drafted Hillman out of UT Arlington, but he never rose higher than Double-A. He retired from playing but stayed in the game as a scout and then as a minor league manager, winning three Manager of the Year awards in the New York Yankees' farm system. After a stint as director of player development for the hometown Texas Rangers, he returned to managing, in Japan in 2003.

Besides making him an instant celebrity in Japan (one story asserts that he's so big in Sapporo, even his children sign autographs), Hillman's success opened the door to opportunities back home. In recent months, he was a finalist for the manager's job with the Rangers, San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics. He interviewed with all three organizations during a 72-hour whirlwind between the Japan Series and the Asia Series before re-signing with the Fighters.

"I was told that I performed well in each interview, but ultimately I wasn't anyone's selection," he said. "Either there was a piece missing or it wasn't the right time. I think it was just God's timing and God's plan, honestly. There was a little disappointment … but I love what I’m doing right now. It's a very nice situation.

"We love it there, and we love the people we work with. The tough thing is the distance. If we could just bring our friends and family to Japan for nine months, it would be paradise."

When Hillman returns to Japan this spring, he'll have at least one Texas pal by his side. Dave Owen, in 1983 the first of six former Mavericks to reach the major leagues, has signed on to be an assistant coach with the Fighters.

In the meantime, a little downtime would be nice.

— Danny Woodward

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