DETROIT — As he waited out his suspension this year, AJ Hinch knew he wanted to return to baseball. The question was whether anyone in the sport would be ready to welcome him.
His answer came pretty quickly.
“About 30 minutes after the World Series' last out, my phone rang,” Hinch said.
It was Detroit general manager Al Avila, telling Hinch to get on a plane. The Tigers quickly hired Hinch as their new manager, giving him a chance to return to a major league dugout after he was fired by Houston in the wake of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
It may take a while for Hinch to overcome the stigma of what happened in Houston, but he and his new bosses were ready to address the topic Friday.
“I understand the question and I understand how wrong it was, and I'm sorry for that," Hinch said. "I've said that before, I'll say it again, I'll continue to say it. I'll never forget the feeling that I've had throughout the past year as I've navigated this with my family, but you quickly get to the exciting time of getting back and leading a group of men again, and establishing what Tigers baseball's going to be all about.
“I'm sorry that today, that has to be a topic, and I understand why.”
The 46-year-old Hinch replaces Ron Gardenhire, who retired late this season. He takes over a team that has been rebuilding for the past few years.
Hinch guided Houston to the 2017 World Series title, but that championship — and a lot of what he accomplished there — is now viewed in a different light after an investigation found the Astros used a video feed from a centre field camera to decode the opposing catcher’s signs, and players banged on a trash can to signal to hitters what was coming. In January, Major League Baseball suspended Hinch and Astros GM Jeff Luhnow for the season and the Astros immediately fired both.
Hinch said then that he hadn't endorsed the sign stealing but had failed to stop it.
“I started thinking right then and there, when AJ and Jeff got suspended, what's going to happen to those two guys? Are those two guys going to be back in the sport? Would they be welcomed back in the sport?” said Christopher Ilitch, the Tigers’ chairman and CEO. “As time went on, and I just sort of watched from afar, how everybody that was involved with that handled themself, I really admired the way AJ handled himself.”
Hinch said he was very happy when the season was able to start, and he also went on a couple family trips. He also said he contracted the coronavirus, which made for some scary times in September.
He knew, however, that he didn't want to be away from the game for long.
“I always knew that I wanted to get back into baseball," he said. “It was a matter of, I think the game and the people within the game will tell you where that’s going to be, if it’s going to be anywhere."
Hinch said he was counting down the outs to the end of the post-season , when he could start having serious interviews with any interested teams. On Thursday, the Chicago White Sox announced the hiring of Hall of Famer Tony La Russa for that managerial opening. Hinch said he never interviewed for that position.
On Friday, the Tigers announced a multiyear deal with Hinch. He had a connection with the organization, having played for Detroit in 2003.
“We had a pretty good knowledge of AJ, of who he was," Avila said. “There was never a doubt in my mind of his character, honesty — he's one of the better guys that you're going to meet in the game, or in life in general. One mistake does not determine a man.”
Detroit went 23-35 in this shortened season, finishing last in the AL Central. That’s been a familiar spot for the Tigers recently — Detroit lost 114 games in 2019 -- but the team has been able to pick high in the draft during this stretch. Casey Mize, the top overall pick in 2018, reached the majors this year, and Detroit used this year’s No. 1 selection on infielder Spencer Torkelson.
Left-hander Tarik Skubal made his big league debut this season along with Mize. While these youngsters have yet to prove they can make the Tigers contenders again, Detroit will hope Hinch can replicate what he did in Houston.
Hinch, a former big league catcher, managed Arizona from May 2009 until July 2010. When he took over the Astros before the 2015 season, they had not finished above .500 since 2008. Houston then had a winning record in all five years under Hinch, including that 2017 World Series title and the 2019 American League pennant.
Hinch is 570-452 as a major league manager. He played from 1998-2004, spending time with Oakland, Kansas City, Detroit and Philadelphia.
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Noah Trister, The Associated Press