KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Trey Hillman was criticized for the way he handled the bullpen at times, for some of his other in-game decisions, that he lost too many games in three years as Kansas City's manager.
What few will question, at least inside the Royals' organization, is Hillman's character.
That's what made it so tough when Hillman became the first manager to get fired this season and was replaced by former Milwaukee manager Ned Yost on Thursday.
"This game is a roller coaster, but the one thing that stayed consistent over the last couple of years was his character, the way he approached us every single day," Royals right-hander Brian Bannister said. "I know he gave 100 percent to us all the time. He was a man I was proud to play underneath. He was a man I looked up to."
Hillman had been considered a manager-in-waiting after spending 12 years in the Yankees' organization, where he won several manager of the year awards in the minors, and five more years in Japan. The 47-year-old built a reputation for working well with younger players, being attentive to details, possessing good communication skills.
He just didn't win enough in Kansas City.
The Royals went 75-87 his first season in 2008, then dropped to a last-place tie in the AL Central at 65-97 in an injury-filled 2009 season.
Kansas City entered this season with high expectations after adding a few new pieces and Zack Greinke back following his AL Cy Young Award last season.
Instead, the Royals seemed to take another step back.
The bullpen was a disaster-in-waiting for the second straight season, several starters struggled and the Royals couldn't score for Greinke, who was winless in seven starts before Thursday despite a 2.15 ERA.
Kansas City got off to a slow start, had a dismal 3-8 road trip that ended with a four-game sweep at Texas last weekend and plummeted to the bottom of the AL Central with a seven-game losing streak.
Hillman wasn't completely at fault, hurt by a weak bullpen and prospects who didn't pan out, including third baseman Alex Gordon, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2005 who's now converting to the outfield in the minors.
Still, someone had to take the fall for this season's 12-23 record and the manager is usually the first to go.
"There won't be any second-guessing," said Hillman, 152-207 in two-plus seasons with the Royals. "I have the ultimate respect for the people I work for, but to put it into perspective, sometimes things in this business work and sometimes they don't."
His replacement has plenty of experience.
Yost became the Brewers' manager in 2003 and was fired late in the 2008 season with the team in the playoff race. The Royals hired him last winter as a special adviser for baseball operations, starting speculation that Hillman was on his way out.
Yost was not in Kansas City on Thursday, but was expected to be at the helm for Friday's game against the Chicago White Sox and will remain there for the rest of the season.
"Ned, obviously, has been through what we're going through today," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "A lot of similarities to Trey, actually, as far as the energy, the relational skills that he has with people, somebody who knows our system."
It still wasn't an easy decision to replace Hillman, at least from an emotional standpoint.
Hillman had formed a strong bond with Moore and the players, his professionalism and straightforward-yet-easygoing approach rubbing off on everyone inside and outside the Royals' clubhouse.
Moore gave Hillman the gracious offer to manage one final game even after being fired and he gladly accepted, telling no one but his wife and holding in his emotions while leading the Royals to a 6-4 win over Cleveland.
Hillman broke the surprising news to the team in a brief meeting after the game, then spent 30 minutes taking questions from reporters and thanking nearly everyone in the organization for more than 30 minutes after Moore made his announcement.
"I love Trey Hillman, I love him as a ... ," said Moore, who needed several seconds to compose himself before continuing. "Obviously, it's a very difficult decision. The process is very difficult, relationships that are formed are very strong, but at the end of the day we've got to make decisions that are best for our baseball team and our organization long-term and that's the conclusion that we made."