TUCSON, Ariz. – Credibility is critical for a big-league manager.
A.J. Hinch feels he has earned that now, but last May, when he became manager of the Diamondbacks, he didn't have it, and he became aware of that in a hurry.
``I was 34 years old,'' he said. ``I'd never managed. I can run away and try to discount them, but the facts are the facts. ... I knew that going in, so it wasn't a surprise to me. Some of it was justified, and some of it was unfair.''
Hinch is in a much better place this spring in his attempt to revitalize an Arizona franchise that has gone from the NL West champion in 2007 to a last-place finisher in 2009.
Part of it is the Diamondbacks feel they addressed concerns during the offseason. With the anticipated return of Brandon Webb from surgery on his right shoulder, to go with Dan Haren, Arizona has a quality 1-2 rotation punch. The offseason brought starting pitchers Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy in trades. Arizona also added free-agent reliever Bob Howry, first baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Kelly Johnson.
A youthful home-grown nucleus that includes B.J. Upton, Stephen Drew and Mark Reynolds has another year of experience under its belt.
And, from a personal standpoint, Hinch is no longer an oddity, hired to manage a big-league team without ever having managed or coached at any level.
Of the 29 other big-league managers, only one never managed or coached before being given a lineup card to fill out - Joe Torre, who made his managerial debut as a player/manager with the Mets in 1977.
Hinch now has 119 big-league games of managerial experience. And it was an experience. Not only were the Diamondbacks 51-68 under Hinch, but his leadership also was frequently challenged by players.
This year, though, has a different feeling for Hinch. He had the offseason to prepare for what lies ahead, and he has the spring to reaffirm his leadership role. He also has a relationship with every player who will be on the Arizona roster.
``The returning players and I have spent five months together (during the season) and we've had a full winter together,'' he said. ``The new players are players I was involved in acquiring in trades or recruiting them to sign with us. We have had time this winter and will have more time this spring for them to get to know me and my personality.''
It wasn't that Hinch was foreign to a dugout atmosphere. Drafted out of high school and twice while he attended Stanford, he signed with Oakland as a third-round selection in 1995, and then spent all or part of seven seasons in the big leagues during a nine-year player career.
When he retired after the 2005 season, however, Hinch felt he had put on a uniform for the last time. He was ready to pursue a front-office career, and it began as the head of Arizona's minor-league organization.
``When I retired, I took the uniform off,'' he said. ``I wanted to develop an identity as an executive. I fought so hard for that that when I was back in uniform, I was a foreigner in uniform.''
Hinch seemed like a front-office interloper. He replaced Bob Melvin, who was very popular with the players, and had what became a stinging endorsement when general manager Josh Byrnes praised Hinch's ``organizational advocacy,'' creating the impression that Hinch was more a front-office puppet than anything else.
It didn't make things any better when it was disclosed that Melvin had actually been told three days before his firing was official, ordered to keep it private or he might be in violation of his contract, and then had the Arizona front office leak the story to Phoenix-area media while Melvin and the players were flying back to Arizona following a series in San Diego.
There also was a homestand which the Arizona higher-ups felt could serve as a quick boost to Hinch's credibility. Arizona not only lost two of three against Washington to kick off the Hinch era, but then also was swept in a three-game series against Cincinnati.
``I had a comfort level or I wouldn't have accepted the job,'' said Hinch. ``I was willing to accept the scrutiny and the challenge.''
It's a good thing, because there was plenty of scrutiny.
There have been managers who had no pro managerial or coaching experience, but not many. Pete Rose and Frank Robinson had an advantage because they were player/managers. Jim Fregosi, who was a veteran reserve in Pittsburgh one day and the manager of the Angels the next day, had managed in the Venezuelan winter league.
Then there was Ted Turner, the Braves owner whose dugout career was quickly ended by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, and broadcasters Jerry Coleman in San Diego and Larry Dierker in Houston, and Bobby Winkles, who went directly from the head coach at Arizona State University to managing the Angels.
``(Managing) is definitely a different perspective,'' said Hinch. ``There are no commercial breaks in the dugout. You are in charge of a lot of different moving parts. But once the game started, I honestly felt I was in my element. Did I make mistakes? Of course. Everyone makes mistakes, no matter how long they have managed.
``The big lesson I learned was that you can't learn until you are in the dugout. There were some bumps in the road, but it was nothing I didn't envision. There are certain things about this job that time has to serve as the most important ingredient. You can't force the issue.''