LAKELAND, Fla. — AJ Hinch said he was nervous one day on the job as Tigers manager in 2021.
His first day speaking to the team in Lakeland in his first season back in baseball had him wondering.
"Last year was very emotional for me personally, because I'd come off one of the most embarrassing situations," Hinch said in a sit-down interview in Lakeland.
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Hinch, 47, was open and honest about returning to baseball after the Astros scandal that resulted in Major League Baseball suspending him the entire 2020 season.
365 days later, Hinch is feeling much different.
"This year, it is so exciting to see guys come running into my office and give me a big hug. We have experiences to build on, relationships already built over a full season last year," he said.
The tiptoeing is gone.
"It's way more comfortable and allows me to get up and running a little bit faster, rather than have to pour the concrete of a foundation and relationship," added Hinch.
The results certainly help. Tigers surprised most in baseball, compiling a 77–85 record and giving hope to a fan base tired of a rebuild.
How do they take their next step with Hinch at the helm?
"It somewhat starts with leaving 2021 in the rear view mirror," Hinch said.
"We did establish a good foundation. Now we got a lot of work to do to get ready in a short period of time. I think you take the good from last season, build off of it for the people that have been here, we added some talent, and we need to address some areas that we weren't great at, but go forward."
The Tigers signed shortstop Javier Baez, starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, and traded for catcher Tucker Barnhart. Top prospects Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are expected to make the jump. Add that to the young core of pitchers and other emerging pieces like Akil Baddoo, plus a mix of veterans: and the Tigers believe they can contend for the American League Central.
Hinch has repeated publicly in camp this year he always enters a season prepared to win a division. This year, despite the White Sox leading the way as the Central's front-runner, Hinch's belief has some true substance.
THE PHONE CALL
The Astros used a camera-based sign-stealing system during the regular season and playoffs during their 2017 World Series season. Hinch was not sure how he would be welcomed in another clubhouse.
Hinch's suspension ended after the 2020 World Series. Tigers general manager Al Avila called 30 minutes after it ended.
"I'm so glad he did. I think what Al has to do with me is govern my patience. I'm ready to get going. I'm ready to get the players on the field. I'm ready to talk about winning. We got a lot of work to do to get there," he said.
Considering how well 2021 went, does Hinch ever rib Avila for not calling faster?
"30 minutes was enough," he laughed. "I would have answered the call in five minutes. I would have answered the call 45 minutes later, but I'm lucky to wear this uniform. I'm lucky to be the manager here."
The Tigers were not the only team calling Hinch once his suspension ended.
THE FUTURE... NOW
During his introductory press conference, he pointed to the young pitchers in the system. A year later, he mentioned Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal by name, calling them bona fide big leaguers.
"Where this team was when I was interviewing is different than it is now. Now we have some guys that have graduated to the big leagues that are now mainstays," he said.
"You look at Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal as the example, coming into this camp, knowing they're on this team. Last year they were in pencil and everybody wanted them to be on this team."
Hinch knows veterans on the team don't want to wait too long to win, and so expectations are heightened.
That goes for the fans too.
MAKING DETROIT PROUD
"We have some of the best fans in baseball," Hinch said. "My hope for them is they don't ride the roller coaster of what is a big league season. You can lose some games and drive yourself crazy, but there are better days ahead. You can also win some games, and nobody hangs a flag for a good April."
He played in Detroit, and now manages the team. The coronavirus pandemic limited how much anyone in the organization could interact with fans in public in 2021. That will change this season.
"The fact that we now have a little bit more freedom to interact, a little bit more freedom without the mask, without the restrictions, while we still want everyone to be healthy and COVID is still out there for you, it feels somewhat normal," Hinch explained. "And I think everybody needs normalcy back in their life."
Fans will spot him out in public more. After spending time wondering what it would be like in another clubhouse, Hinch should be confident how a baseball fan will welcome him.
"Detroit fans expect wins. If you don't win, you don't want to be recognized," he laughed.
Hinch and his wife have two daughters. Their family has a house in Birmingham. They feel at home.
"We want to be a part of this community," he said.
"We want to win together. To me, the best way to get back to normal is to get the Old English D back and winning ways, and get us back in the playoffs, and ultimately win a World Series for the Ilitch family."