Soon after A.J. Hinch was suspended and fired in January for his role in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, Detroit Tigers Chairman Chris Ilitch wondered from afar if, and how, Hinch would be welcomed back into baseball after serving his penalty.
Ilitch did not wait long to find out.
It may take years for the stigma of one of the most infamous cheating scandals in sports to fade from Hinch, the manager of the 2017 Astros team that was found to have cheated on its way to a championship. But less than 30 minutes after Hinch’s season-long suspension from Major League Baseball officially expired with the end of the World Series on Tuesday night, he had been contacted by Detroit.
And less than 72 hours after that, Ilitch introduced Hinch as the Tigers’ 39th manager during a news conference at Comerica Park on Friday.
“This is a man who had learned and grown from the experience,” Ilitch said, “and that resonated with me.”
Hinch, along with Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow, was fired by the Astros after an investigation by Major League Baseball determined that players on the team had illegally used a video feed to steal signs from opposing catchers. Soon after that, M.L.B. suspended Hinch and Luhnow.
In only his second interview since the suspensions were handed down in January, Hinch, 46, expressed contrition during the news conference on Friday, taking full responsibility for what happened.
“That is our reality,” he said, “because wrong is wrong, and it was very wrong, and I’ll make sure that everyone knows that I feel responsible. Because I was the manager and it was on my watch, and I’ll never forget it.”
In five seasons with Hinch as manager, the Astros went 481-329, winning the World Series in 2017 and the American League pennant in 2019. But in an article in The Athletic last November, the former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, now with the Oakland Athletics, detailed how players had illegally stolen signs from a video feed and then banged on trash cans in the dugout to signal to their teammates at the plate what pitch was coming.
Hinch was not found to be directly involved in the caper, and was said to have generally frowned on it. But the report said he did not put a stop to it or overtly express his displeasure. On Friday, he never deflected responsibility or tried to diminish his role.
“I understand how wrong it, was and I’m sorry for that,” Hinch said as he sat between Ilitch and Al Avila, the Tigers’ general manager. “I’ll never forget the feeling that I’ve had 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 is going to be all about.”
This is the third managerial position for Hinch. He also managed parts of two seasons for the Arizona Diamondbacks, in 2009 and 2010.
Alex Cora, who was Hinch’s bench coach in 2017 and went on to manage the Boston Red Sox to the 2018 World Series championship, was also suspended by M.L.B. and fired by Boston for his role in the Astros’ 2017 scheme. Hinch’s return to baseball could help provide a pathway for Cora to return to M.L.B. as well, and he has been reported to be a candidate for the Red Sox’s open manager position.
The Tigers, who last won the World Series in 1984, have not reached the playoffs since 2014, and they needed a new manager after Ron Gardenhire retired in September.
Avila said Hinch’s work with young Astros stars like Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman had made him a strong candidate to lead and develop the Tigers. He told Hinch during the interview process that the Tigers were past the rebuilding stage, had moved into the building stage and were close to “getting into the fun, pretty soon,” as Hinch put it.
With the introductory news conference over, Hinch’s next challenge will be to address his tainted past with his new players, some of whom — especially pitchers — may have been victims of the Astros’ misdeeds.
“Those are tough conversations, and I will have them one by one,” he said, and added: “There is a clear message that that is part of my story and part of my career. It’s not a part of the players that I am going to be managing.”
Hinch said he had spent a good deal of time over the past nine months reflecting on what had transpired in Houston. He also said he had contracted the coronavirus in September and called the experience “scary.”
Teams were not allowed to engage in formal conversations with Hinch until his suspension was over, so he was counting down the final outs of the World Series on Tuesday night, waiting to begin the next chapter of his life.
“I was ready for the World Series to be over as soon as possible,” he said.
About 30 minutes after the final out, his phone rang. After talking with Avila, Hinch jumped on a plane to Detroit Wednesday morning and went through interviews over the next two days. Ilitch sat in on the interviews, and at one point Avila told Hinch he had canceled Hinch’s flight back home so they could continue to talk, and they soon reached an agreement.
“I believe to my core that A.J. is going to conduct himself in the appropriate manner,” Ilitch said. “Beyond appropriate manner, in all regards.”