A year after becoming the American League's unanimous MVP, Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani continues to shine, and it is worth noting that without a fearless organization behind him from the start of his pro career in Japan in 2013 the batting and pitching star's story would be quite different.
Although Ohtani's two-way role was necessitated by the need to keep him from going to the United States as a pitcher out of high school, the Nippon Ham Fighters committed 100 percent to the novel decision.
Trey Hillman, who managed the Fighters in Japan's Pacific League from 2003 to 2007, said in retrospect, nurturing Ohtani's unusual skill set was in keeping with the team's knack for setting trends and being different.
A year before their ground-breaking 2004 move from Tokyo to Sapporo, the Fighters hired Hillman, who managed them to PL pennants in 2006 and 2007, the franchise's first since 1981.
"I see the parallel very clearly because of what I experienced," Hillman told Kyodo News recently. "They (the Fighters) are kind of trend setters. They hire an American manager that did not have any international experience and no major league time."
"It's very relatable to what they did with Ohtani. They showed a tremendous lack of fear for...making wise decisions on someone they thought had an opportunity to be a great commodity and a two-way player."
Since leaving the Fighters, Hillman has seemingly been everywhere and done everything, managing, coaching and working in MLB player development, and in 2018 becoming the first manager to win both a Japan Series and a Korean Series.
This year, Hillman followed in Ohtani's footsteps, becoming the Angels' player development staff coach, a position that allows him more time with his family in Texas than his previous gig as an MLB bench coach with the Miami Marlins.
And though he has not worked for Nippon Ham in an official capacity since he left after losing the 2007 Japan Series, Hillman remains close to the team, and spoke highly of Ohtani's mentor, former Fighters and current Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama, and how he helped Ohtani along by having his back.
"I know he did a wonderful job as manager of the Fighters," Hillman said.
"He (Kuriyama) probably handled the hundreds of questions (about Ohtani) that might have been slanted...to come out like 'Hey, you shouldn't be doing this,' putting Shohei at ease as he ventured into...being a two-way player in a (Japanese) culture where it's not easy to do."
Hillman sees the same kind of fearlessness in the team's hiring of a first-time manager who had been away from baseball since his 2006 retirement, the colorful Tsuyoshi Shinjo, whom he managed in Sapporo.
"He came in with his flamboyant behavior and his great pleasing way in everything that he did and continues to do now that he's a manager," said Hillman, who during his tenure let his players lighten up and be themselves more.
"We're a sport, yes. But we're also an entertainment industry and it needs to...serve what is best for the entertainment and the relationship between the players and the fans to some degree."
He now expects to renew his relationship with the Fighters and their fans when the team opens its new ballpark in Kitahiroshima, Hokkaido, next March.
"That is definitely in the plans," Hillman said. "Marie, my precious wife, and I know that our daughter, who was once a little Fighters cheerleader, wants to come, and that our son wants to come."
"I don't know if we'll get the whole family there, but good Lord willing, Marie and I will be in attendance there for opening day."