Trey Hillman will leave the SK Wyverns better than he found it -- as the champions of South Korean baseball.
The Wyverns won the 2018 Korean Series on Monday after beating the Doosan Bears 5-4 in 13 innings in Game 6. And during his two-year stint, the American manager transformed the Wyverns into the Korea Baseball Organization champions, their days of being an underachieving team already a distant memory.
But Hillman won't be around to take a crack at a second straight title. He announced last month, just before the end of the regular season, that he won't be returning as the Wyverns manager next year. He will instead try to spend more time with his ailing parents back in the United States.
Talk about going out on top.
Hillman became the Wyverns manager in November 2016, taking on a team that had missed the postseason in three of the four previous seasons. In 2017, the Wyverns earned a spot in the wild card game by finishing fifth in the regular season, but lost to the NC Dinos to get sent home right away.
In 2018, the Wyverns stayed in the top three for the majority of the season and earned the second seed for the postseason. After holding off the Nexen Heroes in a tough five-game series, the Wyverns knocked off the regular season champions Doosan Bears in six games to capture the Korean Series on Monday.
Hillman made his announcement of impending departure before the postseason began so there wouldn't be any distractions surrounding the club. And Hillman's players responded with their gutsy postseason run, rallying around their outgoing manager and sending him off with a championship ring.
Hillman, former manager of the Kansas City Royals and with a Japanese league title with Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters to his credit, said the Korean Series title "ranks right at the top" on the list of his career achievements.
"It's incredible," Hillman said in his post-championship press conference, all soaked in champagne. "The people I've got around (me), the relationships we have, and the love that we have for each other ... it's really special."
The Wyverns survived a wild Game 5 in the penultimate playoff series against the Nexen Heroes. The Wyverns saw their 9-4 lead with two outs in the top of the ninth evaporate in a hurry, as the Heroes put up a five-spot to force extra innings. The Heroes went ahead 10-9 in the top of the 10th, but the Wyverns came right back in the bottom 10th with Kim Kang-min's game-tying solo blast and Han Dong-min's walk-off solo shot that sent the Wyverns to the Korean Series.
The Wyverns were the best home run-hitting club in the regular season -- their league-leading total of 233 was just one shy of the all-time record they set in 2017 -- but they found many different ways to win games in the Korean Series.
"I think the word I'd use is perseverance," Hillman said. "We persevered when things didn't go our way and we kept fighting. When you see that much perseverance, it usually gives you a really good gauge of how high the character is for a group of young men that really want to do something for each other and for their fans."
Throughout the postseason, Hillman kept saying he wasn't thinking about the fact that with each passing game, win or loss, his days with the Wyverns were numbered. Hillman frequently said, "I don't let my mind go there," whenever the topic was brought up -- which was often.
But now the time has come. And Hillman will leave the Wyverns comfortable in the knowledge that he did exactly what he was expected to do -- take the club back to the winner's circle.
"I've loved the experience. It's been a wonderful two years,"
Hillman said. "It's more than words can describe. To sum up this experience, it's been so much joy. With every job, you have some trying times, but I've had so much joy because of the men I get to be around every day."
In Hillman's two regular seasons, the Wyverns went 153-133-2 (wins-losses-ties). Only the Bears (177 wins) and the Kia Tigers (157) won more games in that span.
The SK Wyverns were supposed to be yesterday's team. But they're here today as the champions. Their goal is to still be there tomorrow, even without their manager. (Yonhap)