Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch is back in Houston for the first time since he was dismissed by the Astros in the aftermath of a sign-stealing scandal that rocked baseball. If he was worried about how he will be received in his old stomping grounds, he hid it well during a pregame videoconference on Monday. But that doesn't mean he didn't anticipate some strong feelings.
"I do have to focus on the good things that happened here," Hinch said before his new club opened a three-game series at Minute Maid Park. "I have a lot of fond memories, incredible interactions with fans and throughout the organization. Some really great times and ultimately a really low time. I kind of embrace all parts of that in my journey through this.
"I think it will be emotional for me. I wish I had a great quote for the words or the right thing to say about what I'm feeling. I know Jose (Altuve) described it as weird, and it's different, coming to the visiting side as the ex-manager is a lot different. I think emotions will kind of be on full tilt tonight."
He received a standing ovation when he was introduced before the game and the team played a tribute video to him on the big screen. As the last frame of the video displayed the words: "Thank you A.J.,'' he stepped onto the field and tipped his cap to the crowd, which roared with approval.
The Astros gave Hinch a heads up before the video was played and it still got to him.
"This place is very special to me," Hinch said following his team's 6-2 win. "It's the only time I've ever been uncomfortable in this setting, in this building. I really do appreciate it. It touched me. I wanted to get out and tip my cap and then get back in before I showed too much emotion."
The Tigers jumped on Astros starter Zack Greinke for six runs to snap a four-game skid.
"We needed a good performance," Hinch said. "Emotional night for me personally. I think our guys knew that and responded with a great effort across the board."
Much has changed on the Houston baseball front since Hinch piloted the Astros to the 2017 World Series title, beginning with the somewhat amazing fact that only five players remain from the championship team: infielders Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, along with starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. For all the accomplishments of that title team, Hinch says that he has mixed feelings about its legacy.
"That's difficult," Hinch said before Monday's game. "And I have largely stayed quiet about all of that, because it's very personal. I do believe that we did some good things in Houston. I do believe that we were wrong in the behavior and the decisions that we made in 2017. It's hard to have that cloud over the sport and be responsible for that and be the manager, that it happened on my watch.
"My relationship with that time is very complicated, very personal. It's something that I will continue to apologize (for), not only to the Houston fans, but to all the fans around baseball, and continue to repeat how wrong it was. For that, we're going to have to live with that for the rest of our careers."
Hinch managed the Astros from 2015 to 2019, during which he helped lead the organization from the throes of a rebuilding process led by his former boss, Jeff Luhnow. With Hinch at the helm, the Astros won that 2017 championship, added a pennant in 2019 and won a division title in 2018. Houston won at least 101 games in each of Hinch's last three seasons, culminating with a franchise-record 107 wins in 2019.
After the 2019 season ended with a Game 7 home loss in the World Series against the Washington Nationals, the Hinch/Luhnow era came to an abrupt halt a few months later, when an MLB investigation determined that several members of the Astros organization engaged in an orchestrated program of swiping signs from opposing clubs during the championship run in 2017.
Hinch was suspended for the entirety of the 2020 season for his role in the scandal, primarily because of his inability to put a stop to the practice. Astros owner Jim Crane dismissed Hinch after the suspension was announced. Since Hinch reemerged in the public eye after his suspension ended with the completion of the 2020 World Series, he has apologized for his role in the scandal repeatedly and has avoided criticizing Crane for dismissing him. In fact, Hinch insists his relationship with the organization remains solid.
"My relationship with the Astros has been fine," Hinch said. "You don't spend five years together and then just simply walk away and not have relationships. (There are) a lot of people in the organization that I care about, a lot of players, executives. Jim Crane and I have stayed in touch. It's a relationship that was built up over a long time, and they've treated me fine."
Hinch ranks as Houston's all-time leader among managers in winning percentage and games over .500; he ranks second to Bill Virdon in wins. Monday's game was the first time that Hinch had managed against the Astros since May 6, 2010, when he was managing the Arizona Diamondbacks.
At least one of his former players -- Correa -- anticipated Hinch's reception on Monday to be a warm one.
"We stay in touch," Correa said pregame. "I've talked with him multiple times. I think it's going to be very special to have him back. I'll be happy to see him. He did amazing things for this organization, and I'm expecting a big ovation for him when his name is announced."
Hinch said his interactions with Houston fans all along have been supportive, even on the morning of his return game, when he was recognized near the Tigers' hotel even though he was sporting a protective mask.
"The fans in Houston have been incredible to me," Hinch said. "My interaction with fans, before the sign stealing, after the sign stealing, while I was the manager, after I was dismissed, has been universally positive. This morning, I went for a walk to get a coffee and a little exercise in this Houston heat, and people stopped me. Recognizing me in a mask, I didn't expect, but I got it."
Despite the unfortunate ending to his Houston tenure, Hinch suggested that his link to the Astros fan base goes beyond the scandal. There was the championship and the two pennants and numerous wins, but also the emotional experiences that surrounded the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the Houston area in August 2017 and forced the relocation of one Astros home series to St. Petersburg, Florida.
The Astros were back home a week after the hurricane, and Hinch and many of his players spent time visiting displaced Houstonians in shelters around the city, including the convention center near the ballpark. It was Hinch who took the microphone and addressed the fans at Minute Maid Park before the Astros' first game after returning home after Harvey, a night which he described as one of his most emotional times in baseball.
"The fans have just been tremendously supportive of me," Hinch said. "We went through hurricanes. We went through playoff runs, two World Series. Then one of the ugliest departures. And that's established a great relationship between me and the fans around Houston."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.