When Hillman was hired with a resume that included 20 years of managing -- including two-plus seasons with the Royals and five in Japan, where he won a championship -- he fit two key criteria to be Mattingly's right-hand man: he was a seasoned manager, and he was somebody Mattingly trusted.
The link, of course, is the Yankees. Hillman managed in the Yankees' Minor League system for 12 years -- the first six while Mattingly was still the first baseman in the Bronx -- and their paths often crossed in Spring Training. When Mattingly became a special instructor after retiring as a player, he made three trips a season to the Yanks' Triple-A affiliate in Columbus, where Hillman was at the helm.
"Donnie and I just hit it off," Hillman said. "It was an honor for me, having played only in the Minor Leagues [in Cleveland's system], just to be around Don Mattingly and to get in his head and watch how he worked."
Hillman, who turns 48 on Tuesday, managed the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters for five years, winning the Japan Series in 2006, but he returned to the United States after the '07 season because his two children were "missing out on things scholastically, socially and culturally."
A finalist for managerial jobs with Texas, Oakland and San Diego a year earlier, Hillman was quickly grabbed by the Royals. Kansas City went 75-87 in his first year (its best record in five years), but slid to 65-97 the next season and Hillman was replaced by Ned Yost after a 12-23 start in 2010.
"I don't harbor any bad feelings," Hillman said. "I don't feel I was treated unfairly. It's a bottom-line game and we weren't successful in the win-loss column, and they felt it was time to move on."
Hillman called a handful of clubs, including the Dodgers, last summer, so he wouldn't be forgotten if a job opened, and said he was "shocked" when general manager Ned Colletti answered and said there might be interest. They spoke again at season's end and Hillman was hired in November. While in New York, Hillman also worked with Kim Ng, now a Dodgers vice president and assistant general manager.
Having been a manager, Hillman said he knows his role.
"Whatever Donnie needs," he said. "There's only one boss. It's Donnie. I'm an extension of him. My focus is on what he wants and what he needs. He's told me to orchestrate Spring Training. I'll do it the way he wants things done. We've had a meeting in Arizona in November and I'm impressed with his organization, his mental process. He'll put his managerial stamp and philosophy on the team.
"When he asks for advice, I'll be happy to help, but Donnie's very sharp. He has tremendous communication skills and an even-keel, consistent way. That's how he played the game. When he would come into Columbus, I'd key in on how he'd communicate with the players. He's open-minded, but he's done it at the highest level. He'll make sure they play the right way."