Culture / Sporting Life

A.J. Hinch Gets a Truly Sweet Gift From the Classy Astros, But Casey Mize’s Big Time Moment Means Even More

The Astros' Old Manager Has the Chance to Build Another Special Team in Detroit

BY // 04.13.21

Houston Astros fans are always going to cheer A.J. Hinch and show the manger who brought a baseball championship (later tainted or not) to the city some love. But an official tribute video from the team itself is another matter. Especially in the baseball climate of today where the Astros are expected to show remorse while other incidents of alleged cheating are swept aside. Or chalked up to baseball being baseball.

But there the video is, playing out on the mammoth Minute Maid Park scoreboard before the first game of series between the Astros and the Detroit Tigers, Hinch’s new team. The video runs through a slideshow of Hinch’s memorable moments helming the Astros and ends with a simple “Thank You AJ” on the screen.

It’s a classy move from Jim Crane’s franchise, which always seems to make the right gesture in these type of moments.

“I did know it was coming,” Hinch says of the video tribute. “They gave me a heads up before the game. They certainly didn’t have to do that. But I really do appreciate it. Big thanks to the Astros and certainly the fans. This place is very special to me.

“(This is) the only time I’ve been uncomfortable in this building, in this setting. I really do appreciate it. It touched me. I wanted to get out, tip my cap, let everybody know I appreciated it. And get inside before I showed too much emotion.

“But it meant a lot to me.”

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A.J. Hinch stepping out of the visitors dugout at Minute Maid Park in a gray Tigers road uniform and doffing his baseball cap to a roaring crowd is going to be one of the early indelible images of this Astros season.

But the gift Hinch’s new team gives him may be even more everlasting. With Hinch back at Minute Maid Park, the Tigers show they just may be building the type of thing that their new manger helped build in Houston. Hinch’s new team wins the first two games of this series by a combined 14-4 margin, hits eight home runs in 18 innings. And it all starts with the type of star making performance that any team transitioning to becoming serious about winning needs.

There is Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, throwing seven shutout innings Monday night, befuddling one of the best lineups in baseball with an array of pitches, including a beyond nasty splitter.

There is Akil Baddoo, the Rule 5 pickup sensation, blasting a 450 foot home run off Astros ace Zack Greinke. Sending it right into Yordan Alvarez territory. And then coming right back and hitting another home run into the Crawford Boxes in game two of this series. Baddoo is starting to look like the Tigers’ version of a J.D. Martinez reclamation wonder. Only Detroit is not likely to release Baddoo the way the Astros released Martinez.

These now 5-6 Tigers are not as far along in their rebuild as the 2015 Astros that Hinch took over. But they sure look like they’re on their way to becoming relevant again in the American League.

In many ways, it starts with Mize, the 23-year-old who comes with such promise. And expectations.

“A lot of credit has to be given to that kid,” veteran Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel says after Mize has the first big moment of his career against the American League stalwarts.

Houston Astros welcomed former Astros skipper A.J. Hinch, now managing the Detroit Tigers to Minute Maid Park
Detroit Tigers rookie Casey Mize brings a full arsenal of pitches. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

In some ways, Casey Mize is the potential young ace that the Astros may have missed out on during their own run atop the draft. Forrest Whitley’s struggles and major health issues have turned him into nothing more than a giant question mark. Brady Aiken, who Jeff Luhnow once took No. 1 overall, became a never was. A never even signed. The closest thing the Astros have to a future ace is 27-year-old Framber Valdez, whose curve can change attitudes.

Now Hinch has Mize — and hope. You’d rather have this Astros lineup for a whole season of course. Houston is still far ahead of Hinch’s new team. But for a manager in his first year with a new club, especially a manager coming off a sign stealing suspension that rocked the sport, A.J. Hinch is in a better place than many could have expected.

Hinch is going to have a chance to win with this Tigers team. Maybe not (OK, likely not) this year. But soon. Much sooner than many think. And the man who managed the Tigers to two World Series appearances in three seasons is likely to speed up that timetable. You can already seeing the beginnings of A.J. Hinch getting the Tigers to believe.

It is no fantastic stretch to imagine Casey Mize pitching in an American League Championship Series one day. The Astros can only hope they’re still in that conversation at that point.

“His stuff is dynamic, we know that,” Hinch says of his ace in training.

A.J. Hinch is not just back at Minute Maid Park. He is back with a team that is building towards something. One that has a chance to do something in the not-so-distant future.

The video tribute is sweet. But this is much more satisfying.

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