Pain and gain during Stanford years helped shape Astros manager A.J. Hinch
A.J. Hinch hacked away in the on-deck circle, certain he would complete Stanford’s comeback victory.
Down one. Two outs. Bottom of the ninth. A failing opposing pitcher left on the mound. A four-year teammate leading off second base and a sensational freshman settling into the batter’s box.
Hinch was Stanford’s iconic catcher, with accolades that made him the face of amateur baseball: two-time Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year, three-time All-American, lifetime leader in games played for Team USA, top-10 all-time Cardinal in seven statistical categories, and .381 hitter his senior year.
The scenario felt set up specifically for him, a senior in his final stretch. The tying run would score, he would deliver the walkoff hit to detonate the home crowd, and Stanford would defeat Cal State Northridge to move on to a redemptive run at the 1996 College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
“I’m waiting for the moment,” Hinch recalled. “We were going to win, and we all felt that way. We had a great, relentless group.”
Major League Baseball knows A.J. Hinch as the cerebral manager of the burgeoning Astros. Now in his third season, he has established himself at the highest level as popular, poised and precocious.
More than 20 years before this managerial emergence, Hinch fortified those qualities in Palo Alto, Calif. He started off as a rarefied athlete. His composure impressed, his confidence inspired, and his talent exceeded that of seemingly everyone who knew him. Then four years in college deepened the impact he made and felt.
Stanford’s drama from 1993 through 1996 ran the spectrum. A hero jump-started one season with a walkoff homer. A villain overstepped his boundary the next. A buoyant hopeful ended up face-down in the dirt. The team waged a prank war and a frightening brawl. It ran punitive sprints in the dark, vented frustration in the outfield, lionized snacks in the bus, and mourned in the dugout. Hinch suffered tragedy. He cried into the chest of a coach when he wanted a father.
Despite the times they underachieved, Hinch and his teammates expected to thrive. Which is why their losses seared so badly but their enduring relationships - built on mischief and misfortune - shaped them more profoundly.
“As men, we have a hard time being vulnerable, or at least admitting our vulnerability,” Hinch said. “And in those moments - with your truest of friends, your deepest of experiences, at a time from being a boy to a man - it was good for me.”
Hinch was venerated prior to picking up a ball at Stanford. Before the Internet constellated youth baseball stars, Baseball America anointed them. Hinch graced the magazine’s cover in 1992 as a high school senior.
Gatorade honored him as the best prep player. He appeared in a USA Today spread. The cleanshaven teen from Midwest City, Okla., was an idol.
“I had the guy’s picture on my wall,” said Kyle Peterson, a broad-shouldered changeup artist who became one of the best starting pitchers in Stanford history. He left Hinch’s image up for two years until he graduated high school and became Hinch’s batterymate in 1995.
Hinch took years to wear off the nickname “Mr. Hollywood,” a jibe from coaches that did not detract from how pristine he looked after a game spent shackled in catcher’s gear.
“Perfect to give an interview,” said Jon Schaeffer, Hinch’s backup for two seasons. “And he had that smile underneath the mask. … There was never any doubt that A.J. was going to make it to the big leagues.”
Hinch felt self-assured before the attention arrived. His humility, huge hands and superior skills proved his worth.
“He always seemed like he was playing a different game than the rest of us,” said starting pitcher Mike Robbins, a lefty who leaned politically in that direction as an Oakland native.
If anything, Hinch disappointed people when he comfortably revealed his dorky tendencies. Robbins and outfielder Brodie Van Wagenen, a self-described Los Angeles “Valley Boy” with meticulously gelled hair that earned him the nickname “Do Man,” could not believe their touted fellow freshman appeared conservative. Hinch wore a buttoned shirt tucked into khakis.
“We had a different image in our mind of this cowboy from Oklahoma who was gonna come in and kick everybody’s ass,” Robbins said. “I expected him to be more of a tough guy.”
When Hinch chose a Stanford education over signing with the Chicago White Sox out of high school, Cardinal coach Mark Marquess knew exactly what kind of player he was getting.
“He’s the definition of an All-American, a student-athlete,” Marquess said.
At age 71, Marquess finally will stop throwing batting practice and alarming players with his tenacity when he retires after this college baseball season, his 41st as Stanford’s head coach. To call him a traditionalist would understate the severe discipline of his hardboiled approach. He exclusively has issued V-neck jerseys, despite how much opponents mock them, so that players cannot vary the top buttons. He does not use a computer or an epithet. He substitutes an “S” in versions of the F-word.
“Use those sucking puppies,” he says when he wants players to run faster across Sunken Diamond, the home field. Marquess implements a vigilant schedule specified to the minute on yellow legal pads. A note may read: “1:05 to 1:15 practice two-out leads at second.” He has timed exactly how long it takes to sprint from one station to the next, which players must do. He maintains that pace for 3 1/2 hours.
Hinch-era players suggested Marquess’ indefatigable intensity, intolerance for mistakes and volatile reactions to losses verged on psychopathy. He would sit inside a shed with the field rakes for up to 20 minutes. Only occasionally would he burst out for a postgame tirade.
“The rule is everyone has to be demoralized and in a horrible mood for the rest of time because that’s how he feels,” Robbins said.
Stanford players attest that in addition to being hot-blooded, Marquess is warmhearted. The 1993 freshmen particularly softened him because they were the same age as his first daughter, Bridget.
“It brought a new level of intimacy for my dad and the team,” she said.
Of the hundreds of players Marquess coached, he bonded most compassionately with Hinch.
“I was closer to him than anyone,” Marquess said.
He hosted Hinch and two other players for Thanksgiving, a first, when they could not head home. Starting his first collegiate season made it even harder for Hinch to spend time with his family, especially his father, Dennis, who traveled as the manager of a concrete product company.
“My dad was my rock,” Hinch said. “First coach, first best friend, first hero.”
Hinch lined a walkoff home run to beat No. 8 Cal State Fullerton in the third game of the year. Afterward, he called his father in Oklahoma to share his heroics.
During a practice three days later, Marquess left the field unannounced. Players had never seen him take so much as a bathroom break before. He returned and summoned Hinch into the home dugout. Marquess put his arm around the 18-year-old catcher, then escorted him up a berm and to his office.
“I need to talk to you,” he told Hinch. He repeated it a few more times but would not elaborate until they sat in the office.
Marquess explained to Hinch that his father had died of a heart attack on a business trip.
Hinch cried while Marquess held him.
“He’s the first man that - I went into his arms and fell apart,” Hinch recalled.
When Hinch went to retrieve his gear from the first-base dugout, his teammates spotted his tears and reddened face. Some players looked the same after hearing the news.
“I remember no one wanting to leave,” said Todd LaRocca, a quirky shortstop from Atlanta who usually stirred laughter. “We might have been on the field for a couple hours.”
Hinch later learned his father had purchased a plane ticket to see him play for the first time the following weekend. Hearing about the walkoff win may have motivated Dennis. That call would be his final conversation with his son.
Hinch spent his first fatherless night sleeping in a house that soon became more of a new home. Marquess had lost his father to a heart attack. He took Hinch in.
“From that day forward, I had a special bond with him that is irreplaceable,” Hinch said.
The entire team became closer. Van Wagenen took Hinch’s belt out of his locker and wore it for a game against Fresno State. He hit a grand slam. Hinch has kept the ball in his home office.
Teammates and coaches still admire how Hinch played through his family trauma. Though he had changed.
“There’s the carefree freshman that comes in, lot of confidence, lot of swagger, amazing player, running around with us, like freshman boys are prone to do,” said Sean Flikke, a walk-on outfielder who contributed more in four years with his uplifting disposition than his bat. “And then there’s the A.J. that had to grow up really fast after that. It definitely was a shift.”
At 18, Hinch was the only man in his house. He realized how he was taught indirectly to manage that.
“I’m wired to be balanced,” Hinch said. “My dad had a really good way of being tough but sensitive.”
Tragedy aside, the 1993 season disappointed the program. The Cardinal lost veterans to the previous draft, and the glut of freshmen showed their inexperience. The team folded, like untested ones do, at the end of the year to finish below .500. Marquess had never coached a losing season. He was livid. After the penultimate stinker, he heard music coming from the clubhouse stereo. Be it upbeat or not, any tune was unacceptable. He ripped the system out of the wall and shattered it on the floor. It had belonged to the equipment manager, who collapsed in horror.
Hinch continued playing through the summer. He headed to Cuba with Team USA. He wrote letters to the Marquess family, but his neat and even penmanship did not offer details about the competition.
“He’s incredibly emotionally intelligent,” Bridget said. “He seemed to be reflecting on big questions.”
With personal growth came moxie. Some of the freshmen-turned-sophomores moved into the Delta Tau Delta house overlooking Lake Lagunitas. All the returning players revealed their personalities a bit more in 1994.
“A.J. was able to get away with things none of us could comprehend,” Van Wagenen said.
When Hinch declined a bunt sign, Flikke, who was coaching first base, shuttered in disbelief, and Marquess muttered incredulously: “That sucker just shook me off.” Hinch proceeded to stroke one to the gap.
He set a single-season record by throwing out 53 of 94 runners (56.4 percent).
“I dare you to steal, because A.J. will throw you out,” Robbins said of his trust in Hinch. “I had never pitched to a guy that had that strong of an arm but who was that accurate.”
Hinch tested his limits further: He asked Bridget, the coach’s daughter, out on a date.
“We’re all scared to ask coach Marquess for a bathroom break, and he’s got that inner confidence and bravado,” LaRocca said.
Everyone on that squad got to flex his muscles against Arizona State in a three-game series in Tempe that ended the regular season. To seal the Pac-10 Southern Division title, the Sun Devils needed a sweep. The Cardinal needed to win once.
The teams hated each other. No player loved that more than Noah Peery, the Sun Devils’ righthanded sidearm closer who threw a nasty slider to complement his offensive antics. The animus helped him focus. He barked, “Sit down!” after strikeouts, shouted, “No, I don’t want that!” to change pitch calls, swung his arms out like a gunslinger, and blustered on his strut back to the dugout. He had been ejected twice and drummed up a skirmish earlier in the year.
In Tempe, the Cardinal lost on Friday and Saturday. Peery closed out both games with multi-inning appearances and gesticulations.
He acted like a pro wrestling heel. Stanford treated him like a pugilist in the seventh inning of the pivotal Sunday matchup. With the scored tied, the bases loaded for Stanford and two outs, Peery was pitching for a third consecutive day. He stranded runners by striking out first baseman Dusty Allen. The heightened situation fueled extra flamboyance. Peery pumped his arms and took several steps toward home plate, essentially at Allen.
Allen, at 6-4, 225 pounds, with 9 percent body fat, had wrestled in high school but acted like a hugger. He committed to abstinence in college after a spiritual awakening, so much so that he drank only out of clear cups at parties and aspired to be “a good Christian role model.”
He dropped that effort and his bat when Peery drifted in with his twister of taunts.
“All hell broke loose,” Hinch recalled.
Allen charged and unleashed a full-bore takedown. He lifted Peery off the ground, slammed the pitcher on his back and pinned him to the grass between the mound and home plate. The benches spilled out. The bullpens flooded in. Fists and elbows hammered away.
Allen said he landed one good punch that bloodied Peery before a dog pile smothered them.
“Testosterone-fueled madness,” Flikke said.
Cardinal third baseman Brian Dallimore took on three ASU players near second base. Pitcher Jason Verdugo, who played football for the Sun Devils, cold-cocked Stanford outfielder Riche Crowe, who was busy trying to break up a tussle. Ushers had to hold back fans from storming the field.
“It was a melee,” said Jason Middlebrook, a power-arm righty who had to be restrained against the right-field wall by a teammate.
Robbins rolled in with the relievers ready to calm things down. Then he changed his mind.
“My second instinct was to get the hell out there because it was dangerous,” he said. “Someone’s going to get killed in here.”
After the brawl got broken up, Marquess huddled his team in front of the dugout. He usually insisted his players do the right thing without exception, but as an old-school skipper, he knew the unwritten rules prioritize camaraderie.
“So, you suckers can fight?” Marquess said. “So what? Let’s see if we can win this game.”
Allen was among those ejected, but so was Peery. Stanford took advantage and won in the 11th inning. The Cardinal formed a new dog pile on the field.
Players partied back at the Delt House. Even Hinch said he tilted one back. But a feeling of restlessness, an urge to celebrate and a night of inebriation led to an act of vandalism for which five baseball players - Allen, Dallimore, LaRocca, sophomore pitcher Bob Gardner and freshman pitcher Brendan Sullivan - would be punished. They had found squeeze bottles of black paint, a statue near the soccer fields, and a way to upend the artwork. Campus police made some of them start scrubbing the desecration off with toothbrushes the next morning.
The charged players stated they did not know the meaning behind the sculpture when they went joy riding, but they found out afterward that they had vandalized the Gay Liberation statue.
When national media plunged Stanford’s baseball team into discussions about hate crimes, Marquess held a team meeting. He was somber, not angry. He cared about the purpose of the school more than upcoming games.
“There are things more important than baseball,” Marquess told players, according to Robbins. “I want to make sure we’re producing good, strong, healthy, positive, quality young men from this program.”
The crimes squelched the hard-earned momentum. In the first round of the postseason in Austin, Stanford went “0-2-and-barbecued” in swift losses to Texas and Oklahoma.
This Cardinal crew had never played in an environment so torturous for the opposition. A moving truck had parked behind the right-field wall. On the roof, Texas fans sat in lawn chairs around a keg. To Van Wagenen’s shock, they knew his mother’s name and deployed it in lewd jeers when he chased a play into the corner. He kicked the ball around and threw a 12-hopper to the cutoff man.
Players flew back to California feeling they had embarrassed the program for a second consecutive season. The sting lingered, but it was not enough to deter solidarity.
The brawl with ASU had been captured on camera as part of a rare televised game. Players watched a tape recording at the Delt House the moment they returned from the battle. They showed it to every recruit who visited campus the next two years so they realized the bookworms could brawl. Robbins and Allen claim they still have copies.
“I could almost tell you what happened, and I wasn’t even there,” said Peterson, who enrolled the year after. “I saw it on video probably 100 times.”
With Hinch’s class maturing and young arms like Middlebrook and Peterson emerging, Stanford ranked No. 1 in the 1995 preseason poll. The outlook appeared different. The results were more of the same when they landed out of the top 25.
“Here we are underachieving again,” Robbins said.
Marquess even lashed out at his beloved catcher. Hinch was playing cards with Dallimore in the aisle of the team bus following a late February loss. They observed 30 minutes of despondence, but that was not enough contrition for Marquess, who marched to the back and flipped their makeshift card table into the air.
The cards fluttered down, and tension rose.
“Put your running shoes on,” Marquess told players before exiting the bus. The team had to run laps around a practice field for 30 minutes in pitch black. Sunken Diamond did not have stadium lights then.
Marquess blew up again when the team dropped to 22-18 after losing the opener of a four-game home-and-away series against California. He moved the usual postgame talk in the Sunken Diamond outfield to the locker room. He made the team wait and squirm before he made his entrance. He vituperated the lack of effort. His shouts echoed off the shower walls. The coaching staffed stormed out at the end.
“Nobody moves,” said Robbins, who threw 145 pitches in the loss. “We’re just sitting in there, heads down. We don’t know what to do.”
Robbins gathered a group at his apartment that night to devise a plan. He orchestrated a 45-minute players-only meeting in the Cal outfield before the next game to flush out selfishness and complains. Players had bickered all season. Now they renewed their commitment to each other.
Stanford proceeded to beat Cal the next three games and would go on to restore the season. The players made themselves accountable, a benefit of bypassing Marquess.
“Every veteran player that I ever spoke to who played for coach Marquess, starting in the late ’70s, says there has to be a moment at Stanford where you learn to play outside of his intensity,” Flikke said. “Given that we were so young our freshman and sophomore year, we had not figured out how to do that.”
Two of the three wins came at Cal. As a tradition, Marquess rewarded in-state road victories with pit stops for snacks. Coaches got off the bus at University Avenue in Berkley and returned with a bounty that inspired chants of “chippers and cokes,” what Marquess called chips and soft drinks.
“You’d think they were giving us 100-dollar bills,” Robbins.
The Cardinal rode their jubilation to the College World Series. They played three games in Omaha, two shy of the championship but enough to satisfy the program for the first time with Hinch. His potential, however, took a hit. The College World Series coincided with the June draft, so players received calls in their hotel rooms when selected. Whereas Robbins could not conceal his excitement when the Kansas City Royals picked him in the ninth round, Hinch looked unhappy when he arrived for the team bus. The Minnesota Twins drafted him in the third round - one later than where he went in high school - a surprise for a player forecasted to earn first-round bonus money since his teens.
Hinch consistently has said he passed up the pros to return for his senior year mostly in order to represent Team USA in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics after graduation. The draft snub made the decision easier. Then an injury put it into question.
About 25 games into his final season at Stanford, Hinch dove back to first on a pickoff attempt. Flikke, coaching at first base, heard a pop. Hinch’s shoulder dislocated and then went back into its socket.
He lay in the dirt in pain. He would finish running the bases, but when he took the field, he could not throw the ball back to the pitcher.
“We think we’re bulletproof,” Hinch said. His teammates believed he was, until they noticed his mechanics altered by the pain. They never again saw the exceptional zip on his throws.
He remained a coveted student-athlete. The elite distinction privileged him to a lunch with Stanford’s most recognizable prodigy. During the middle of the collegiate golf season, Hinch picked the brain of Tiger Woods, a sophomore on his way to winning the NCAA individual championship. They discussed managing success and professional aspirations.
Hinch invited Flikke to tag along, and he left understanding the scrutiny Hinch had to accept.
“I finally got a glimpse on a minor scale of what A.J. was dealing with,” Flikke said. “When you’re in the spotlight, that awareness of being looked at drives: ‘Just don’t make a mistake; don’t say something stupid.’?”
Batting over .400 at the time he hurt his shoulder, Hinch switched to designated hitter. This opened up more time for his backup, Schaeffer, who became known for wearing classic rock T-shirts like they were his off-field uniforms. A Deadhead and Red Hot Chili Peppers diehard from L.A., Schaeffer incited the second destruction of the locker room stereo system. He spent two weeks arguing the Chili Peppers were “musical geniuses” with Peterson, who favored Garth Brooks. Peterson ripped out the stereo cords when Schaeffer cranked up the volume on “Under the Bridge.”
To be fair to Peterson, players exchanged epic pranks that year. Flikke started it. He scooped up a bull snake carcass off the Stanford golf course, rolled up the 6-foot-long constrictor, opened its jaw and hid it in spots that sent members of the team recoiling with shrieks.
Middlebrook once opened his door, and a 50-gallon drum of leftover food blended with water into a rank sludge tipped onto him.
“People started saying things like: ‘I don’t get even. I get ahead,’?” said Flikke, who found his car defiled by scatological retaliation.
Ironically, the savagery had a wholesome effect: The seniors fostered a team that played looser than ever. Stanford extended an 18-game winning streak into the regional round, which the school hosted for the first time because donors finally had funded stadium lights for Sunken Diamond. Tepid afternoon attendance transformed into the kind of raucous night crowds that used to intimidate the Cardinal at other teams’ venues.
The streak and the experienced roster made No. 6-ranked Stanford one of the favorites to win the NCAA title. It felt like a culmination to Hinch.
“Returning in ’96, we were going to go back to the World Series, and we got to host - it was sort of our time,” Hinch said.
The seniors could not help but impose high expectations. The future felt so certain that past shortcomings were easy to forget.
The streak ended on May 25, 1996, in a regional loss to No. 3 Florida State. Another defeat would eliminate the Cardinal and stop them well short of a trip to Omaha.
Stanford faced Cal State Northridge later that night. The high stakes and bright lights galvanized Stanford’s sellout crowd. Van Wagenen, the image-conscious Do Man, climbed atop the dugout and waved a towel in an uncharacteristic display of fanaticism. Having missed most of the season with a shoulder injury, he committed to rousing vociferous chants from the sixth inning on. Security failed to remove him from his post. After every Northridge pitch, the crowd shouted, “Ball!”
Stanford faced a 4-1 deficit to begin the bottom of the ninth. Northridge brought in Robby Crabtree to close. He had trouble throwing strikes and wound up facing the middle of the order. Stanford scored two runs on a groundout and a sacrifice fly.
Then Cale Carter, a senior who had graced Baseball America alongside Hinch, laced a two-out double to full-throated cheers. Jody Gerut, a rising freshman who would play six seasons in the majors, was due up with the Cardinal down 4-3.
The comeback seemed inevitable to Hinch. He envisioned himself as the hero who would drive in Gerut for the walkoff.
Marquess took out Carter and pinch-ran Flikke.
Flikke should not have been in this position by most accounts, including his own. He was put up for adoption at 10 months old by a woman who had lost custody of two toddlers before. Flikke grew up in Cheney, Wash., passing through nine foster homes and multiple crumbling families. He earned scholarships, received grants and got a loan he still is paying off in order to enroll at Stanford. He sanded boats, mowed lawns and framed houses during his college summers. He attended classes while raising an adoptive brother off campus. He reliably motivated teammates with his indomitable positivity and gradually improved from a walk-on to the essential piece of a walkoff opportunity.
Flikke was a step quicker than Carter but significantly less experienced. Carter had started 195 games over four seasons. Flikke had appeared in only 47, none with elimination-game pressure.
Gerut dug in. Flikke took his lead. Hinch waited on deck. Van Wagenen whirled his towel. Sunken Diamond roared.
Crabtree did not need a pitch to get out of the jam. He spun around and fired a pickoff throw to second base. Stanford third-base coach Dean Stotz picked it up. Flikke did not. He could not hear Stotz over the crowd.
Flikke dove back to the bag, but the Northridge second baseman kneeled to block it and slapped down a tag. Flikke lifted his head just enough to see the second baseman’s cleats jumping up and down.
The Sunken Diamond chorus behind Van Wagenen went silent.
The pickoff ended the game, the season and the college careers of six seniors.
“We never thought it was going to end,” Hinch said. “Not without a national championship.”
Flikke pushed himself off the dirt and bolted for the locker room. He dressed quickly and exited the facility unseen. While his teammates imagined the worst of his disappearance, Flikke hid out at a diner. He opened up to a grizzled stranger sipping his coffee at the counter.
Flikke’s roommate found him after a bit.
“They must have sent him on suicide watch,” Flikke said with an embarrassed laugh.
Flikke’s voice, normally soulful, slows and softens when he reflects on the end at Stanford.
“I don’t think about it every day,” he said. “But I definitely think about it.”
Players had little time to savor their final days in Palo Alto. Final exams, the draft and move-out dates prevented closure. Hinch headed for the Olympics and then his first season of pro ball with the Oakland Athletics, who drafted him in the third round.
Life after college
He played eight seasons in the majors before retiring in 2005. His front-office and managerial positions since have offered him many chances to reunite with college buddies because of the road trips.
But in 2007, when he worked as the manager of minor league operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Hinch received two visitors. Flikke decided in his 30s to reconnect with his birth mother. She lived in Phoenix and happened to be a big Diamondbacks fan. He brought her to meet Hinch before a June game against the Dodgers.
Flikke felt cathartic at the time. He confronted an unspoken tension that had grown between Hinch and his teammates. Hinch’s all-conference, all-American, all-time honors made him feel out of reach to some peers. His relationship with Marquess, while understandably special, emphasized Hinch as the favorite. Hinch’s humility did not change his status. Teammates felt inferior.
Despite brotherly bonds, envy unfairly distanced Hinch.
“Some of the isolation to describe A.J. was of our making as well,” Flikke said.
Hinch had to avoid the pranks, the misbehavior and any kind of mistake that might have made him relatable. He adhered to perfection with little choice.
“I always wanted to be seen as one of the boys,” Hinch said. “I always wanted to be seen as just a normal guy, but I didn’t have the normal experience.”
Flikke wished he could have been more emotionally available to Hinch. Hinch thanked him for saying that. They hugged, and Hinch gave Flikke two tickets. Flikke and his mother, putting three decades of loss behind them, watched the Diamondbacks win 2-0 that night.
“We all had battle wounds through the growing years,” Hinch said.
He can handle the ones that take more time to heal. That was harder as a youth thrust into adulthood. Now a manager shaping his own ballplayers, Hinch is comfortable pursuing high expectations while navigating unexpected losses.