LOS ANGELES -- About a dozen years ago, A.J. Hinch figured out his future in baseball wasn't behind the plate.
"When you don't hit a slider consistently, you're not going to play very long," he recalled Wednesday. "And there's only so far personality can take you as a backup catcher."
Charisma, however, is nearly everything in an era when many dugout decisions are delegated to front-office administrators analyzing stacks of statistics. The Astros manager motivated his players, soothed them and charmed them to a runaway title in the AL West and then to the first World Series championship in Houston's 56-season history. The Astros capped the season with a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 on Wednesday night.
"I think A.J. is going to be the manager that's going to be here when we win the World Series," general manager Jeff Luhnow said on the day Hinch was hired in September 2014.
He is Houston's 18th manager in a line that began with Harry Craft, included personalities such as Harry Walker and Leo Durocher, manager of the year winners Hal Lanier and Larry Dierker, and Phil Garner, who led the Astros to their first pennant in 2005. The very model of a modern dugout major general, he is the first to earn a Series ring for Space City.
"You have to combine what you see with what you know," Hinch said. "We can go in with all the information that we want. There is an element of paying attention to what your players are doing and how they're playing and what kind of version are they? Is it a good version of them, or are they struggling mentally, physically? You have to balance it all out and blend it."
Now 43, Hinch took an unusual path to the big leagues.
Drafted as a high school senior by the Chicago White Sox in the second round in 1992, he elected to attend Stanford. Selected three years later by the Minnesota Twins in the third round, the psychology major decided to stay in school and get his bachelor's degree.
He finally signed when picked by the Oakland Athletics in the third round in 1996. After earning a bronze medal with the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, Hinch made it the major leagues two years later and played six seasons that included time with Kansas City (2001-02), Detroit (2003) and Philadelphia (2004).
He hit .213 with 32 homers and 112 RBIs - not in a season but in his big league career - and stopped playing at age 31 after spending 2005 with the Phillies' Triple-A team at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He was hired that November as manager of minor league operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Promoted to director of player development, Hinch was a week shy of his 35th birthday when he replaced Bob Melvin in Arizona and became the majors' youngest manager.
"He brings unique leadership and perspective to the job," then-general manager Josh Byrnes said. "We're not here to reinvent the wheel, but to change the nature of the job a little bit. ... A.J.'s a leader. He connects with people. He gets things done."
Hinch wasn't sure his psychology degree would be a dugout asset.
"I think it's more about having a rough major league career might help me more relate to these guys that go through the mental anguish of the failure of our game," he said. "My job is to get the most out of guys, and a lot of times my job is sort of the emotional psychological support that it takes to get the most out of these guys. So whatever I learned or whatever I've adapted to over the years in the game and through my schooling, it gets tested every day, I tell you."
Fired along with Byrnes just before the All-Star break in 2010, Hinch spent four years as San Diego's vice president of professional scouting. He was 40 when the Astros hired him.
"So I feel old and experienced," he said.
He took over a team that went 70-92 and led it to a wild-card berth and its first postseason appearance in a decade in 2015. He melded the young stars with veterans seemingly seamlessly, a combination that led Houston to 101 wins this season, one shy of the team record, a major league-high 21-game division lead and a pair of Game 7 wins in the postseason.
After star slugger George Springer went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts in the opener Hinch called him "an incredible player" and said "I don't really ride the roller coaster with players."
"You have to believe in what they can do, not what they're doing," Hinch said. "If you respond to every bad game or tough game, you'll bounce these guys around and ruin their confidence in a heartbeat. This is one of our best players. And there's no need to panic over a bad night against Clayton Kershaw."
Springer went on to tie the World Series record of five home runs and set the mark for extra-base hits with eight. He was named Series MVP.
"For him to have my back, it means the world to me. And I'll always have his back," Springer said. "And that just shows who he is."
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