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Hillman masterful in dealing with Kanemura incident

by Jack Gallagher

It has been said that life can be stranger than fiction.

Jack Gallagher

Well, that was certainly the case on Sept. 24, when Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Satoru Kanemura verbally ripped into manager Trey Hillman after a game in which the right-hander was removed in the fifth inning of a key contest against the Chiba Lotte Marines, in the heat of the Pacific League pennant race.

Leading by three runs with the bases loaded and two outs, the 30-year-old Kanemura was pulled by the American skipper, thus losing his chance at notching his 10th victory of the season and extending his streak of double-digit win seasons to five.

The rules in both Japan pro ball and the MLB require a starting pitcher to complete five full frames to get credit for a victory.

After Kanemura departed with the 4-1 lead, relief pitcher Takehiko Oshimoto allowed the Marines to tie the game, and the Fighters subsequently lost 8-4.

When interviewed immediately after the loss, Kanemura said of Hillman, “I’ll never forgive him. He is a foreign manager, so he probably doesn’t care about individual stats. I don’t even want to see his face.”

News photo Trey Hillman, who has piloted the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to the Pacific
League’s regular-season title, showed true leadership in how he handled the
recent verbal attack from pitcher Satoru Kanemura.
KYODO PHOTO

While Kanemura’s displeasure with Hillman is understandable from a personal standpoint, in the culture of Japanese baseball it was inexcusable. It was bad enough that Kanemura said what he did, but to do it under the circumstances that he did — with his club vying for first place in the PL — was an utter disgrace.

I must say that I was stunned by Kanemura’s outburst. What disturbed me the most was his comment about Hillman being a “foreign” manager.

Kanemura was walking a very fine line with that statement. It was the type of remark that could have gotten him into real trouble.

One of the reasons most foreign managers like Japanese players — both here and in the majors — is their combination of dedication and discipline, and how they usually go along with the program without causing any trouble.

But I guess there is an exception to every rule.

Credit the front office of the Fighters for responding swiftly and strictly to Kanemura’s attack. The team suspended the hurler for the PL playoffs, and fined him 2 million yen, the very next day.

Japanese firms are often knocked for being slow to react in a crisis, but the Fighters — who did clinch first place in the PL on Sept. 27 — didn’t blink. It was refreshing to see.

I think in this case, with the manager not being Japanese, it was even more important that the Fighters acted expeditiously. It showed the players — and Kanemura — exactly who is in charge.

I have always been amused at how vanilla Japanese baseball normally is.

When was the last time — before this — that a Japanese player publicly ripped any manager?

Can’t remember?

Neither can I.

When I asked best-selling author Robert Whiting for his take on Kanemuragate, he noted the apparent contradiction in the whole incident — a Japanese player blasting a foreign manager.

“It’s really a case of role reversal, isn’t it?” said Whiting. “It’s the first time I recall a Japanese player criticizing a gaijin manager for failing to appreciate individual statistics.

“What is the world coming to?

“If only Hillman had said that Kanemura didn’t understand the concept of wa.”

I have often been amazed at the lengths players here will go to for stats.

One of the most egregious examples that I recall was back in 1996, when Hideki Irabu pitched several innings of a makeup game at the end of the season for the Marines, just so he could retain his PL ERA title.

So what, you say?

The problem was that by doing that, Irabu beat out American teammate Eric Hillman (no relation to Trey Hillman), who had been told by the Marines that he didn’t have to stick around for the makeup games and could go back to the States.

It was the kind of move a real pro wouldn’t make, and one that I have never forgotten.

I was reminded of this when the Kanemura row erupted. I was thinking the same thing — it was not a move a ‘real pro’ would make.

Now in his 12th season in Japanese baseball, Kanemura should have known better.

The person who has stood the tallest in this whole regrettable incident is Trey Hillman. His handling of the situation has been very adept.

In the macho world of pro sports, nobody likes to be shown up, whether it is player vs. player, player vs. manager, or manager vs. manager. The first instinct is always to step up when challenged.

Many years ago, when fiery Lou Piniella was managing the Cincinnati Reds, a very similar incident occurred.

Relief pitcher Rob Dibble made some postgame comments to the media criticizing Piniella. When informed of them by the media, the skipper immediately left his office and confronted Dibble.

It didn’t take long for the fireworks to erupt, with Piniella and Dibble trading insults, then wrestling each other to the clubhouse floor, all with the television cameras rolling.

It was an ugly scene.

You have to tip your hat to Hillman in this case for doing exactly the opposite.

The truth is, that he may have dealt with it differently if it had been with a player back home, but now in his fourth season in Japan, the Texan has learned a lot about the culture and reacted appropriately.

By letting the front office deal with Kanemura, Hillman was able to keep himself and the team focused on what was really important — winning the PL regular-season title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Looking back now it is ironic, but Hillman made the following comment to me in an interview prior to the start of the 2005 season:

“Sometimes, I have to give difficult messages to both the staff and the players. I don’t like giving difficult messages, but I am also not afraid to give them.”

In this case, Hillman’s restraint was paramount to keeping the Fighters on track.

Thus far, Hillman’s only statement on the Kanemura affair was, “I’m sure that he really wanted to win.”

When I contacted Hillman and asked if he had anything more he would like to add, his response was uplifting.

“My faith system of Christianity teaches me to forgive and forget — and that is exactly what I intend to do.”

Kanemura met with Hillman on Saturday and apologized for his conduct.