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Foreign managers change face of Japanese game

by Robert Whiting

This is the second installment in a four-part series.

Part I — Is the MLB destroying Japan’s national pastime?

Part III — NPB needs major reform, vision to prosper like MLB

Part IV — NPB players in need of strong union like MLBPA.

The game is changing on both sides of the Pacific, as it becomes more globalized. Roughly one-quarter of the players are Latino now, as the teams have stepped up their international recruiting.

Japanese players, too, are no longer the novelties they once were. American fans and teams have grown to expect Japanese players to do well.

In Japan, one interesting side effect of the successful migration of the Japanese ballplayer to the U.S., with its flood of daily gamecasts and TV programs about freer, looser American style of play, has been a new willingness on the part of the NPB to accept Americans — especially American managers, previously regarded as suspect due to their comparatively relaxed ideas on proper training and rest when conflicted with Japan’s famously Spartan approach.

In fact, a Central League president was once famously quoted as saying, “American managers are not suitable for Japan. They’re too easy.”

In 1995, Bobby Valentine, the first non-Japanese manager in the NPB in 13 years, was fired by the Chiba Lotte Marines in such a conflict over philosophies, despite a strong second-place finish in his first and only season.

Today, however, there seems to be more flexibility, as there are now an unprecedented four American managers in the Japanese game.

As Koichi Tabuchi, a former Hanshin Tigers star put it, “Now, people are watching a lot of American ball and have gained a real appreciation for it. There’s no prejudice anymore.”

The first of the new-wave gaijin kantoku (foreign manager) was Trey Hillman, the former farm director for the Texas Rangers, who took over the Nippon Ham Fighters in 2003.

He was followed by Valentine, who reassumed the helm of the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2004, Marty Brown who took over the Central League Hiroshima Carp in 2005 and Terry Collins, who signed on to pilot the Orix Buffaloes this season.

Valentine, eschewing the endless workouts and authoritarian discipline in favor of proper rest and shorter, snappier practices, while giving all his players ample opportunities to play regardless of age or experience, became the first American manager ever to win a Japan Series title in 2005, and was widely applauded for his methods.

In a newspaper editorial, the president of Nippon Metal, urged Japanese firms to curb their tradition of harsh management and overwork. “It’s time to start treating our employees the same way Bobby does,” he said.

A year later, the mild-mannered Hillman became the second American manager to win a Japan crown, leading the Fighters to their best season in history.

Interestingly enough, Hillman won his title by incorporating certain Japanese ways into his management style.

The 45-year-old Texan had gone through his first three years managing the American way with unsuccessful results.

“It was clear that what I was doing wasn’t working,” Hillman said. “So I asked my players and coaches for suggestions. First, they told me they wanted longer practices — no more of this half-day routine, in camp. So, against everything I believed, I kept them there until 5 p.m., working on defense, among other things.

“They also wanted more bunting, which is typical for Japan, but went against my big-inning offensive philosophy. But again I said, ‘OK,’ because this time we had the pitching.”

That season, Hillman’s Fighters set a new club record for sacrifices, triple the number of the year before, and the entire outfield won Golden Gloves.

With the help of a solid mound corps, led by 20-year-old sensation Yu Darvish, and a spacious home park, the Sapporo Dome, Nippon Ham had its best won-loss record in 46 years.

At the end of the season, an NHK news announcer lauded Hillman for understanding the Japanese way, saying, “Hillman-san is the first American manager ever to make the switch from besuboru to yakyu.”

Given the viewing audience, it was praise of the highest sort.

The signing of the gaijin kantoku Collins meant that one-third of Japan’s pro managers were born in the United States, and not everyone in Japan was elated with this state of affairs.

Former pitching great Yutaka Enatsu, in a scathing interview in the Shukan Asahi last October, felt the limits had been reached.

He charged that gaijin managers do not understand the treasured Japanese concepts of giri (duty) and ninjo (humanity), in deciding which players to keep and which ones to cast aside.

Continually using gaijin kantoku, he moaned, means you cannot raise Japanese kantoku, adding that, “Just because Valentine kantoku won a Japan Series, doesn’t mean he was without his faults. If you ask behind the scenes, you will hear lots of criticism.”

The latter was a veiled reference to the high salaries and living expenses of Valentine and his imported American staff.

Whether Enatsu was an isolated voice in the wilderness or the start of a groundswell of opposition to the “Buy America” campaign of the NPB, remained to be seen.

But, it was the second time that Valentine had been the target of a hit job by that weekly magazine.

In the summer of 2005, the Shukan Asahi wrote an article accusing Lotte players of drug use.

It was filled with unsubstantiated quotes, accusations and innuendoes, with no real evidence.

A former Lotte executive, not known for his fondness for Valentine, was quoted as saying, “The players on Lotte are no good. They don’t practice hard. So the reason they are winning must be drugs.”

Valentine also survived a brief setback in 2006 when he was forced to make a bizarre public apology.

He publicly charged that NPB team representatives were still making under-the-table payments to hot amateur prospects, despite their vow to cease doing so years earlier.

That remark created such an uproar among executives on other NPB teams, who were shocked — shocked, I tell you — that anyone would still make such an accusation.

When he did not produce the requested evidence, Valentine was ordered by Lotte higher-ups to apologize before reporters.

Appearing before the press in Sendai with a Lotte official, he made a brief speech.

“My remarks were not based on accurate information. I apologize if I offended anyone,” he said. Sports dailies ran a photo of the Lotte official bowing deeply beside Valentine who, instead of bowing himself, stood head up, his arms folded, a defiant expression on his face. It was one of the stranger snapshots in NPB history.

Last month Valentine was vindicated when a Seibu Lions executive admitted that the team had still been making secret payments to a high school star to prevent him from signing with another pro team.

However, no one as yet has suggested Valentine retract his apology — aside from Valentine himself, that is.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years, despite the loss of so many stars, is the fixation the leaders of Japan’s game still have with playing a “Real World Series” against the North American champions.

The MLB brain trust has always dismissed such suggestions, believing that Japan wasn’t nearly good enough to compete with North America’s best and that, furthermore, North American TV audiences would never tune in to such an event in meaningful numbers.

In recent years, however, many Japanese have come to believe that the gap has narrowed considerably, enough to make such a series competitive.

As Hideki Matsui put it, “I don’t know about over a long season, but I think we Japanese are just as good as the big leaguers on a game-by-game basis. There are Japanese pitchers whom the big leaguers can’t hit. There are Japanese outfielders the equal of any in the majors.”

In fact, in late 2004, multibillionaire Masayoshi Son, the Softbank owner, who had just purchased the Daiei Hawks, approached MLB executives with an offer estimated to be in the $100 million range, for the MLB World Series champs to play a postseason “championship series” with the Japan title winners.

He was turned down cold.

(“He should stick to the Internet, remarked one executive after the meeting.”) Son’s proposal was rejected, he was told, because of timing, in that any such “Real World Series” would necessarily have to be held in November, after the MLB Fall Classic, a time when the North American media would have its attention turned firmly to football and basketball.

And there was no way that the MLB was about to change the present lucrative postseason playoff system, so it could squeeze in a series with Japan.

A Japanese executive with an NPB team who was familiar with the proposal was skeptical of that explanation.

“The reason they don’t want to play,” he said, “is that they are afraid of losing. That would devalue their postseason playoff system.”

The obsession with a North America-Japan World Series is, apparently, contagious.

A year later, Valentine proposed a similar matchup, this one involving his Japan champion Marines and the 2005 World Series winners, the Chicago White Sox, to be held in Hawaii with the money going to charity.

Valentine declared that his club could be competitive in any such series, asserting that the Japanese were superior to Americans in many fundamental aspects of the game: the bunt, the hit-and-run, base-running, making relay plays and cutoffs and also in pitchers’ control of a wide assortment of breaking pitches.

Valentine insisted that there were more than 100 players in Japan who could play in the big leagues.

Nor surprisingly, Valentine’s claims drew sneers in the United States.

Perhaps typical was the view of Warren Cromartie, a former star with the Montreal Expos and the Yomiuri Giants, and centerpiece of the new documentary film “Season of the Samurai,” who declared, “I don’t think there will ever be a so-called Real World Series because the Americans already know who’s best. They’ve got real power and speed. Besides, if Japan ball is so good, why are there so many MLB castoffs hitting cleanup on NPB teams?

“And why are all your top stars deserting the ship likes it’s sinking?”

But then came Team Japan’s victory in the inaugural WBC, in March 2005, a tournament the NPB was initially reluctant to participate in because it interfered with spring training, helping to change the equation.

After that surprising win, there was much talk among the Japanese public that its game was equal, if not superior, to the North American version.

Trey Hillman, for one, agreed.

“It’s time to stop looking down on Japanese baseball and give the players their due,” he said “This is a major league-level league.”

Of course, many Americans had dismissed the WBC as nothing more than a spring training exhibition (perhaps the same reaction that would have no doubt been expressed on the Japan side had their team not emerged victorious in that tourney).

Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen averred that, “Team Japan was overrated,” and that it would “only win 20 games if it played a season in the U.S. major leagues.”

Said Bob DuPuy, MLB’s chief operating officer, addressing a gathering of Tokyo businessmen at the American Chamber of Commerce of Japan last fall, “I’ll bet the Americans regret having started spring training Feb. 18 instead of Feb. 1, like the Japanese did.”

The argument will no doubt go on, but either way, Team Japan’s victory may have been pyrrhic, for, as we have seen, it only deepened interest in what Japan had to offer, as the $25 million posting bid the New York Yankees paid to negotiate with Kei Igawa, their consolation prize in the Daisuke Matsuzaka sweepstakes.

Despite platitudes being mouthed by some MLB representatives about not saving the integrity of the game in Japan, the NPB appeared doomed to losing even more of its players, thereby diminishing the remaining talent pool in Japan and with it the odds of a Real World Series ever being staged.

The most recent contingent of players came to the U.S. via the so-called posting system, which arose out of disputes over the rights to Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu, among others.

Established in 1998, it provided a way for players to leave their teams for the MLB before free agency kicks in, which, in Japan, occurs only after nine full years on the big team.

If a player wishes to leave and the team is willing to let him go, he is “posted” and MLB clubs may submit secret bids for the right to negotiate with him.

The record $51 million the Red Sox paid out for the right to talk to Matsuzaka, and the $25 million the Yankees paid for the rights to negotiate with Igawa, have prompted a lot of talk in American baseball circles about changing the present posting setup — as well as a lot of hand wringing.

But what incentive Japanese owners have to dismantle such a lucrative system is not clear.

Part I — Is the MLB destroying Japan’s national pastime?

Part III — NPB needs major reform, vision to prosper like MLB

Part IV — NPB players in need of strong union like MLBPA.

What do you think of Robert Whiting’s in-depth series on Japanese baseball? Please let the Sports Desk via the Contact Us page .