/

Watanabe’s gentle touch brings out Lions’ claws

by Kaz Nagatsuka

When thinking of what made the Seibu Lions’ quick resurgence from the fifth-place finish of the previous season possible, as well as the players’ growth, manager Hisanobu Watanabe’s presence played a big part in it.

The way he led the Saitama club to the Japan Series was simple, but something this country’s pro baseball hadn’t seen in Japanese managers.

The youngest NPB skipper at 43, Watanabe, who took the helm this season, abandoned the typical Japanese managerial method of scolding players for their mistakes and only tried to look at the bright aspects.

“Entering the season, one thing I promised myself was not to get angry even when the players make mistakes,” Watanabe said during the season.

Led by youngsters such as infielders Hiroyuki Nakajima and Takeya “Okawari-kun” Nakamura, and pitchers Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi, the Lions had a dominating campaign over the other five Pacific League clubs for most of the regular season, and overwhelmingly defeated the defending league champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in the second stage of the Climax Series last week.

There is no doubt that Watanabe’s positive, free-and-easy approach allowed his young, talented players to perform to their maximum ability without fear of making mistakes.

It is a big, unexpected change in the ballclub, which historically won championships under strict managers, such as Tatsuro Hirooka, Masaaki Mori and Haruki Ihara.

Watanabe, who was a star right-hander during the Lions’ golden era of the 1980s, draws a clear line with those old-type commanders.

Hirooka, Mori and Ihara thoroughly controlled their players, with which they demanded their “troops” to exhibit exactly what they asked them to.

But Watanabe installed a totally different atmosphere at the club and its players. Unlike his predecessors, he never yelled at his players for their errors and failures (as a matter of fact, Seibu was worst in the PL in errors at 98 and strikeouts at 1,093), but instead gave them encouraging words, such as “Don’t worry about being struck out” and “If you make a mistake in fielding, you can pay it back with your bat.”

Watanabe, meanwhile, had an objective to play a dynamic game with many long balls. The Lions led the NPB with 198 homers in the season, and produced the first local home run king in Nakamura — who clotted 46 dingers — since 1987′s Koji Akiyama (the new Fukuoka Softbank Hawks manager).

If there is a particular discrepancy between Watanabe and other NPB skippers, it is that he is still so young and close to his players. After playing for 14 years with the Lions and a year with the Yakult Swallows, Watanabe flew abroad and became a player/coach with the Chiayi-Tainan Luka (now the Macoto Cobras) of the Taiwan professional league for three seasons from 1999.

Watanabe, who was once a three-time winningest pitcher in the PL, said that he learned his coaching fundamentals through his days in Taiwan.

Because he was playing until relatively recently and knows the feelings both as a player and a coach, he can share the joy and frustration of the game with his players and both Watanabe and his players have mutual trust.

To prove it, there was an impressive comment from Watanabe after his Lions clinched the Japan Series with a 9-0 win over the Fighters in Game 5 of the CS’s second stage.

On the following day of their big 10-3 win in Game 1, the Lions allowed a humiliating complete game shutout by Nippon Ham’s absolute ace Yu Darvish, and it seemed the embarrassing loss could change the tide of the series in favor for the Fighters.

But Watanabe didn’t feel that way, because he was able to sense his players’ states of minds so clearly.

“After all, it was huge for us to take the first game. In the second game, we were held by Darvish perfectly and the flow (of the big win in Game 1) might have stopped there, but our players’ heart wouldn’t be daunted and then I thought we were able to go (and take the series).”

Now Watanabe guides his Leo corps in the Japanese Fall Classic, which gets under way on Saturday at Tokyo Dome against the Yomiuri Giants. And the first-year skipper is far from satisfied until getting the ultimate job done, even though he has achieved more than everybody expected already.

“Since last fall, our mission was to earn the championship, and we still have a lot of work remaining,” said Watanabe, who as a player won seven games in the Japan Series. “I believe our players will do their jobs for the best in Japan. We’ve come this far and only aim for the summit.”