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Hillman relied on intensity, goofball antics during time with Fighters

by Robert Whiting

Last in a two-part excerpt of updated “You Gotta Have Wa”

In 2007, despite losing several key members of his team, Hillman led Nippon Ham to a second straight pennant, juggling his lineup and pitching staff with reinforcements from the farm team. One critic called it one of the finest pieces of managing ever seen over the course of a single season.

This time, however, the Fighters lost the Japan Series in a repeat matchup with the Dragons in five games. The series closer was a perfect one, thrown by two pitchers. In a memorable demonstration of wa, a twenty-nine-year-old spot starter named Daisuke Yamai, excused himself after eight innings ostensibly because of a small broken blister on his pitching finger, despite leading 1-0 and having set down twenty-four consecutive batters on a such a dazzling array of breaking pitches that Nippon Ham batters could barely make contact. Manager Hiromitsu Ochiai brought in his ace closer to retire the side in the ninth. Ochiai later confessed he had also made the move because he was worried whether or not Yamai could have handled the pressure of pitching the final inning. No one in Nagoya, least of all Yamai, questioned the decision.

Over time, Hillman had become quite popular in Sapporo. An accomplished guitar player and country-and-western singer, he performed for Fighters fans on Fan Appreciation Days and even recorded a CD. A local bar, Hillman’s Hangout, was named after him. His wife, Marie, attended every game — fascinated with the over-the-top dedication of the Fighters oendan — especially the fan who changed his jersey to match the number of every home team batter. His teenage son, T.J., was a clubhouse rat. His daughter, Brianna, became a member of the Fighters cheerleaders and learned to speak fluent Japanese. They liked Japan. They became part of the local community, ate the food, rode the trains. It was safe and clean. They could not wait to get back every year.

Hillman was a social mixer, a locker room goofball. He would dress in a way that no Japanese manager had ever done, a long wig, buck teeth, glasses, torn T-shirt and jogging shorts worn up to the chest and hand out performance bonuses to his players of as much as $10,000 out of his own pocket. When he noticed tension building on the team as the ’07 pennant race heated up, he bought a ping-pong table and installed it in the clubhouse to help the players take their minds off baseball — it was something no Japanese manager had done before. The atmosphere loosened and, coincidentally or not, a winning streak ensued. Hillman was also one of the most anal retentive managers in the history of the Japanese game. He personally measured the delivery time of each pitch and kept a record of it. Once when he thought the locker room and the bullpen had gotten too dirty, he took a mop and broom and cleaned them both out all by himself.

The players were not always entirely receptive to his good ol’ boy ways. Hillman’s habit of putting his hands on their shoulders, looking deep into their eyes and asking soulfully, “How’s it going, my man?” typically elicited only fast back-pedaling. But if they found American-style back-slapping and butt-slapping uncomfortable, they respected his character and believed that he cared about them as human beings. They would respond to Hillman’s efforts to draw them into conversation to find out what made them tick. Some of them would even listen to his lectures about religion, including outfielder Atsunori Inaba, who thanked Hillman when he had finished his mini-sermon and explained that he had his own god — The God of Baseball — and that was enough.

The darkest moment of Hillman’s Japan career came in ’06 when veteran pitcher Satoru Kanemura spoke out against Hillman after he had been removed in a two-out, bases-loaded situation in an afternoon game in late September. Kanemura was deeply upset because he would have gotten his tenth win of the year, an important achievement, if he had gotten through the inning, and told reporters that “Foreign managers just do not understand the feelings of Japanese players. I can’t even stand to look at him.” A quote that would make headlines in the sports dailies the next morning. Hillman was crushed at being attacked so publicly by one of his own players, and spent the evening drowning his sorrows with Sapporo Beer in a Tokyo night spot, commiserating with a friend. The Nippon Ham front office reacted quickly and harshly, penalizing Kanemura with a large fine and a suspension the next day. Moreover, Kanemura was also excoriated by a former teammate, a senpai on the Hanshin Tigers, who said, “I thought we taught him better than that.” Kanemura later apologized to Hillman who accepted with characteristic grace.

Aside from Kanemura, the only people in conservative Hokkaido who did not like Hillman were the groups of business leaders he was invited to address after his championship season, and discuss the managerial philosophy that helped him achieve it. It was common practice in Japan for top baseball managers to lecture and advise business groups. In Hillman’s appearances, he preached the importance of one-on-one communication and criticized the tendency of many Japanese managers and coaches to browbeat and intimidate their charges. His speeches were received with dead silence.

“To say they were not interested in my style of leadership,” Hillman recalled, “would be a gross understatement. I wondered why they even asked me to come and talk. My style was anti-typical Japanese. The Japanese preferred the other way, top down, yelling and intimidation. The people in the audience thought I should be more dictatorial and they told me that. They thought I would lose control if I stuck to my methods. But I told them I believe you only do that because you have a need to feel powerful. You get more respect and appreciation from the players if you feel it is not necessary to embarrass them. But that did not go over well, to say the least.”

After five years in Japan, Hillman had no illusions. “The old ways have softened. Japanese and Americans like and understand each other more, but, the question can be asked, is Japan really changing? The answer is, not very much. Japanese are not necessarily going to change their system, but modify it. Every count goes to 3-2. They are just more cautious. It is always going to take a half-hour or more to play nine innings in Japan.”

At the end of the ’07 season, Hillman left Japan, having turned down a very good contract offer by Nippon Ham. Schooling considerations for their growing children demanded the family return to the United States. “Five years is a long enough time to have one guy, especially a foreigner,” he said. Shortly thereafter, Hillman was offered and accepted the post of manager of the Kansas City Royals. The Japanese media was abuzz with speculation as to just how much of the Japan routine he would introduce to the U.S.

The answer was, not very much at all.

Hillman managed to install slightly longer spring camp workouts (longer by minutes, not hours) and even held a Hansei-kai, or self-reflection conference, at home plate after one exhibition game, an act which prompted some players to gripe he was “showing them up.” He also tried, with limited success, to introduce 10-15 minutes worth of pre-game infield practice during the season. But, as everyone knew, trying to do anything more would have been highly impractical. As Hillman himself once admitted, “Any manager who tried to institute a real Japanese-style system in MLB would be fired by May.”