Take a look at the standings in the various divisions in Major League Baseball, and you will find the usual high-profile, big-market teams at or near the top.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are battling for first place in the American League East, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have a comfortable seven-game lead in the National League West through Friday.
The defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets are contending in the NL East.
However, one small market club is leading the way in its division, guided by a manager with Japan playing experience. Through Friday, the Milwaukee Brewers were 34-27 and had a 1 1/2-game lead in the National League Central, directed by former Chunichi Dragons third baseman Ken Macha.
Macha played for Chunichi for four seasons, 1982-1985, and his job (second one) as a big league manager a quarter of a century later has a lot to do with his coming to Japan in the first place.
The Monroeville, Pa., native was a journeyman, having had major league time with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays from 1974-81.
He wanted to continue his big league career but was involved in one of those situations where his club had no place for him on its roster and, if he was sent to the minors, his agent could have filed a grievance through the MLB Players Association.
Instead, his contract was sold to the Dragons, and a handshake deal was struck with a verbal promise for employment at the end of his playing time.
“Go to Japan quietly,” he was told. “Play as long as you can and make as much money as you can and, when you are finished, come back here, and we’ll have a job for you.”
So, off he went to Nagoya where his name in katakana was written and registered “Mocha” as in mocha coffee.
He enjoyed three good seasons with Chunichi, helping lead the Dragons to a Central League championship in 1982 when he belted 23 home runs, had 76 RBIs and batted .311.
His best season was 1984 (31, 93, .316), but his Japan career came to a strange end midway through the 1985 campaign.
The Dragons were playing the Yomiuri Giants in a traveling series at Sapporo Maruyama Stadium. Macha, in the midst of his usual fine season, was a runner at second base when the Giants pitcher attempted a pickoff. Macha dove back to the bag, and his hand slid under the canvas.
There was a metal bracket with a sharp edge under the bag at the countryside ballpark, and Macha sustained a deep and wide cut that began bleeding profusely. He not only had to leave the game for a pinch runner, but was also taken to the hospital for stitches and then sent back to Nagoya where he was placed on the disabled list.
Three weeks later, after recovering and being fit to play once again, “Mocha” was called into the Dragons front office where the team owner told him what a pleasure it was to have a player such as him on the Chunichi team, and that he would be activated for an upcoming three-game set against the Giants at Nagoya Stadium.
Following that series, however, he would be released.
Then 35, Macha played those three games against Yomiuri, bid sayonara to Japanese baseball and returned to the U.S., remembering the promise made to him four years earlier. He knocked on the door and landed a job as a bullpen coach with the Expos in 1986.
In subsequent years, he coached in the majors and managed in the minor leagues with the organizations of the California Angels, Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics. Eventually, he was named manager of the A’s in 2003, a job he kept for four seasons, winning two American League West division titles and finishing second the other two years.
He was scheduled to come back to Japan twice, but both times his trips were canceled at the last minute.
In March 2003, he was to bring the Athletics to Tokyo Dome for official AL opening games against the Seattle Mariners, but the event was scrubbed two days before the clubs were to leave, because the Iraq War broke out.
In November 2006, he was to have managed a major league All-Star team on a post-season Japan tour, but Oakland fired him just prior to the start of that tour, and he was removed as the MLB skipper.
Web sites, calling Macha a “moron” and containing foul language and other references so disgusting I can’t even write about them, have surfaced from disgruntled Oakland fans who claim Macha’s Athletics teams folded under pressure and his poor management in the postseason, and they predict the Brewers will fade this summer.
It should be noted, the A’s have not even made the playoffs in the two seasons after he was canned, and they’re currently last in the AL West.
I knew Ken Macha, not as a moron, but as a good ballplayer and a sincere individual, and I am sure he will make the most of his second chance at managing a major league club.
Good luck, my friend.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com