The year was 1977.
The Yakult Swallows had gotten off to a poor start and, by mid-May, they were near the bottom of the Central League standings. Yakult’s two foreign players, outfielders Charlie Manuel (yes, the current manager of the Philadelphia Phillies) and Roger Repoz, were underachieving and taking a lot of the blame for the Swallows doing a lot more losing than winning.
In an effort to shake up the club, the Swallows sent a representative in late May to look for at least one — maybe two — new American players. In those days, each Japanese pro team was allowed only two imports per organization. That meant, if the rep signed a couple of new players, Manuel and Repoz would have been released.
A week or so later, Yakult’s man in the United States was reportedly about to offer a contract to Kurt Bevacqua, and he was still looking for a second replacement. During that week, however, a funny thing happened.
Manuel and Repoz had suddenly begun knocking the cover off the ball, and the team started winning and moving up in the league standings. The below .200 batting averages of the two Americans quickly shot up to over .300, and Manuel in particular started hitting home runs on a regular basis.
The Swallows’ front office called the guy in the States and told him to forget Bevacqua, stop looking for another player and return to Tokyo immediately.
Repoz went on to win the June 1977 player of the month award, while Manuel remained consistent with his hot hitting until the end of that season, finishing with 42 home runs (at the time a single-season record for foreigners in Japan), 97 RBIs and a .316 average.
Roger, as he was registered by his first name, ended with a respectable 22 homers, 55 RBIs and a .263 average. Yakult finished the year in second place behind the pennant-winning crosstown rival Yomiuri Giants, and Bevacqua never played in Japan.
Fast-forward 33 years to May of 2010 to another Swallows team seemingly mired in last place, and foreign sluggers Aaron Guiel and Jamie D’Antona taking a lot of blame for the club’s poor play. Something had to be done to reverse the situation, and it was. Two developments have helped Yakult start winning some games and make a move north in the CL standings.
With the Swallows in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, manager Shigeru Takada stepped down on May 26, then came the signing of a third foreign slugger, infielder Josh Whitesell, who subsequently arrived in Japan and formally joined the team on June 14.
Interim manager Junji Ogawa has led Yakult out of the cellar and past the Yokohama BayStars, posting a 9-5-1 record from the time he took over through games of Thursday.
Guiel and D’Antona, as Repoz and Manuel did in 1977, have turned it up a notch as well, getting key hits during a recent five-game winning streak.
Most notably, D’Antona came through with a two-homer, five-RBI game against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and was awarded that night’s “Hero Prize” on the day Whitesell was registered as a team member.
Unlike 33 years ago, Japanese clubs can now register up to four imported players, including three position players, at a time on the varsity roster.
News articles reporting Whitesell’s acquisition read, “He is expected to compete for the first base job with the slumping Jamie D’Antona.”
With interleague play finished for the season, Ogawa cannot insert a designated hitter into his lineup, but if there is any way he can maybe play Whitesell in left field while D’Antona and Guiel hit to their capabilities, the Swallows could be in a position to make a run for a second consecutive CL Climax Series appearance.
D’Antona said, “If we can play all three of us at the same time, and we bat three, four and five in the order, our lineup would be extremely dangerous, and we would be in a position to do a lot of damage.”
“There’s no question our lineup would be that much better with the three of us in there,” he said.
Heaven knows they need something. Attendance figures at Yakult’s home Jingu Stadium have dropped consistently below five figures, and the “crowds” are reminiscent of the low fan turnouts at Tokyo Dome for Fighters games in the years prior to Nippon Ham’s move to Sapporo in 2004.
At the last two games in Jingu against the Fighters on June 14 and 15, box scores reported attendances of 6,202 (lowest at an NPB game this season) and 9,108, respectively.
A fan at Monday’s game, played in a steady rain, said he thought there were fewer than 1,000 spectators in the stands.
I watched it on TV and, seeing all those empty blue seats, thought of the old American Football League joke from the early 1960s: They could have saved time by introducing the fans to the players instead of the players to the fans.
To be sure, the Swallows have a long way to go. As the resumption of same-league play began on Friday, Yakult had a record of 22-37-2 and stood 13 1/2 games behind the first-place Giants and 7 1/2 games out of the running for third place and a playoff berth.
There is hope, however. The 1977 Swallows finished second when there was no playoff system, then went on win the CL pennant and Japan Series the following year.
Yakult fans, get out there and support your team.
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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com