A few years ago, before an All-Star game at Yokohama Stadium, while most players were relaxing, then-Chunichi Dragons slugger Tyrone Woods was feverishly fielding grounders at first base hit by his manager, Hiromitsu Ochiai.
The normally reserved Ochiai had a wide grin on his face and was clearly enjoying himself, until eventually Woods played the part of former boxer Roberto Duran, held up both hands and signaled no mas.
Woods put his hands on his hips as he walked off the field and shook his head.
“That old man is crazy,” he said. Asked if he liked playing for Ochiai, Woods responded, “he’s a nice manager. He pretty much just lets you play. When he sees you struggling, he tries to step in and tell you what you’re doing wrong.”
Like Woods, today’s Dragons seem to stand behind Ochiai. Too bad the organization doesn’t share those sentiments.
Ochiai’s year began with his being voted into the Hall of Fame. It will end with his final game in the Chunichi dugout, with the club announcing last week it would not be renewing his contract after the season.
In the absence of some behind-the-scenes drama, the move is a baffling one.
In terms of performance, Ochiai’s record speaks for itself. Since taking the helm in 2004, he’s led the team to three Central League pennants, a pair of CL Climax Series titles and four trips to the Japan Series, winning the big prize in 2007.
He’s maintained a high level of success despite a slew of changes, including the departures of Kenshin Kawakami and Kosuke Fukudome to the major leagues, and the retirements of Kazuyoshi Tatsunami and Woods — all since 2007 — to name a few.
It serves as a reminder that winning is the goal on the field, but not necessarily in the front office. Sagging attendance and a failure to turn a profit have been given as reasons for the move, notwithstanding that Ochiai can be held accountable for neither.
He’s done his part, fielding teams that have finished lower than second just once — in 2008 when Chunichi finished third — in seven seasons. The Dragons are on pace for another top-two finish this year.
“It would be one thing if Ochiai was retiring,” Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino, himself a former Dragons skipper, was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports. “Why make this announcement now? What is the thinking? But that’s the business. Management is looking down on the field, this is what happens.”
For his part, Ochiai was his typical indifferent self when the news broke late last week.
“It’s just in line with what my contract says — it expires this year,” he told Kyodo News, “This is the world we baseball guys live in.”
It’s possible the front office just wearied of dealing with Ochiai. He’s a different type of personality among managers and his icy cool — publicly at least — demeanor may not have played well with the Chunichi brass.
Ochiai rarely publicly seems to enjoy yucking it up with other managers or the assortment of former players and officials who hover behind batting cages during practice, though he is outwardly warm to Chiba Lotte Marines manager Norifumi Nishimura, a former teammate.
Recent rumors also suggested he wasn’t as cozy as the club would’ve have liked with some of the Dragons of the past, sinful in Japanese baseball organizations.
What Ochiai is, however, is a mad scientist in the dugout who has found a way to push the right buttons for Chunichi each year. His undressing of Yomiuri Giants skipper Tatsunori Hara in the 2007 Climax Series, for example, began with springing a surprise starter on the Kyojin in Game 1, and was a work of art, prompting Hara to begin trying to guard the identity of his own starters like state secrets to this day.
That postseason ended with the team’s first Japan Series title in 53 years.
Like many things, it’s best to follow the money. Maybe Ochiai just became too expensive. The Dragons have been adept at winning on a budget, but Ochiai’s success was driving up his value, and that of his staff.
Chunichi Old Boy Morimichi Takagi has been tapped to take over next year, but at age 70 he’s just keeping the seat warm.
Whomever the longterm successor is, he should be ready. There’s a price tag on success in Nagoya, and the Dragons don’t seem willing to pay top dollar.