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Kuriyama facing tough transition in new role with Fighters

by Wayne Graczyk

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters have indicated the next field manager of the team will be former Yakult Swallows outfielder Hideki Kuriyama, with a formal announcement to be made this week following the conclusion of the Pacific and Central League Climax Series.

What kind of a manager will he be?

Kuriyama, 50, retired as a player at the age of 29 following the 1990 season. He was not a great one or even an All-Star but mostly a sub who probably spent a great deal of time on the bench studying the strategies and player handling by his own managers. That should serve him well.

On the other hand, he has no experience as a manager or coach at the professional level, having spent most of his time as a broadcaster since taking off his uniform.

He is an excellent baseball analyst, offering his insights on the game as a regular on the sports corner of TV Asahi’s late night “Hodo Station” news program and a commentator on live broadcasts of Japanese games on radio and television.

The situation may be different in Japan, but in the United States those who have made the switch from working behind a microphone to filling out a lineup card and making strategy decisions have found being a manager to be more difficult than it had appeared from upstairs. Case in point: Jerry Coleman.

A longtime play-by-play announcer for the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres, Coleman was suddenly asked by the Padres ownership at the end of the 1979 season to become the team’s field boss the following year. I can recall him saying then, while still on radio, “When I take over as manager next season, I am going to do this, and I’m not going to do that. . .”

He seemed confident he had it all figured out, but then found it to be much more challenging than he had originally thought. He later admitted he had not been a good manager.

Under Coleman’s direction, San Diego finished last in the National League West Division, and in 1981 he returned to the broadcast booth where, it was apparent, he belonged all along. Eventually, he was named to the Padres Hall of Fame as a broadcaster, and he was still adding color commentary to their games on the air in 2011 — at the age of 87.

Another in Japan with a similar situation to Kuriyama was Yasushi Tao, an outfielder with the Chunichi Dragons, Seibu Lions and Hanshin Tigers in the 1970s and ’80s. After retiring as an active player, Tao also embarked on a broadcasting career with the Fuji-Sankei group.

In 2004, he was chosen to become the first manager of the Pacific League expansion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles for their inaugural season in 2005. Tao made it through that first year but was let go after a last-place finish.

He’s back on the air, commenting on Fuji-TV’s sports news programs and working games on the Fuji television network and affiliated Nippon Hoso radio.

Kuriyama is a friendly, soft-spoken guy, and it remains to be seen if he will be a successful manager with the Fighters — or find himself with the same fate as Coleman and Tao, back on TV in a year or two after experiencing the realities of life in the dugout.

I hope he does well but, for me, he seems more suitable working with his voice. Let’s see if he can prove otherwise.

Diamond Dust: Speaking of broadcasters becoming managers, the Boston Red Sox Web site has some interesting ideas by BoSox fans suggesting who should succeed Terry Francona as manager of the team, and one of the choices is former MLB player and longtime popular Red Sox TV announcer Jerry Remy.

Another name placed in unofficial nomination by a fan to manage in Boston is that of former Texas Rangers, New York Mets and Chiba Lotte Marines skipper Bobby Valentine — now a broadcaster with ESPN.

From the rumor mill: now that the Yomiuri Giants season is over following their Central League Climax Series first-stage loss to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Japanese sports newspapers are saying outfielder Alex Ramirez and pitcher Seth Greisinger will be leaving the team. Both joined the Giants from the Swallows between the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com