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BayStars continue burgeoning baseball tradition in Yokohama

by Wayne Graczyk

It looks like a go for the sale of the Yokohama BayStars franchise and, assuming all goes well, the team will officially become the Yokohama DeNA BayStars by the beginning of next month. It is good the club will be staying in Japan’s second-largest city with its great stadium location and fan base.

Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) Holdings Inc. will finally be able to rid itself of what has been a huge money loser over the past decade. TBS bought the Central League team in 2001 for a reported ¥14 billion from seafood maker Maruha Corp. DeNA Co. is said to be buying the club now for ¥9.5 billion.

The transaction is scheduled for approval discussions by NPB owners on Tuesay and is expected to be finalized on Dec. 1.

The history of the team in Yokohama goes back to 1978 when the city’s new ballpark was opened, and the club moved a few kilometers south from Kawasaki and its aging bandbox of a stadium. Then-owner Taiyo Fisheries (Maruha) added the Yokohama city name to the club’s Taiyo Whales designation, while the local citizens welcomed the players, including some colorful foreign performers.

During the first six years in the port city, the roster listed Felix Millan, Danny Walton, Gene Martin, Pete LaCock, Mike Lum and Jim Tracy. Millan was the second baseman on the New York Mets’ 1973 National League pennant winner and won the Central League batting title, hitting .346 in 1979 for the Whales. Tracy was with Taiyo in 1983-84 and is currently the manager of the Colorado Rockies.

Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, however, Yokohama was for the most part not a pennant contender in the tough Central League.

The team was renamed the BayStars in 1993 under a revised branding and marketing scheme, with a fresh image and logo, spiffy uniforms and a new star-headed mascot character named Hoshi. The Taiyo name was eliminated as the company name was changed to Maruha, and the BayStars seemed to gain a certain sense of respectability, helped by the signing of a couple of darned good and extremely popular American players in second baseman Bobby Rose and outfielder Glenn Braggs, though the latter was often injured, and he retired in 1996.

The high point of the franchise came in 1998, when the club, under manager Hiroshi Gondo, won not only the CL pennant, but also the Japan Series for the first time since 1960, with a superb batting lineup known as the “Machine Gun Dasen.

Regulars were first baseman Norihiro Komada, with Rose at second, Takuro Ishii at shortstop and Tatsuya Shindo at third. League batting champ Takanori Suzuki was the left fielder with Toshio Haru in center and Takahiro Saeki in right. Motonobu Tanishige was the every-day catcher.

Ishii was still playing in 2011 with the Hiroshima Carp, and Saeki and Tanishige remain active, playing in the Japan Series with the Chunichi Dragons.

There was very little — if any — platooning of players in that 1998 lineup; just eight guys in the prime of their careers who could hit consistently, play adequate defense and had great chemistry. They were also fortunate to avoid major injuries.

Three starting pitchers won in double figures: right-handers Takashi Saito (currently throwing for the Milwaukee Brewers) and Daisuke Miura (still with Yokohama), and lefty Hiroki Nomura. “Daimajin” Kazuhiro Sasaki was a dominant closer, but it was the offense that carried the BayStars to the championship.

Rose used to say, “We took the field knowing we were guaranteed to get at least 10 hits every night,” and that usually meant victory. It should also be noted Gondo rarely employed the sacrifice bunt, because he expected all the guys to hit safely by taking full swings. The team batting average was a CL-high .277.

Needless to say, the crowds flocked to the 30,000-seat home stadium. The ‘Stars drew 1,857,000 spectators in 1998, and there were happy times in Yokohama. It is difficult to figure out what happened after that, though, as the team went down again after that one super-successful season, and it got worse in the new millennium after Maruha sold the team to TBS.

There have been a series of managerial changes and a revolving door policy on foreign players, the media has been critical of the front-office operation, and the result has been a B-class, mostly last place, team in recent years.

Since 2000, Rose’s last year with the team, the following gaikokujin have worn the Bay Stars uniform. How many can you remember?

Lou Merloni, Rafael Betancourt, Jon Zuber, Dave Doster, Anthony Sanders, Shane Bowers, Mark Holzemer, Mike Gulan, Ernie Young, Boi Rodriguez, Chris Holt, Domingo Guzman, Jason Turman, Tyrone Woods, Steve Cox, Eddie Gaillard, Scott Mullen, Matt Whiteside, Cedrick Bowers, Pete Walker, Kevin Witt, Marc Kroon, Mike Holtz, Shawn Sonnier, Jason Beverlin, Scott Chiasson, Joselo Diaz, Matt White, Mike Wood, Travis Hughes, Dave Williams, J.J. Furmaniak, Larry Bigbie, Ryan Glynn, Tom Mastny, Les Walrond, Dan Johnson, Stephen Randolph, Chris Bootcheck, Jose Castillo, Terrmel Sledge, Brett Harper, Brent Leach, Clayton Hamilton, Brandon Mann, Wang I Cheng, Chen Kuan Yu and Luis Gonzalez.

TBS tried to turn things around in 2009 by hiring then-Yomiuri Giants pitching coach Takao Obana as manager for 2010. Obana had been a successful hurler during his active career with the Yakult Swallows and was an outstanding mound staff mentor on Japan Series-winning teams with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and the Giants. But a good manager he has not been during his two seasons.

Under Obana’s leadership, Yokohama finished dead last in the Central League, 32 games out of first place in 2010 and 27½ behind in 2011.

Next week, we’ll have more to say about Obana and take a look at the prospects for the 2012 Yokohama DeNA BayStars.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com