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BayStars have chance for fresh start under new ownership

by Wayne Graczyk

Last week, we examined the history of the Yokohama BayStars and discussed the impending sale of the Central League team and change of ownership from Tokyo Broadcasting Systems Inc. to the DeNA company, and we mentioned where TBS had tried to turn around the fortunes of the club in 2010 by hiring Takao Obana as manager.

Obana, fired on Tuesday, had done a great job as pitching coach with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and Yomiuri Giants but, as the Yokohama manager, he never got the BayStars out of last place; let alone making the team a playoff contender. I have to tell you, I did not like his style as the field boss.

In person, I saw 14 BayStars games in 2011 and 13 in 2010, plus several more on TV, and I was not impressed. Obana played straight baseball, and there was no excitement. If the leadoff man reached base, the next guy bunted (yawn). On a 3-0 count, batters took a fat, straight, batting practice home run pitch right down the middle of the plate (yawn).

When you have a last-place club, you can’t play it strictly by the book and expect to beat such teams as the Chunichi Dragons, Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers. You need to take chances; employ the hit-and-run, the stolen base, suicide squeeze -even something as rare and radical as the hidden ball trick.

There is hope, however. If the new ownership will roll up its sleeves and get to work, the fans and joyful times can return to Yokohama. They need to hire an aggressive manager and should consider a foreigner who can do for the BayStars what Bobby Valentine did in Chiba in 2005 and Trey Hillman in Sapporo in 2006.

Former Yomiuri Giants outfielder and Central League MVP Warren Cromartie says he wants to manage the BayStars. So does ex-Yakult Swallows player and Hanshin Tigers player and coach Tom O’Malley. Another possibility would be one-time Hiroshima Carp second baseman Tim Ireland, the “king of the hidden-ball trick.”

Cromartie managed the Samurai Bears, an all-Japanese team in the U.S. independent Golden Baseball League. O’Malley also has independent league managerial experience with the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League. Ireland, currently a Pacific Rim scout with the Tampa Bay Rays, managed several years in the North American minors, including at the Triple-A level.

They also need to stop that revolving door of foreign players (listed in last week’s column), get four qualitygaikokujin players and give them a chance to last for more than one season, and they must re-instill a sense of pride in the entire organization. Yokohama is a great city with great fans and a nice, centrally located stadium.

Speaking of which, another thing that needs to be done by the new owners is to negotiate a more reasonable deal with the city-owned ballpark. It is no secret the team has a disadvantageous arrangement with the stadium when it comes to sharing revenue from concession sales and the like.

There are reports former Nippon Ham Fighters and Yakult Swallows manager and Fighters general manager Shigeru Takada will be hired as GM. That would be a good choice, and one priority has to be trying to keep slugging third baseman Shuichi Murata from leaving.

On Friday, Murata announced he would file for free agency, and his potential loss would further weaken the team stung by the departure last year of outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa who left as a free agent and joined the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, won the Pacific League batting title and was a key member of the Japan Series championship team.

American Benny Eilers runs the popular Benny’s Place sports bar and grill down the street from Yokohama Stadium and is looking forward to the new owners taking over and improving the ballclub.

“It’s about time someone cared about the team. When you have a city of more than 3.6 million people and can’t fill a 30,000-seat stadium, something is wrong. The new owners need to come out with a bang, wake up the fans and get them out to the games,” Eilers said.

Ray Denny, an American fan living in Yokosuka, south of Yokohama, says he looks forward to a renewed BayStars team after the sale. Denny notes there is a foreigner fan base of American military service members stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base, Atsugi Naval Air Station and the U.S. Army Camp Zama who often attend games in Yokohama.

Denny said, “I will be happy to see TBS gone. Their business skills are not good for baseball and the Yokohama fans. It is awesome DeNA is buying the team. Also, managers over the years could not make the right decisions at the right time, and too often with their lineup, the team was destined to fail before the first pitch.

“The usage — or should I say lack of usage — of foreign players also did not make sense. Why pay the big bucks and not use the players?”

Denny has a point. This season, outfielder Terrmel Sledge, one of the team’s best hitters, went home to the U.S. in August, and first baseman Brett Harper, a .300 hitter in 2010, was benched in favor of 19-year-old Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, a star of the future … but what about now? It seemed as if Obana and the team had given up.

We shall see what the new owners do as far as replenishing the team’s foreign players. There is talk of signing Alex Ramirez, who would be playing a 12th season in Japan and does not count as a foreigner because of his longevity.

Whatever happens, 2012 will be a pivotal year for the BayStars and baseball in Yokohama. Will another last-place finish be the result? Or will the new ownership be able to revive the fortunes of the team and resurrect the sense of pride displayed in 1998 by the last pennant-winning team in town?

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com