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Interest heats up for new-look BayStars

by Wayne Graczyk

Merry Christmas to all readers of the Baseball Bullet-In, and the fans in Yokohama should have a relaxing holiday season now that their team has been sold, it has a new manager, new owner and a new look after limping through a few — shall we say — less-than-spectacular seasons.

Santa Claus has brought a special gift in Kiyoshi Nakahata, former Yomiuri Giants player and NTV commentator who will take over as the field boss. If Nakahata runs the club with even half the enthusiasm he had during his days as a Giants infielder, we should be seeing vast improvement in the team right away.

Nakahata was a tenacious player who made his first mark in November of 1978 when called up from the Giants farm team to play against the visiting Cincinnati Reds on their post-season Japan barnstorming tour. Then 24, he broke in with a home run off “Big Red Machine” pitcher Mario Soto at Korakuen Stadium.

Having proven he could hit major league pitching, at least in one at-bat, Nakahata was given a chance to become the regular third baseman for Yomiuri and by 1981 had established himself as the Giants’ hot corner man. However, the club drafted highly touted rookie Tatsunori Hara in the fall of 1980, and then-manager Motoshi Fujita moved Nakahata to first base.

He went on to enjoy a 14-year career at that position, helping the Kyojin win five Central League pennants with Hara (currently the Giants manager and a CL rival skipper) at third, Toshio Shinozuka at second base and Kazumasa Kono at shortstop. The quartet was one of the most productive infields — offensively and defensively — in Japanese baseball history.

Besides serving as a batting coach with the Giants and acting manager of the 2004 Japan Olympic team (filling in for the ailing Shigeo Nagashima), Nakahata is also a past chief of the Japanese Pro Baseball Players Union. It was often said during his time as head of the JPBPU there was no chance the labor group would go on strike, because Nakahata enjoyed the game so much, and he could not stand not playing.

The mood on the 2012 Yokohama DeNA BayStars should be light, as Nakahata’s personality is fun-loving and sometimes comedic. I’ve been out with him and the NTV broadcast crew following Giants “home” games in countryside towns, and he loves to sing karaoke. One evening he cracked up the staff by dialing up “Rokko Oroshi,” the fight song of the Hanshin Tigers, and belting it out as if he were a fan of the archrival CL team.

On another occasion, Nakahata was assigned to add color commentary to NTV’s telecast of a Giants game at Fukushima. Since he is from that prefecture, he was asked to serve as the honorary batter during the first-ball throwing ceremony.

The “pitcher” was a local schoolboy who nervously threw his ball directly at Nakahata, who had to jump out of the way to avoid being beaned. Nakahata then simulated charging the mound, much to the amusement of his hometown crowd.

Despite his flamboyant personality, Nakahata must be serious about taking the Yokohama manager’s job after four others had apparently turned it down. At 57, he must be thinking it’s now or never if he’s going to manage, something he said he had thought about for a long time.

Obviously, he will have his work cut out, taking over a last-place club further weakened by the loss of third baseman and cleanup hitter Shuichi Murata, who left as a free agent and will be playing for Hara and the Giants against the BayStars. Nakahata will have 11-year Japanese baseball veteran Alex Ramirez to play left field, but there are several weak spots that must be beefed up if the team is going to escape the basement, let alone contend for a playoff spot.

No BayStars pitcher won more than five games in 2011 and, with Murata and outfielder Terrmel Sledge (going back to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters) no longer on the roster, Ramirez will be the only regular who had a double-figure home run total in Japan during the past season.

At the Dec. 9 news conference introducing him as the DeNA manager, Nakahata said his impression of the team and one bright spot is how youthful it is. He expects a lot from youngsters such as 20-year-old first baseman Yoshitomo Tsutsugo. He also said he hopes the team will adopt a catchphrase with the word “hot” or “fever” included, indicating he wants to heat up baseball in Yokohama.

Nakahata’s coaching staff has been announced, and there are no foreigners listed, but the team would be wise to take advantage of Yokohama’s reputation as an international city and fill some of the gaps with talented pitchers and position players from overseas. Ramirez, having played in Japan more than nine years, does not count against the club’s four-foreigner limit on the first team roster.

Even before Nakahata was named manager, the BayStars drafted two high school players with mixed parentage; outfielder Tomo Otosaka of Kanagawa Prefecture and pitcher Travis Mikihisa Samura from Okinawa.

Otosaka, 17, is the son of a former American ice hockey player and was selected as the No. 5 draft choice. Samura, 18, was the ‘Stars No. 6 pick and is said to possess a dazzling forkball and throws a 150-kph fastball.

I like the team’s spiffy new logo and am waiting to see how the DeNA uniforms will look. The team designation has been changed from “YB” to “DB,” and the new BayStars will begin spring camp in Okinawa on Feb. 1. Their first exhibition game is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26, at Naha — against the Giants.

Nakahata’s troops will open the 2012 regular season against Hanshin at Kyocera Osaka Dome on March 30, and the first home game is set for April 3 against the CL champion Chunichi Dragons. I can’t wait.

Merry Christmas, Yokohama.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com