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Fighters pleased with choice of Kuriyama as manager

by Wayne Graczyk

There are three men managing teams for the first time in Japanese baseball this season. Two Central League skippers have had problems getting their teams on track, but another has done an outstanding job keeping his club at or near the top of the Pacific League standings.

Yutaka Wada and Kiyoshi Nakahata, rookie managers of the Hanshin Tigers and Yokohama BayStars, respectively, see their teams playing below the .500 mark.

Hideki Kuriyama, meanwhile, has guided the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to a strong second-place standing in the Pacific circuit, two games behind the pace-setting Chiba Lotte Marines through games of Thursday.

To be fair, Wada and Nakahata took over teams that finished fourth and sixth last season, while Kuriyama inherited a second-place club. But with the loss of ace pitcher Yu Darvish to the major leagues, many observers thought the Fighters would sink this year, especially with an inexperienced manager.

That has not been the case, and a couple of Nippon Ham team officials say they are extremely happy to this point with the performance of the 50-year-old Kuriyama, and the hiring of the former broadcaster is the best decision they have made since moving to Hokkaido eight years ago.

Kuriyama’s career as an active player was not a notable one. He was a banjo-hitting reserve outfielder with the Yakult Swallows, who retired at age 29 following the 1990 season. He also had no coaching or managing experience when he was named last autumn to replace Masataka Nashida as the Fighters’ field boss.

Most of his time over the past two decades was spent in broadcast media, serving as a color commentator on TV and radio broadcasts of Japanese games, and he was the chief baseball analyst on TV Asahi’s nightly news, weather and sports program, “Hodo Station.”

That job, which included trips to the U.S. to cover Japanese players in the majors, earned Kuriyama the reputation as one of the best observers in Japan of statistical data and player talent. Current Fighters executive director Toshimasa Shimada maintains that was a prime factor in the decision to hire Kuriyama.

Shimada said, “All the members of our (front office) staff have known him for years, and all agreed he has good logic on how the club should be run. We had other candidates in mind for the manager’s job, but decided in the end Kuriyama was by far the best choice.

“He speaks responsibly to the media and the fans, and the fact he had no managing or coaching experience makes him, I think, more open-minded. We are more than satisfied with the job he has done for us so far.”

Team director Kenichi Iwamoto agrees.

“He’s always honest and fair,” said Iwamoto about Kuriyama. “He doesn’t hide anything, and the atmosphere in our clubhouse is terrific. He is always thinking about the players, coaches and staff members and is very unselfish. Also, he shows great respect for the game.”

Iwamoto, the lead interpreter for Trey Hillman when the American managed the Fighters from 2003-07, said, “I see a lot of Trey in Kuriyama,” referring to the mild-mannered Hillman; always polite, always the gentleman but a superior team leader with a sharp baseball mind.

Shimada discussed about how the team’s fortunes changed since the decision to relocate the Nippon Ham franchise from Tokyo to Sapporo a decade ago. Hillman guided the transition, managing the club through its final season in the capital in 2003 before setting up shop in Hokkaido’s largest city a year later.

“Trey helped us a lot,” said Shimada. “We learned a lot by hiring him, and he was the perfect manager to lead us to our new home in Hokkaido.” He noted Kuriyama is carrying on the successful tradition started by Hillman and continued by Nashida.

Under Hillman, the Fighters won pennants in 2006 and 2007 and the Japan Series in ’06. Nashida led Nippon Ham to another league title in 2009, and Shimada and Iwamoto are confident the team will be in the Pacific League Climax Series again this coming October and will hopefully, for them, make a fourth Japan Series appearance in the past seven years.

“There is a never-give-up attitude” under Kuriyama, said Iwamoto, noting the F’s overcame a four-run deficit, scoring five runs in the ninth inning to defeat the Hiroshima Carp 5-4 in a recent interleague game at Hiroshima.

Hillman, by the way, has not been forgotten at Sapporo Dome. He stepped down from his job with the Fighters following the 2007 season and became the manager of the American League Kansas City Royals in 2008. He is now in his second year as the bench coach for manager Don Mattingly on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“We have honored Trey by naming the largest meeting room in our offices after him,” said Shimada.

The Trey Hillman Conference Room is labeled as such on the door which displays a caricature of the former manager and a replica of his signature.

Inside the room, Hillman’s Nippon Ham jersey, with No. 88 on the back and his name above the numeral, is prominently displayed in a glass case along with other memorabilia.

Hillman, for sure, would be proud of Kuriyama for carrying on the winning Hokkaido Nippon Ham tradition so far.


Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com