Hideki Kuriyama is a man who thought it was good luck that he happened to see a fox on his way home from Sapporo Dome after Game 3 of the Japan Series, although maybe it was, the Fighters won 1-0 on a sayonara single in Game 4.
He marveled in his good fortune the next day as well, that time basing his forecast on the group of flying white insects he came across — the tenuous connection being that white dots often represents wins on Japanese schedules — and the large number of birds he saw in the sky, he apparently hadn’t seen many in a while, during a walk that morning.
Kuriyama isn’t weird, well not too weird, but in many ways the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager doesn’t quite fit the staid archetype that typically takes up residence in Japanese dugouts.
He also isn’t as consistently bombastic as Yokohama BayStars manager Kiyoshi Nakata, himself a bit of an outlier, nor as aloof as former Chunichi Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai.
Kuriyama is quirky and charismatic, traits that served him well when he went into television in 1991 following a seven-career with the Yakult Swallows.
The Fighters manager has his own unique style, which may have helped him engineer NPB’s coup of the year by convincing celebrated pitcher Shohei Otani to put his MLB dreams on hold and spend his formative years with the Fighters.
Otani’s bold proclamation a few months ago that he would skip NPB and go to MLB straight out of Hanamaki Higashi High School was met with predictable blowback in NPB circles.
The old guard, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino and the usual suspects, moaned about MLB poaching players, the evils of amateur stars skipping NPB and so forth.
Most players who skip NPB are subject to a two-year ban before being able to return to professional baseball in Japan, and Otani’s case — which re-opened the old wounds caused by Boston Red Sox pitcher Junichi Tazawa going from the industrial leagues to the majors in 2010 — made some wonder aloud if the potential ban should be even longer.
Instead of looking for ways to make the game more attractive, they wanted to scare players into staying, starting with Otani.
Publicly, Kuriyama simply said wanted to listen to what the teenager had to say about the decision.
He and the Fighters took an active interest in Otani’s reasons for leaving and hoped to talk him into reconsidering. To that end, the team took a calculated gamble by choosing Otani with their first pick of the draft, with no guarantee the fireballer would give them the time of day.
Fighters brass met with Otani on a few occasions, but it was only after the pitcher met with Kuriyama that it seemed Nippon Ham had a fighting chance to land the right-hander.
Kuriyama met with Otani twice, and said he gave the pitcher all the information he wanted about both the majors and the Fighters. Rather than simply telling Otani why he shouldn’t go to the U.S., the Fighters manager put everything on the table and left it to Otani to decide.
In doing so, he managed to persuade Otani that in order to maximize his potential it would be best to begin his career in Japan.
Through fortune, shrewdness, or just dumb luck, Kuriyama handled the situation in just the right manner.
Going in too hard may have caused Otani to double-down on his original decision, but the manager applied just the right amount of pressure, without smothering the teen, that Otani began to reconsider his original proclamation.
“He (Kuriyama) told me to walk a path no one else had,” Otani said according to Sanspo during a news conference to announce his decision Sunday.
“I eventually want to go to the majors, which is what I’ve dreamed about. I was shown the Fighters way, which is why I chose here.”
Kuriyama’s triumph is a lesson for other Japanese baseball leaders.
Instead of looking for ways to handcuff players to Japanese baseball, more needs to be done to make the game more attractive to young players while making sure to put their welfare first.
Kuriyama didn’t seem to fully buy into the old way of thinking, and his softer approach made Otani feel secure enough to entrust his future to the Fighters.
It won’t work every time, but other teams should pay attention to the way Kuriyama and the Fighters handled the situation.