The Japanese baseball national team has a new outlook and a new man in charge.
Former Fukuoka Softbank Hawks star Hiroki Kokubo was introduced as the next manager of Samurai Japan during a ceremony at Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Wednesday.
“I have recently turned 42 years old,” Kokubo said. “I am certainly inexperienced, but I would like to do this job for the Japan national team.”
Kokubo will be tasked with grooming current Samurai Japan members for the future while also identifying new talent, all in hopes of putting Japan in position to bring home a third World Baseball Classic title during the 2017 edition of the tournament.
Kokubo will make his debut in the dugout during an exhibition series against Taiwan Nov. 8-10 in Taipei.
“Of course we are going down there to win, but at the same time, we need to have a mid-term and a long-term outlook and select younger players,” he said.
Kokubo didn’t strike a hopeful tone about the prospect of major leaguers returning to the national team in 2017 after none took part in the 2013 WBC.
“It’s more about the rules,” he said. “Unless they change the rules, it will be hard to acquire the players we want. Of course, I would like them to join us, but it will be difficult under the current system.”
Kokubo is expected to follow in the footsteps of past WBC managers Sadaharu Oh (2006) and Tatsunori Hara (2009), who led Japan to titles in the first two tournaments, and Koji Yamamoto, who guided the team into the semifinals in March.
Kokubo, who has no prior managerial or coaching experience, expressed surprise about being contacted about the position.
After wavering initially, he agreed to take on the challenge.
“I eventually came to think about what it would mean for Japanese baseball, and thought if there was anything I could do to help, I should do it,” Kokubo said. “I also consulted with Oh-san, the chairman of Softbank. He told me ‘this kind of thing is about faith and timing. You should take it.’ “
In addition to a new voice at the top, Samurai Japan is changing, bringing the top team and under-18, U15 and U12 national teams, as well as the players from the corporate leagues and women’s baseball, under the Samurai Japan banner.
“We are going to start a new Samurai Japan project which unifies all the amateurs and professionals,” said Shoji Numazawa, the deputy secretary general of the national teams. “This will be something historic.
“Our slogan is ‘We will be united and aim to be the best in the world.’ To match this, we have chosen the best person available,” he said of Kokubo.
With the 2017 WBC still years away, Kokubo will take a hard look at the best players currently in the amateur ranks in addition to NPB stars.
“If players of high school, college and industrial leagues are currently doing great and if they are going to become pros, sure, it’s possible those players could make the team in four years,” Kokubo said. “I would like to keep my eyes (on them).”
Kokubo went from the field to the broadcast booth this year, retiring in 2012 after recording 2,041 hits during an 18-year career that featured two stints in Fukuoka (from 1994-2002 during the Daiei Hawks years and 2007-12 after the franchise became Softbank) wrapped around a three-year run with the Yomiuri Giants. He retired with a .273 average, 413 home runs and 1,304 RBIs.
Among his first orders of business will be to put together a coaching staff for future years.
“We are currently working on it,” Kokubo said. “Ideally, we’ll have young (coaches) . . . well it’ll be hard to find any younger than myself.
“I don’t think I will choose coaches with international experience from the past. I think it will be those who can make a fresh start together.”
Kokubo hopes his relative youth will help him better communicate with younger members of the team.
“I was a player until last year and I know how hard it is to tune up in March,” Kokubo said. “Yet Samurai Japan still needs to show what it can do to the public,” Kokubo said. “For the players, I want them to understand the significance of wearing the Hinomaru jersey and I would like to form a competitive team and make the players want to play for us, play for Kokubo Japan.”
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.