Chunichi Dragons catcher/manager Motonobu Tanishige began his workouts this year with a vow not to change anything about the way he prepares for the season.
Hardly groundbreaking news since Tanishige is preparing for his 26th professional season and should know better than anyone what it takes to get himself ready by now.
But it isn’t just about getting into playing shape anymore. The longtime Chunichi backstop is also preparing to enter waters few have waded into as he hopes to successfully juggle his duties as a player against the demands of being a first-time manager.
You don’t see player/managers around much anymore, in part because of the increasing complexities of managing.
There have been player/coaches recently, Takuro Ishii for the Hiroshima Carp in 2012, and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ Atsunori Inaba, who started last season, but those duties entail far less responsibility.
There hasn’t been a player/manager in Japan since former Yakult Swallows catching great Atsuya Furuta managed the Birds in 2006 and 2007. Pete Rose was the last in the majors, managing and playing infield for the Cincinnati Reds from 1984-89.
Wearing both hats isn’t easy. If it were, you can bet Japanese team executives, always eager to plop a freshly retired star in the dugout, would try it more often.
Tanishige may not want to change his preparation as a player, but necessity will dictate the old dog learn at least some new tricks, so to speak. He’ll be both teammate and boss, friend and mentor, grunt and general, and even for a player as respected as he is, that can be a fine line to walk.
Tanishige has been around the block and ought to have an operational knowledge of how to run a team during a game — certainly more than some of the fresh-out-the-box old boys who have chewed gum in dugouts in the past — but most first-time managers, the successful ones included, face a substantial learning curve even without having one foot in the dugout and one on the field.
And it’s not as if Tanishige is stepping into a ready-made championship situation.
The Dragons are transitioning out of almost a decade of sustained success under former manager Hiromitsu Ochiai (2004-2011) that yielded a Japan Series title, four Central League pennants, and eight consecutive winning seasons.
The rebuilding process has been slow to get underway, and Chunichi is in an odd period as an ageing team, with patches of youth, just productive enough to compete, but too long in the tooth to look far into the future with many of its key contributors.
Ochiai being brought in as GM is a plus, but Tanishige will still be the one in the dugout pushing the buttons while trying to maintain his focus on the field.
Whether it works or not, Tanishige is joining an exclusive club.
Player/managers (or senshukenninkantoku) weren’t exactly uncommon in the early days of Japanese baseball. Katsuzo Ito was the first, managing and catching for Dai Tokyo in 1936, the inaugural year of Japan’s first professional league. There were 33 player/managers from 1936-1967, with some doing so for multiple clubs.
Since then, there have been four.
There were two in 1970, Minoru Murayama for the Osaka Tigers and the Nankai Hawks’ Katsuya Nomura.
Muryama, a former Kansai University pitcher, took the reigns toward the end of his career with the Tigers, and led the team to a pair of second-place finishes — sandwiched around a fifth-place campaign — from 1970-72, going 25-14 with a 2.11 ERA on the mound in those years.
Nomura, perhaps Japan’s greatest catcher, continued to be successful as a player, hitting .271 with 200 homers and 646 RBIs and winning the Pacific League MVP Award in 1973, while pulling double duty from 1970-77. Nankai was consistent under Nomura, claiming the PL pennant in 1973 and finishing above .500 in six of his eight seasons as manager.
In 1975, infielder Shinichi Eto managed the Lotte Orions to a third-place finish.
Furuta played only sparingly as player/manager, appearing in 46 games over two seasons. Yakult didn’t register a winning record in either year.
Now Tanishige steps into the fray in an age of increasingly specialized bullpens, and in the Central League where late-game moves can be critical.
As it concerns himself as a player, Tanishige may be content to stand on ceremony, but the demands of one job bleed into the other, and the ability to adapt and change could determine the Dragons’ fate.