Haruki Ihara made sure the Seibu Lions kept their hair black, their faces free of stubble and their pant legs high. The idea was to make them look professional. But it doesn’t matter how good you look if you’re losing.
Ihara wasn’t able to turn Seibu into a winner, and so last week, 53 games into his second stint with the team, the manager announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence because of the Lions’ poor performance to begin the year.
The Lions (21-35 entering Monday’s games) have now added an overhaul in the dugout to their list of problems this season.
Batting coach Norio Tanabe took the reigns as interim manager on Friday and was able to pick up his first win on Saturday. Unless he totally flames out, the Lions may have already found their next manager. Ten interim skippers who took over midseason have been given the job full time the following year in NPB, a list that includes, current managers Junji Ogawa of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the Orix Buffaloes’ Hiroshi Moriwaki.
Tanabe said one of his first acts as manager would be to rescind Ihara’s rules on appearance, saying that he wanted his players to do what’s comfortable. A stance more in line with previous skipper Hisanobu Watanabe.
Some Lions wore baggy pants, and others had dyed hair during Watanabe’s six-year tenure, and the team won the 2008 Japan Series and reached the climax series five times. Watanabe could be strict in practices, but there was a more relaxed air around his teams.
Pants and hair don’t win or lose games, but Ihara’s rules are somewhat symbolic of how his tactics and managerial style may have been suffocating.
It’s on Tanabe to create an environment where the Lions can thrive and claw out of the league cellar. Seibu has struggled to this point, but the Lions wouldn’t be the first team in recent memory to turn things around after a midseason change.
When Terry Collins left the Buffaloes on May 21, 2008, the team was 21-28 and in fifth place. Interim manager Daijiro Oishi guided them to a 54-40-1 record the rest of the way as the Buffaloes finished second in the Pacific League standings.
The Swallows were 13-32-1 when Shigeru Takada stepped down on May 25, 2010. Ogawa was handed the reigns two days later, and the Birds took flight, going 59-36-3 to finish the season. Ogawa got the team to the final stage of the climax series the next year.
Tanabe wants his players to be more comfortable, and that should include letting them swing the bats a little more.
Many, if not most, Japanese managers are well versed at giving away a chance at a big inning, praying instead for just one run at the altar of the sacrifice bunt. Ihara seemed more predisposed to it than most, even as the strategy failed to produce results over the long haul. At one point in the season, the Lions were first in the PL in sacrifices and dead last in both the league and in actual runs scored.
Solving the team’s offensive woes would go a long way toward squeezing something out of the remainder of the season.
The Lions are 14½ games out of first place (through Sunday), so rebounding to win the pennant is more dream than reality (but not impossible) even this early in the season.
Ihara may not have been the best manager, but he wasn’t exactly in charge of a powerhouse either, so a run to the pennant would be a surprise.
A playoff spot is a tall mountain to climb as well, but it’s at least manageable with Seibu 8½ games out of third place. Finishing third isn’t as good as finishing first, but it gets you a ticket to the dance. As the Chiba Lotte Marines showed in 2010, all bets are off once a team is actually in the postseason.
Even as Ihara denies that he was out of touch with his players, his style put the Lions in a cage.
Tanabe should let them run free and see if he can get the team roaring again the rest of the way.