|

Skipper Nakahata building new identity with BayStars

by Wayne Graczyk

Three years ago, it might have been difficult to identify Kiyoshi Nakahata with a Japanese professional baseball team other than the Yomiuri Giants. He played his entire career with the Kyojin, served as a coach with the team after his playing days were finished and stayed in the family as a commentator on telecasts of Giants games on the affiliated Nippon Television (NTV).

Here he is, though, in his third year managing the rival Central League Yokohama DeNA Baystars, and he appears to be taking great delight especially in beating his former club.

Over the years, certain players have insisted they would play for the Giants — and only the Giants. Suguru Egawa, Daisuke Motoki and Hisayoshi Chono are three who rejected their draft selections by other clubs until they were eventually picked by their favorite team at a later time.

Shigeo “Mr. Giants” Nagashima would never have anything to do with another Central or Pacific League entity, and others such as current Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara and former star Hideki Matsui may be considered permanent members of the Giants group. Nakahata was in that circle too until 2011.

Nakahata made his debut as a Yomiuri player in 1977 as a 23-year-old infielder but played mostly on the Giants farm team until making a splash following the 1978 season during a game against the Cincinnati Reds when Sparky Anderson’s “Big Red Machine” toured Japan. Still an unknown, Nakahata slammed a home run at Korakuen Stadium and drew attention with a fist-pumping, high-stepping semi-sprint circling of the bases; his excitement out there for everyone, especially then-manager Nagashima, to see.

Ask him today if he remembers the pitcher off whom he hit that homer, and he responds quickly, “Of course. Mario Soto.” It is something he will never forget.

The youngster assumed a role as the varsity Giants regular third baseman in 1979, but complications set in when the team drafted Hara, a highly touted college third sacker who, at 24, was ready to play regularly as a rookie in 1981. At first, Nakahata insisted he would maintain his place at the hot corner, saying, “Third base is my position.”

In order to get both their bats in the lineup, first-year Giants manager Motoshi Fujita decided to play Hara at second base, leaving Nakahata at third. Throughout spring training camp, the exhibition games and the first month of the ’81 schedule, they played that way.

It was clear, though, Hara was somewhat of a defensive liability at second; his range was limited and he found the footwork necessary for turning double plays difficult. It all changed however one night at Jingu Stadium in late April 33 years ago. Yomiuri was trailing the then-defending Japan Series champion Yakult Swallows, forcing Fujita to make a series of player substitutions, use pinch hitters and runners and re-arrange his defensive alignment. Late in the game, the Giants staged a rally to go ahead and eventually win.

When the dust cleared, Hara was playing third base, Toshio Shinozuka went in at second, and Nakahata found himself playing first base. With Kazumasa Kono at shortstop, that proved to be the Yomiuri infield for the next few seasons. Nakahata at first may not have been happy, but he swallowed his pride, accepted the change and helped the Giants win four CL pennants during the 1980s.

He retired following the 1989 campaign, having batted a career .290 with 171 home runs while wearing “Giants” across his chest and the number 24 on his back. Besides his post-retirement coaching and broadcasting stints with the team, he also filled in as acting manager of the Japan national team at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Nagashima, the appointed manager, suffered a stroke in March of that year, and wasn’t able to lead the team. Nakahata guided Japan to a bronze medal, and it is no secret he had hoped to manage the Giants someday.

Hara seems to have that job locked up at least for the foreseeable future, though, and Nakahata jumped at the chance to manage the BayStars in December of 2011 after being offered the position at the last minute. Kimiyasu Kudo was about to be named Yokohama manager but made a demand unacceptable to general manager Shigeru Takada.

Takada said, “I called Nakahata-san to ask him to manage our club, and he accepted right away.” Then 57, Nakahata figured, if he was ever going to manage, he had better jump at the opportunity.

After a last-place Central League finish two seasons ago and a fifth-place standing in 2013, the BayStars are currently fifth again through Friday’s games, but only four games out of third place and in contention for a post-season Climax Series berth.

“The mood of the team has changed for the better,” said an excited Nakahata during a late-July series against the Giants at Osaka Dome. A week later, his improving BayStars swept Yomiuri in a three-game series split between Niigata and Yokohama, and it is obvious Nakahata has no problems winning against the team which he had been so identified with for 35 years.

Before taking the field, the Yokohama players greet their manager with a gesture of deep respect. Win or lose, Nakahata appears on a post-game TV interview every day, and he’s always upbeat and often funny.

It remains to be seen how far he can take the BayStars this season, but attendance is up at Yokohama Stadium, and the fans are excited. It is refreshing.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com