Other than the timing, the news of Tatsunori Hara’s decision to step down as manager of the Yomiuri Giants didn’t exactly come out of left field.
For one, there had been rumblings that this season might be Hara’s last since at least September. So it wasn’t hard to imagine he was doffing his cap toward Giants fans for the last time as manager while making the walk from the dugout to the visitor’s clubhouse at Jingu Stadium on Saturday, following the 3-2 loss to the Tokyo Yakult Swallows that ended Yomiuri’s playoff run.
Even if it wasn’t surprising, Hara stepping down is notable if for no other reason than the giant shoes he leaves the next manager to fill.
Hara wasn’t the greatest tactician in the world, but he did all the things a “good” manager is supposed to — namely, he won a lot and was a fitting public face for the team.
The latter is as important as the first for a franchise as image-conscious as Yomiuri can be.
When the cameras were rolling and the spotlight was at its brightest, Hara said the right things and made the right moves, rarely letting anything, even bits of personality, break through his stately countenance. He let more of himself slip out when he gave his trademark fist bumps after home runs or when he laced victory speeches with hints of charisma and even charm. Whatever temper he had mostly remained off camera, away from prying eyes.
Hara wasn’t without his missteps, the most notable being an ugly blackmailing scandal involving extramarital affairs and mob connections that spilled into the public sphere in 2012, a controversy he survived.
As far as the actual games were concerned, Hara’s Giants were almost always in the hunt.
Hara managed the team to seven Central League pennants and 11 A-Class finishes in 12 years. He took the Kyojin to the Japan Series five times, with the team winning titles in 2002, 2009 and 2012.
Before the 2009 season, Hara stepped away from the Giants and managed Japan to the World Baseball Classic crown. He returned to steer the Giants to the interleague, CL, and Japan Series titles that same year.
There is no question some of Hara’s success stemmed from Yomiuri’s deep pockets, willingness to throw money around, and the club’s penchant for poaching established talent from other teams. However, Hara also displayed more of a willingness to give young players and farmhands a chance, which some other managers in Japan seem loathe to do, an attitude that helped give rise to current stars such as Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.
Leading the Giants requires as much political acumen as actual managerial skill. The media glare is intense and probably rivalled only by the scrutiny from the upper reaches of the organization. The only NPB job that comes with as much pressure is that of Hanshin Tigers manager, something that the team’s new skipper, Tomoaki Kanemoto, will find out in 2016.
Hara was able to navigate the Yomiuri tempest and carve out a nice space for himself. In doing so, he left behind a blueprint for success for the next manager to follow, but it’ll take the right person to make everything work.
That also involves dealing with the fickle Yomiuri management, which according to some reports was waiting to see how the season played out before recommitting to Hara, whose gravest transgression was not winning a fourth consecutive pennant.
This isn’t the first time Hara has walked away. He led the team to a Japan Series title in 2002, then resigned after the 2003 season “to take responsibility” for a poor campaign that saw the Kyojin finish third.
The Giants endured another third-place finish under replacement manager Tsuneo Horiuchi the next season, slid down to fifth in 2005, and lured Hara back in 2006. The team finished fourth in the first year of Hara’s second stint, then won six of the next nine CL pennants.
This time, Hara, now 57, might be gone for good. He played the role of consummate company man well in public and he won a lot of games. Many managers have excelled at one but not the other. For instance, former BayStars manager Kiyoshi Nakahata played the public role well, while ex-Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai was a winner. Hara on the other hand wore both suits well.
Alex Ramirez, on Monday named the BayStars’ new manager, played for Hara from 2008-12. The popular “Rami-chan” won’t have any problems playing the public role, but it’ll be interesting to see how much he learned from watching Hara handle his players and manage egos on the way to building a winner.
The BayStars may let Ramirez, a first-time manager, grow into the role. For Yomiuri, patience isn’t usually a virtue. Meaning the new Giants manager will be under enormous pressure from the start as he tries to escape Hara’s shadow in the dugout.