When the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters were trailing the two-time Japan Series champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks by 11½ games in the Pacific League in late June, almost no one expected them to end up as league champions, let alone Japan Series champions, by the end of the season.
That, however, is why they play the games.
“There were a lot of surprises this year, for example, the presidential race in the United States,” Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Tuesday afternoon. “Also like how we overcame a big deficit during the season against the Hawks. People make predictions, but those predictions don’t always come true.”
What rung true in 2016 is that the Fighters chased down the Hawks to claim the pennant and then beat them in the final stage of the Pacific League Climax Series. Kuriyama’s club then defeated the Hiroshima Carp in six games to win its first Japan Series since 2006.
Kuriyama, and team interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, spent about an hour at the FCCJ, touching on various topic, such as star player Shohei Otani and the posting system. He also spoke highly of the growth the Fighters showed in chasing down the Hawks.
The bell began tolling on the Fighters’ pennant chances on June 24, when they fell 11½ games back. But then something clicked, and the Fighters ran off a 15-game win streak, which luckily enough coincided with a Hawks decline, that helped them get back in the race and ultimately claim the crown.
“Honestly, when we were 11½ games back, that was more than we’d expected,” Kuriyama said. “We knew it was going to be really tough. But we were able to overcome that and win at the end. The players showed us it was possible and that we were doing the right thing as a team. That experience is really going to lead into next year. It’s going to help the confidence of the players. As a team, we know we’re doing the right thing, we got assurance of that also.”
The ongoing challenge for Kuriyama, who played for the Yakult Swallows from 1984 to 1990 and was both a college professor, teaching sports media at Hakuoh University, and a sports commentator for TV Asahi and TBS, is finding the best way to manage his players. Especially his two biggest stars, pitcher/designated hitter Otani and slugger Sho Nakata.
Kuriyama formed his own thoughts about how to run a team during his time in the media and said his philosophy hasn’t really changed. The difference, he inferred, is that being on the inside means working with all available information, not just some of it.
“For example, Sho Nakata, our No. 4 hitter, I really believe that he could get the Triple Crown,” Kuriyama said. “From the outside, the way I see Nakata hasn’t really changed. But working with him, I know his weaknesses and what he needs to work on and where he needs to train harder. You can actually start seeing those things.
“For Shohei Otani, he also has pros and cons. Looking from the outside, most of you guys probably only see the pros. For example, no matter how bad he feels, how sick he feels or how weak he feels that day, if I ask him, ‘are you OK today’, of course he’ll say yes.
“Although he says he’s OK, he might not really be OK. I really need to think about the exact situation he’s in.
“If you keep on playing him, if he’s fatigued his numbers are going to go down, which is going to affect the team in a negative way. I feel responsible when not able to manage my players. I feel like if I changed a little something, Otani could have better numbers or perform better. I feel like that’s the tough part about managing.”
Just getting Otani on the roster was a big win for the Fighters. Otani had a stated desire to go to the major leagues, and was prepared to make the jump out of high school. The Fighters drafted him anyway, and convinced him to begin his career in Japan.
“As a team, and as a manager, we try to think of Otani not as a player but as a family member,” Kuriyama said. “We understand his dream is to one day play in MLB. We were trying to plan out the best way, the easiest way, for him to actually play in MLB and have success. I made visits to his high school, but I never actually personally asked him to come to the Fighters.
“What I explained to him when I met him was; when I was a reporter for TV, I visited the U.S. over a hundred times, interviewing different players, a lot of minor league players also. What I got from that was, the best way for Otani to have success in the major leagues is not to go straight to the U.S. but to join the Fighters, playing in Japan first and getting experience here.”
Otani may still move to the majors one day, but according to his manager, money is not a motivating factor.
“Money is the last thing on Otani’s mind,” Kuriyama said. “I can tell that because I deal with him everyday.”
Money might be a consideration when it comes to the posting system. As it stands now, the maximum fee the Fighters could command is $20 million, a far cry from the $51.1 million the Seibu Lions got for Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2006 or the $51.7 million the Fighters got for Yu Darvish in 2012.
“Right now, I don’t think this is the perfect plan,” Kuriyama said. “We’re going to keep on negotiating with MLB and NPB and try to figure out a better solution.
“Twenty million dollars, which is the limit right now, is a lot of money. I’ve never even seen that much money. But since we compare it to what other people got in the past, it may sound small. But it’s really not. I don’t know what the best solution for the posting system is, but we’re going to try to find a way to make both sides, both Japan and America, happy.”