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It finally looks as if Japanese baseball is ready for a change.

After years of watching Japan’s best players flee to the major leagues — and worrying about what can be done to stem the tide — one Pacific League team is considering a dramatic move to lure fans back.

The Nippon Ham Fighters indicated last week that they were negotiating with Trey Hillman, director of player development for the Texas Rangers, to manage the Tokyo-based club next season.

The news, no doubt, caused a lot of people in Japan to ask, “Trey who?”

Perhaps that’s a sign the Fighters are taking things seriously.

Too often, it seems, local teams play it safe by turning to retired Japanese stars when they need a new manager. The reasoning seems to be that if a big-name player takes the helm, crowds of people will come out to watch games.

Whether he has the talent to win those games rarely enters the equation. Thus explains the managerial careers of Shigeo Nagashima and so many others.

Signing a foreign manager involves a big risk because teams fear bad publicity if something goes wrong — and with cultural differences and the language barrier, there’s plenty that can go wrong.

That’s why the list of foreign managers over the past 50 years includes just five names: Kaiser Tanaka, Wally Yonamine, Joe Lutz, Don Blasingame and Bobby Valentine.

Unlike Yasunori Oshima, who is finishing a lackluster three-year term as Fighters manager, the 39-year-old Hillman has made his name as a manager.

After a three-year stint as a minor-league infielder, Hillman became a scout for the Cleveland Indians in 1988. The following season, he signed on with the New York Yankees to be a minor-league coach and in 1990 he took the helm of the organization’s Class-A affiliate in Oneota, N.Y.

Over the course of his 12-year managing career, Hillman worked his way up the Yankees minor-league system, compiling a 855-761 record and reaching the postseason four times. It was during this period that Hillman and the Fighters, who had a working agreement with the Yankees prior to this season, first crossed paths.

Hillman was twice picked as Baseball America’s top managerial prospect and in 2000 he was named the Triple-A Manager of the Year while in Columbus, Ohio.

This season, Hillman moved into the Rangers’ front office, where he oversees the club’s minor league organization and helps make personnel decisions regarding coaching staffs and player transactions.

Hillman appears to be a man in demand.

The Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram reported Wednesday that he was one of the leading candidates to become the next manager of the Texas Rangers, despite having a “tentative agreement” to manage the Fighters next year.

Hillman could not be reached for comment by The Japan Times.

On paper, he would seem the perfect man to turn things around for Nippon Ham, a team with a serious image problem and a roster that often performs below expectations.

Not so, according to one expert on Japanese baseball.

“Teams are always saying they want to change things,” said Robert Whiting, author of two highly acclaimed books on Japanese baseball, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat and You Gotta Have Wa.

“I’ve been listening to things like that for the past 40 years and then when the gaijin actually does shake things up, they don’t like him changing the way Japanese do things and it causes trouble and he’s out.

“That’s why Valentine left, that’s why (American umpire Mike) DiMuro left and it will probably be why this guy Hillman leaves after a year or two. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

Indeed, foreign managers have had mixed results in Japan. Lutz, hired to lead the Hiroshima Carp in 1975, resigned in frustration after just 15 games.

Four years later, Blasingame began a year-and-a-half stint at the helm of the Hanshin Tigers only to quit when he felt the team had pulled the rug out from under him.

Valentine took over the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995 and led them to their only winning record in the last 17 years. He was sacked at the end of the season because, according to then-general manager Tatsuro Hirooka, he failed to win a pennant.

Only Yonamine, who led the Chunichi Dragons to a pennant in 1974 and was later inducted into Japan’s Hall of Fame, stands out as an unblemished success story.

Of course, having played in Japan 12 years and being able to speak the language no doubt helped Yonamine avoid many of the traps awaiting other foreign managers and coaches.

One problem for foreign managers is image. One of the first things Valentine and the others did upon taking the helm was to cut back on practices and give their players some rest.

It was a popular move among some players. One reason so many of Japan’s top stars have decided to play abroad is to avoid lengthy and pointless practices.

And there was sound reasoning behind the moves since overworked players are more prone to injury.

Most Japanese coaches believe, however, that the more players work out, the stronger they become and the more resistant they are to injuries.

“The coaches are gonna get a lot of flak from their counterparts on other teams,” said Whiting. “Their colleagues are gonna say, ‘I see you guys left at one o’clock yesterday — nice soft life you have over there.’

“Let’s say they start spring camp next year and Hillman lets everyone leave at one o’clock. Do you realize how quickly the press will criticize him? And what if they lose their first two or three exhibition games? Then the heat’s really going to be on him.”

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