It was obvious some big news was coming when the Orix BlueWave indicated during their April 23 “nighter” against the Seibu Lions at Sapporo Dome there would be a press conference after that game. It came as little surprise when manager Hiromichi Ishige was fired, and a lot of eyes were opened when Californian Leon Lee was introduced as Ishige’s successor.
It will be most interesting to see Leon matched against Trey Hillman, the Nippon Ham Fighters’ skipper. The first Japanese pro baseball game between two teams with American managers in 28 years is scheduled for Saturday, May 17, when Orix visits Nippon Ham at Tokyo Dome.
Leon is the sixth foreign-born manager, and the first African-American, in the history of the Japanese pro baseball.
He follows Yoshio “Kaiser” Tanaka (Hanshin Tigers – 1958-59), Wally Yonamine (Chunichi Dragons – 1972-77), Joe Lutz (Hiroshima Carp – 1975), Don Blasingame (Hanshin Tigers – 1979-80; Nankai Hawks – 1981-82), Bobby Valentine (Chiba Lotte Marines – 1995) and Trey Hillman (Nippon Ham Fighters – 2003).
If you were a fan of Japanese baseball 15-25 years ago, you will remember the days when Leon was one of the most feared hitters in the game here. For newcomers, here is a profile of just exactly who Leon Lee is, spiked with a few colorful episodes from his playing days.
* Leon is a Japan baseball veteran, having come here in 1978 to join his brother Leron in playing for the then-Lotte Orions of Kawasaki.
Leon went on to play 10 years here; five with the Orions, three with the then-Yokohama Taiyo Whales and two with the Yakult Swallows. He belted 268 home runs, had 884 runs batted in and hit .308 over his career, earning him a reputation as one of the most popular and respected foreigners to play in this country.
* He’s a VIP. Leon tells the funny story of the time he was driving his car from Tokyo to Kawasaki for an Orions game in 1981.
He was late for pre-game practice and was going a few kilometers over the speed limit when he heard a siren. A motorcycle policeman pulled him over for going too fast and was about to give him a ticket. Leon told the cop, “Renshu, renshu,” and he pointed to his watch, indicating he was late for practice and would appreciate if he could just be given the summons and be on his way.
“Hey, you’re Leon,” said the officer. “And you’re late for practice? Follow me!” He put away the ticket book, motioned for Leon to come on, hopped on his bike, flipped on his siren and flashers and gave the player a police escort to the stadium!
* Leon’s a generous man. One night in 1980, I was chatting with him in the Orions’ locker room at Kawasaki Stadium, and he handed me a large, flat box which contained a card table; the kind where the four legs fold under the table’s surface.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s a table. One of our home run prizes. I got it for hitting that homer last night,” he answered.
“Don’t you want it?” I said.
He then pointed to the top of his locker where there were about 25 boxes with card tables in them. That was the year Leon hit 41 homers, and he just did not have a need for that many card tables.
* He’s a pundit who came up with one of my all-time favorites in the history of baseball witty one-liners. It was after the Whales released him following the 1985 season, during which he posted Leon-like statistics of 31 homers, 110 RBIs and a .303 average. A Yokohama club spokesman told Leon they were cutting him because “You did not hit in the clutch.”
“How can you drive in 110 runs in a 130-game season and not hit in the clutch?” asked Leon. Then it came when he told them indignantly, “If I didn’t hit in the clutch, it’s because this lousy team didn’t have a clutch in which to hit.”
* Leon was a slugger in the truest sense of the word. He is one of only five men to hit a fair ball out of Yokohama Stadium and, in 1984, he came close to doing what, to my knowledge, has never been done by anyone in baseball anywhere.
In a game at Hiroshima, he hit a solo, a three-run and a grand slam, missing only a two-run shot that would have given him a “cycle home run,” if there is such a thing.
* He is a comedian. One night in 1986, Leon was playing for Yakult, when there was a rain delay at Jingu Stadium. He and American teammate Mark Brouhard entertained the fans by appearing on the field in a steady drizzle, wearing the huge Swallows’ bird mascot heads and pretending to hit home runs, running the bases and sliding head first into home across the rain-slicked tarpaulin. Funniest thing I ever saw.
* Leon was a baby sitter. He had to put up with the complaints and belly-aching about Japan, and Japanese baseball in particular, made by Bob Horner when that (some would say spoiled) major leaguer joined the Swallows in 1987. It was Lee who got “Horns” through that year and kept him sane.
* He’s the father of Florida Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee who fulfilled Leon’s dream of playing in the majors.
Leon himself was on the verge of making it to the bigs with the St. Louis Cardinals when his contract was sold to Lotte, and he never got to play a game at the highest level.
* Leon’s a batting coach who performed that role well with the Chicago Cubs, accompanying the team to Tokyo for opening games against the New York Mets in 2000.
* Now he’s the manager of the Orix BlueWave, and I believe he was chosen to head the team because of his personality, his charisma and his qualifications. Though he has no previous managerial experience, he’s done almost everything else, as pointed out above.
The management of the BlueWave decided it had to “do something different” after a disastrous 2002 season when Orix finished dead last, a whopping 39 games behind the Seibu Lions in the Pacific League pennant race, and got off to a poor start again this season. This despite supposedly being improved by the acquisition of ex-major league pitchers Masato Yoshii and Mac Suzuki, and former Central League home run king Takeshi Yamasaki.
Then on April 14-15, as the BW hosted the Nippon Ham Fighters at Yahoo BB Stadium in Kobe, the stands were almost empty. Though attendance for each game was announced at 9,000, it appeared the spectator count was more like 90.
It could be that’s when the Orix front office decided to “make some big news” in an effort to revive sagging attendance and get the team on a winning track.
Hopefully, Leon is the answer.
Though the BlueWave lost Leon’s first game at the helm to the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks on April 26, attendance at Yahoo BB was listed as 22,000.
Lee said, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think when I came here as a player in 1978, that I would be managing in Japan 25 years later. But I will make the most of the opportunity.”
He pointed out the BlueWave do not have a slugger such as Seibu’s Alex Cabrera, or Tuffy Rhodes or Norihiro Nakamura of the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, so will rely on stringing together consecutive hits to score.
Orix has the highest team batting average in the Pacific League.
“We’re going to be doing more running, with the hit-and-run and base stealing,” he said, and one of his first moves in an attempt to improve his pitching was to promote ex-major leaguer Mac Suzuki from the Kobe farm team.
Orix was 7-12 when Leon took over and, following a three-game sweep of the Buffaloes in Kobe April 28-30, the new manager said, “Our goal is to get to .500 by the end of May, and we’ll take it from there.”
Whether he can lead them out of last place, to .500, to the first division or even a pennant remains to be seen but, for sure, Orix BlueWave baseball just got a lot more interesting.
Fans and friends: The 2003 edition of my Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide is now available. It is the complete English-language guide to Japanese baseball, 136 pages containing team rosters, schedules, statistics, stadium diagrams, ticket prices, foreign player data and much more.
To order by mail, please send your name and address and 1,000 yen in cash, Japanese postage stamps or postal check “kawase” directly to me: Wayne Graczyk, 1-12-18 Kichijoji Higashi-cho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo-to 180-0002.
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