More than 200 people attended the “Marty Kuehnert-Shi Iwai GM Shunin to Saranaru Nippon Yakyu Kai no Hatten o Negau Kai” (Party to Congratulate Mr. Marty Kuehnert on His Appointment as General Manager and Praying for the Success of Japanese Baseball) at a Tokyo hotel on Friday, Jan. 21, in honor of the former sports columnist of The Japan Times and current general manager of the expansion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Pacific League.
Hosted by Baseball Magazine, the soiree was attended by the family and friends of Kuehnert, and the list of those present includes an impressive array of radio and television personalities, comedians, company presidents, former pro ballplayers and sumo wrestlers, rakugo storytellers and educators.
The evening event served not only as a kind of pep rally and a send off to Sendai for Marty, but also as a get-together to recognize the expected rejuvenation of the game which passed through a 2004 crisis that threatened to reduce the number of teams and saw Japan’s first players’ strike, a two-day work stoppage, last September.
“I was very honored so many people came to wish me well,” said Kuehnert, a California native. “But the party was not just for me. It was also a celebration of the direction pro baseball is going in this country.”
Indeed, it would have been impossible to imagine a year ago, or even six months ago, Japanese baseball would be welcoming an expansion team in a new area, with a foreigner as its general manager.
But the Eagles are the club, Sendai is the city and Marty is the guy.
Among those at the gathering were Hiroshi Mikitani, chairman of Rakuten (Japan’s biggest Internet shopping mall) and owner of the Eagles; Masato Mizuno, head of sporting goods maker Mizuno; Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese pitcher in the major leagues (San Francisco Giants, 1964) and current Hiroshima Carp manager Koji Yamamoto.
TV celebrity Dave Spector, a close personal friend of Kuehnert, was there, as was Henry Armstrong Miller, formerly Sentoryu of the sumo world and a current Pride fighter.
Haruo Wakimura, chairman of the Japan High School Baseball Federation, traveled from the Osaka area to attend the shindig.
Current Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters GM and former Yomiuri Giants player Shigeru Takada wished Marty good luck, as did ex-players Genji Kaku (Chunichi Dragons), Takehiko Kobayakawa (Hiroshima Carp and Yakult Swallows; now an NHK TV commentator), Hiromi “Mr. Perfect” Makihara, the one-time Tokyo Giants perfect game pitcher who now adds color for TBS Radio baseball broadcasts, and ex-Yomiuri second baseman Toshio Shinozuka, now with NTV.
Ex-Chunichi Dragons pitcher and Hall of Famer Shigeru Sugishita joined the crowd, as did former team managers Haruki Ihara, Takeshi Koba and Junzo Sekine.
One-time pitcher, author and former Osaka gubernatorial candidate Takenori Emoto was there, along with comedians Yonesuke and Dancan, soccer’s Ruy Ramos, Nippon Hoso Radio President Akinobu Kamebuchi and Yokohama BayStars Team President Susumu Minegishi.
Having a crowd such as that show up established a testament to how much Kuehnert is respected, and the mood at the party seemed to give off a sense of excitement about the coming season, the Eagles franchise, interleague play and the general future of Japanese pro baseball.
Greeting the assembly, Kuehnert thanked Baseball Magazine President Tetsuo Ikeda and other company executives, with whom he has had a long relationship, for throwing the party and expressed his appreciation to Mikitani for selecting him as the Rakuten team’s first general manager.
Kuehnert also revealed the owner’s request to achieve a yusho (championship) within three years and his own hope the Eagles would finish in the Pacific League’s “A Class” (top three in the six-team circuit) in its inaugural season. That would put the team in the P.L. playoffs in October.
The exuberance of anticipation at that party is obviously shared by fans throughout the Tohoku area and around the country. Some 30,000 supporters greeted Eagles manager Yasushi Tao and team players at a parade in snowy Sendai on Jan. 22, wishing it were March 22.
Kuehnert says tickets to the first two Rakuten exhibition games on Feb. 26 and 27 have been sold out. Granted, they are scheduled against the popular Tokyo Yomiuri Giants in small ballparks in Oita and Yamaguchi in western Japan, but hopefully this is an indication of what sales will be like when the club plays its regular-season home opener against the Seibu Lions on April 1.
The Eagles’ stadium in Sendai is undergoing major renovations and, because of that and the cooler weather in Tohoku in early spring, Rakuten will play its entire 17-game exhibition season on the road as the visiting team.
Rakuten has signed five foreign players: infielders Damon Minor and Luis Lopez and pitchers Aaron Myette, Gary Rath (Yomiuri Giants, 2003) and Kevin Hodges (Yakult Swallows, 2001-2003).
Just for fun, even though it really does not mean anything, I added up the 2004 won-lost records of all pitchers on the Eagles’ staff who played in professional baseball last season, regardless of the team, league or country in which they pitched. The combined figures totaled 67 victories and 72 defeats, a percentage of .482. That’s 139 decisions; very close to the 136-game schedule the Pacific League will play this year.
The big winners were southpaw Rath, 17-8 with the Doosan Bears of the Korea Baseball Organization, and Hisashi Iwakuma, the ace right-hander of the former Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, who led the Pacific loop with a 15-2 record during the year of turmoil.
A huge wild card, though, is highly touted rookie and ex-Meiji University standout Yasuhiro Ichiba. At 22, Ichiba is expected to be the Golden Eagles’ golden rookie and a double-figures winner.
Rakuten’s offensive attack centers around outfielder Koichi Isobe who belted 26 home runs, had 75 RBIs and hit .309 for the Buffaloes in 2004, and the imported newcomers, Minor and Lopez.
It remains to be seen where GM Kuehnert’s team will finish come the end of September but, as evidenced by the quality and quantity of the turnout at the Jan. 21 “party for Marty,” the potential is there for a successful first year on and off the field for the Eagles and an exciting renewal for Japanese baseball after that nightmare season in 2004.
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