It is obvious Japanese baseball is changing. It was not all that long ago when such terms as free agency, posting, expansion, inter-league games and post-season playoffs were unheard of. Now, everyone here knows them.
For me, one of the more dramatic changes in the game here has been the acceptance of the foreign managers. Think about it. Bobby Valentine of the Chiba Lotte Marines and Trey Hillman of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are each entering their third season as field boss of their respective teams and, unlike the situation of 25-30 years ago, there is no air of anxiety or doubt that everything can run smoothly.
Compared with what happened here in the past with American managers, this is a situation which clearly reflects the changing times. There used to be two questions that came to mind every time a Japanese team hired an American manager: Will he make it through Golden Week (April 29-May 5) of his first season? And what will be his undoing: his team’s owner, the Japanese media, the umpires, back-stabbing by his own jealous coaches or just a general frustration because of the language barrier and other such problems?
Sure, Hawaiian Wally Yonamine successfully managed the Chunichi Dragons for six seasons (1972-1977) and won a Central League pennant in 1974. But Wally had been playing and coaching in Japan since 1951, and he knew the language.
Joe Lutz was named manager of the Hiroshima Carp in 1975. He brought in American players Gail Hopkins and Richie Scheinblum to join the lineup and got off to a pretty good start in the Central League pennant race. But Lutz’s tenure as manager lasted only one month. Following a reported dispute with the Carp front office, he was gone. The team said he quit; Hopkins says Lutz was fired. Hiroshima went on to take the C.L. pennant under replacement manager Takeshi Koba, but several Japanese players on the team said they won because Lutz-Kantoku had laid the groundwork.
Next came Don Blasingame, with 12 years of Japanese baseball experience under his belt as a player and coach with the Nankai Hawks and the Carp. “The Blazer” was named manager of the Hanshin Tigers, one of the country’s high-profile teams, in 1979 and led them to a fourth-place finish.
Then in 1980, Don resigned early in the season, right around Golden Week, after a disagreement with the Hanshin organization. Blasingame wanted to use American Dave Hilton as a starter in his infield but, when Hilton went into a horrendous batting slump, the Tigers brass told the manager to play rookie Akinobu Okada (the current Hanshin skipper) in his place. Blazer wanted Okada to get some seasoning on the farm team, but the front office could not wait. Soon Don was out, and Okada was in the lineup.
Blasingame got a second chance to manage when the Hawks hired him to pilot that club in 1981. He made it through two seasons, but his contract was not renewed after finishes in fifth and sixth place.
The next American to get a shot at managing in Japan was Valentine in 1995. He was the first former major league skipper, having led the Texas Rangers for seven years, to become field boss of a team here. The story of the great job Valentine did in leading the ’95 Marines to a strong second place standing in the Pacific League has been well documented, as have the problems with then-Lotte general manager Tatsuro Hirooka that caused Bobby to exit that job in October, 10 years ago.
Hillman and Valentine are about to enter this pivotal season with a great deal of respect from just about everyone connected to the game here.
Hillman made a smooth transition from being the last Fighters Tokyo manager to the first one in Sapporo. Trey has made efforts to make the game, at least when it involves his team, more fan-friendly, and his gesture of running onto the field at Seibu Dome last Oct. 3 to congratulate winning Lions manager Tsutomu Ito after a heartbreaking playoff loss is typical of Hillman’s class.
Valentine as well seems to be getting along just fine with everyone and everything here. I see nothing but admiration for the guy from rival managers, umpires, the media and fans as well as players, coaches and staff of his Marines ball club.
Leon Lee managed the Orix BlueWave for most of the 2003 season and, although his club did not do well on the field, at least he was given the chance and treated with respect.
Had Livedoor, not Rakuten, been awarded the expansion team in Sendai, there would have been three Americans managing Pacific League teams in 2005, as Tom O’Malley was selected to guide the Livedoor Phoenix if that team had actually come into existence. Maybe next year?
O’Malley, an eight-year veteran player and coach in Japan with four years of managerial experience with the Atlantic League Newark Bears, no doubt would have been regarded as highly as Hillman and Valentine.
The changing attitude toward American managers might best be summarized by a comment made by 45-year-old fan Hiroyuki Tomioka of Yokohama.
“I used to think a Japanese baseball team should have a Japanese manager,” he said.
“But, after watching Valentine and Hillman last year, I can only say my mind has changed. I wish them both the best of luck and hope to see them both in the Pacific League playoffs in October.”