The week of April 25-30 was not a good one for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles or Marty Kuehnert.
The Eagles, mired in last place in the Pacific League standings, were on a 10-game losing streak and, following a 6-22 start, Kuehnert was stripped of his position as general manager of the expansion Eagles on April 30, just one month and five days into the team’s inaugural season.
Besides Marty’s demotion to a position described as “team adviser,” there were some key changes made in the Rakuten coaching ranks and among front office personnel.
Head coach Daisuke Yamashita and batting instructor Norihiro Komada were dropped to the Eagles farm team, while second-team manager Masanori Matsui replaced Yamashita as the head coach under first-team skipper Yasushi Tao.
E-mails to this column and comments by fans have indicated the changes made by Rakuten owner Hiroshi Mikitani came way too soon, and the separation of Kuehnert from his title as GM was unfair.
Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman said of the changes, “I think it is an absolute shame to have made such a drastic shakeup so soon to the Eagles front office and field staff. It was pretty amazing what the franchise was able to pull off in short time, none of which would have been possible without Marty. Nice thanks.
“I feel for all those involved in the shakeup. Yamashita is a first-class man, and I doubt that organization will ever have a harder working or more dedicated GM than Marty.”
Takashi “Bert” Shimada, a fan and friend of Kuehnert, said, “I am a little upset about the change that took place in the management of Rakuten. I am so sorry that Marty is not GM any more. It is Mikitani himself who hired Marty as GM of the team. Besides, it is only the beginning of May. Only about one month has passed since the opening of the season.
“What happens to the responsibility of Tao, the field manager, and Mikitani himself? It is not fair to Marty at all. What is Marty going to do now? The team adviser? Adviser of what? What does he do?,” asked Shimada.
A major league team scout, reacting to the news, said, “Geez, they sure had Marty on a short leash!”
Haruki Chiyama, one of my neighbors, commented, “Mr. Kuehnert should have been given at least one year. It appeared everything was going well for Rakuten, except for the fact the team is not winning. The Eagles seemed to be drawing good crowds to their games at home and on the road, and the fans in Tohoku are very excited, despite the losing streak.
“I think Rakuten has the nicest looking uniforms and I love their mascots, especially ‘Mr. Carrasco.’ Although I have not had the chance to visit Sendai, it looks on TV as if their home stadium is very nice. They must have done a terrific job of fixing the ballpark and, when you look back at how far the Eagles have come since last November when Rakuten was officially awarded the expansion team, and they started from scratch, it is an amazing achievement.”
Kuehnert himself said the Eagles were being adopted throughout the Tohoku region as “lovable losers,” and he compared the team to the 1962 National League expansion New York Mets who won only 40 games while losing 120 under legendary manager Casey Stengel.
I can relate to that, having been an original Mets fan during that season 43 years ago. As with the Mets, winning will come sooner or later for the Eagles and, when it does, it will be that much sweeter because the team will have come from so far down.
When the Mets won the National League pennant and World Series in 1969, the celebration by the New York fans was so much more enjoyable because the club had come from the depths of futility, from being a laughing stock to emerge as the most respected team in Major League Baseball. All you need is to relax, have some fun and exercise a little patience.
But, getting back to Marty, there was one quote in the paper I found hard to believe. I saw it twice, and it was attributed to Tao who supposedly said Kuehnert “lacked the connections in and outside of Japanese baseball to successfully perform his duties as general manager . . .”
As my late mentor, former Tokyo Weekender editor and publisher Corky Alexander, used to put it, “Say whaaaaaat???!!!”
Marty has been living and working in Japan for more than 30 years. He knows all the key personnel on all the Japanese teams through his extensive experience as a businessman, broadcaster and former sales manager of the Taiheiyo Club Lions team.
The contacts he has here were evident on the guest list of those who attended Marty’s sendoff party at a Tokyo hotel on Jan. 21, some 10 days before the beginning of spring training.
As pointed out in this column shortly afterward, the party attendees made up a virtual who’s who of top people in Japanese baseball. Marty knows them all and knows them well.
As for contacts in North America, Kuehnert is acquainted with every major league team president and general manager, as well as most scouts, player agents and anyone else who has any interaction with Japanese baseball.
If he didn’t know them before, he sure as heck got to know them in a hurry after his appointment as the Eagles GM last October. The assertion Kuehnert does not have the contacts is bogus.
Asked for a comment, Kuehnert would only say, “I am disappointed the team did not get off to a better start, and I appreciate Mikitani giving me the chance to serve as Rakuten’s GM, if only for seven months. I will do my best to help the club in the advisory capacity.”
I know Marty busted his butt and put all of his heart into making the Eagles’ entrance into Japanese baseball as smooth as it could possibly be, and that he will continue to work well with the team as an adviser and give the Eagles good advice.
They need it.
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