What a difference a year makes.
Last fall, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles emerged on the Japanese pro baseball scene as the first expansion team in 50 years and optimism abounded that a new era in the game had dawned.
The Eagles hired the first non-Japanese general manager ever in American Marty Kuehnert, then brought rookie manager Yasushi Tao out of the television booth to lead the team.
They marketed the club like it had never been done before here.
The term “fan service” was actually brought into the lexicon and seemed certain to have an impact on how pro baseball teams in Japan treated their supporters.
These moves were definitely not out of the traditional Japan pro baseball textbook and had the establishment feeling a bit uncomfortable, to say the least.
Eagles owner Hiroshi Mikitani seemed to be the face of the future. A 38-year-old business magnate who was determined to drag the game into the 21st century.
But, lo and behold, a funny thing happened on the way to changing history.
The more time passed, the more the Eagles began to look like the other 11 franchises in Nippon Pro Baseball.
The first signs of trouble started just one month into the regular season, when Kuehnert was demoted from his job as GM, and several of the team coaches reassigned after the Eagles struggled on the field.
It was a bizarre move and clearly signaled that the organization was heading down the wrong path.
The owner, it seemed, was unhappy that the team had won only a handful of games up to that point and wanted the problem fixed.
This was even more phenomenal, considering that the team did not enjoy the benefit of an expansion draft — where they could choose players from the existing NPB teams — like new franchises do in Major League Baseball.
No, the Eagles were constructed almost entirely from the leftovers of the merger between the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix BlueWave.
The only two true stars the team had were ace pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and outfielder Koichi Isobe, who refused to play for the Orix Buffaloes — the team created by the merger.
The results were predictable.
The Eagles finished their inaugural season with a record of 38-97-1, the worst mark in the NPB in 40 years.
When Mikitani decided in the final week of the season that Tao would be released for “not winning enough,” you knew that whomever was brought in as the next manager was going to be a real whopper.
The Eagles did just that, too, when they decided last week to hire 70-year-old veteran skipper Katsuya Nomura — who has been out of pro baseball for the past four seasons.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, they overlooked the fact that Nomura had piloted the Hanshin Tigers to three consecutive last-place finishes in the Central League in his last tenure (1999-2001) on the bench in the pros.
I mean, good grief, was there not a better candidate available who was interested in the opportunity to manage a second-year franchise?
“He has a wealth of experience and his theory on baseball is solid,” said Mikitani last month, when he announced that he was pursuing Nomura.
“The team needs someone who will be the axis. Many people were recommending him and I think he is pleased.”
“Experience” was clearly the code word in that statement.
How about energy, enthusiasm, and most importantly, new ideas . . . a person who can relate to and inspire the young players of today?
It is quite obvious from the moves he has made with the Eagles that Mikitani knows nothing about baseball.
Now that doesn’t make him the first wealthy owner of a pro sports franchise to be unfamiliar with how to run a team.
But what is most disappointing is that this young entrepreneur, who was going to shake up the system, is just content to do business as usual.
To his credit, Nomura won the Japan Series three times (1993, 1995, 1997) as a manager with the Yakult Swallows, following a stellar 27-year playing career that saw him hit 657 home runs — second to only Sadaharu Oh on the all-time list in Japan.
But certainly Nomura represents everything about the past and nothing about the present or future of the game.
I winced when I heard the news that the Eagles were going after Nomura, because to me it signified a real lack of vision.
Though Nomura, who is currently manager of the Shidax Corporation team in the corporate league, has agreed to take the job, he isn’t expected to be formally introduced as team manager until mid-November, but it seems little more than a formality that he is going to be the new bench boss for the Eagles next season.
How must the fans in Sendai feel, knowing that Nomura is coming to town?
Let’s put it this way, I don’t think they’re going to be rushing to purchase season tickets.
How many times over the years have we seen companies in this country take the position of, “We’re going to do it our way — the Japanese way — even if we fail?”
That is what Mikitani is doing by hiring Nomura.
What the players think doesn’t matter. Nor what the fans think.
No, only what the big man has been told by his “friends” is important.
I feel sorry for the folks in Tohoku. The momentum and excitement of that magical Opening Night at Fullcast Miyagi Stadium back in April — when the Eagles demolished the defending Japan Series champion Seibu Lions 16-4 — seems so long ago.
If the club continues operating like this, there are going to be many dark days ahead.
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