Marty Kuehnert still with Rakuten? What is Marty doing these days?

News photoMarty Kuehnert

Fans and friends have asked those questions in recent weeks, and the answer is that, yes, Marty is still with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ball club, working as hard as ever to promote the team not only in Sendai, but also throughout the entire Tohoku region of northern Japan.

The former restaurateur, sports columnist for The Japan Times and the Eagles first general manager has retained the job title of team adviser, though what he is more in line with something that might be described as director of community relations.

I spent most of the weekend of July 14-16 with Marty, taking in the Rakuten games vs. the Orix Buffaloes at Fullcast Stadium Miyagi, and I can tell you he remains extremely popular among the growing number of Eagles fans.

His duties with the club involve giving advice on how to make the stadium into a real American-style “ball park” that will entertain and please fans even when the team loses and how to attract and satisfy sponsors. He is constantly giving speeches at schools and to civic organizations and advises the club on all areas of business operations.

Additionally, Marty can be seen circulating through the crowd at every home game, shaking hands, posing for pictures and signing autographs for fans. He even makes a point of giving a team pocket schedule and a small Eagles souvenir to taxi drivers transporting him and his assistant, Tetsuhiro “Freddy” Usui, to his numerous events.

Marty gave me a tour of the upgraded Fullcast Stadium, expanded to accommodate a seating capacity of 23,000 spectators, and new facilities added during the 2005-06 off-season. These include the Eagles Nest sports bar behind the first base infield stands where fans can cool off during a game on a hot summer day or warm up while it’s still cold outside in April.

There are also new press seats (Hooray!), broadcast booths, a lounge, 16 luxury boxes, and they’ve installed additional food concessions, so there are no long lines to wait for your pizza, hot dog, roast chicken, curry rice, oden or udon noodles.

Kuehnert boasted about how clean the stadium is kept, thanks to an “Eco Station” program with trash receptacles set up not only to collect the trash but also to separate the leftover food waste, paper and plastic, burnable and non-burnable rubbish.

Attendants also come through the stands periodically with huge vinyl bags to collect garbage, and the whole eco program makes Fullcast one of the cleanest sports venues you will ever see anywhere.

It is also a cozy ball park, reminiscent of such places as Kawasaki Stadium, Heiwadai in Fukuoka, Fujiidera in Osaka, the old Nagoya Stadium, Osaka Stadium and others used by Japanese teams 20-30 years ago.

However, it has a modern look highlighted by its red plastic seats and a scoreboard that is a cross between the old (square with colorful advertising boards) and new (electronic listing of the lineups, line score, batter’s statistics and pitching speeds).

The playing field is wide though, with home run dimensions of 101.5 meters (333 feet) down the lines, 117 meters (384 feet) to the power alleys and 122 meters (400 feet) to straightaway center. Orix pitcher Tom Davey calls it a “fair park for both pitchers and hitters,” unlike many of the stadiums-especially in the Central League-which favor the batters.

The Eagles, despite their last-place Pacific League standing and going into that weekend on an eight-game losing streak and playing against the fifth-place Buffaloes, drew respectable crowds of 10,482 on Friday night, 17,192 on Saturday afternoon and 16,592 on Sunday. Not bad, and Marty says the overall attendance is up slightly over 2005, the expansion team’s inaugural season.

“The fans have been just great,” said Kuehnert who also helps plan promotions such as the May 27 American Day when Rakuten hosted manager Marty Brown’s Hiroshima Carp, and 1950s rock ‘n’ roller Jimmy Angel provided pre-game entertainment.

“There’s always something going on,” Kuehnert pointed out.

Prior to the game on July 15, there was a petting zoo for kids set up outside the stadium entrance, and spectators are entertained throughout the day by the Rakuten Angels cheerleading squad and team mascots Clutch and Clutchina and everyone’s favorite Mr. Carrasco, the motorcycle-riding, drop-kicking crow who thinks he’s an Eagle-or a pro wrestler.

No doubt about it; pro baseball is flourishing in Tohoku, and Marty is still a big part of it.

“Come up and see us,” he says.

You’ll enjoy a fun afternoon or evening at Fullcast, and Kuehnert will be there to greet you and show you around.

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The Baseball Bullet-In will take a break next week, so there will be no column. But we’ll be back two weeks from today, on Sunday, Aug. 6.

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Please contact Wayne Graczyk by e-mail at wayne@JapanBall.com

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