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Talented Ushijima’s exodus comes too soon for struggling BayStars

by Wayne Graczyk

Too bad about the resignation/firing of Yokohama BayStars manager Kazuhiko Ushijima. I thought he was one of the better young skippers to come along in many a year, but he’s being shown the exit door after only two seasons at the helm.

The 45-year-old former Chunichi Dragons and Lotte Orions closer got the most out of his players in 2005, leading the Port City men to a surprising third place finish in the Central League. This season, however, the ‘Stars have been in the CL basement all year (except for one day when they actually passed the Yomiuri Giants), and they are likely to finish in the cellar.

High on the list of those sorry to see Ushijima go is current Yokohama bullpen ace Marc Kroon. During his two years with the club, Kroon has never stopped talking about how much he enjoys playing for his manager and how the two of them get along so well because, having been a closer himself, Ushijima is aware as well as anyone how Kroon feels coming into a ninth-inning jam with a one-run lead and the game on the line.

“He knows the pressure,” Kroon said.

He added, “I will miss him. He has meant a lot to me and my family, and he gave me a chance to show my talents here in Japan. He trusted me to be the closer of the BayStars, though some people might not have thought I was the right choice.

“He has always treated me as a person; not a foreigner. He has taken his time with me, teaching me the way baseball is played in Japan. He is also the main reason why I signed a two-year contract with Yokohama.

“But I understand this game is also a business. Sometimes things happen this way. I wish him the best in whatever his future holds. The city and fans will miss Ushijima Kantoku.”

The Nikkan Sports lists four candidates to succeed Ushijima in 2007, including three former pitchers for the Yokohama Taiyo Whales (forerunners of the BayStars), and an ex-manager. The ex-hurlers, none of whom have managerial experience, are Masaji Hiramatsu, Akio Saito and Kazuhiko Endo.

Hiramatsu, 59, won 201 games for Taiyo between 1968 and 1984. He has also been a radio-TV commentator for the Fuji-Sankei group.

Saito, 51, was a relief specialist who joined the Whales in 1977 after being drafted No. 1. He racked up 128 career victories and 133 saves over 15 seasons.

Endo, also 51, won 134 games for the Whales from 1978 to 1992. Saito and Endo have had stints as Yokohama pitching coaches.

The one-time manager is Akihiko Oya, former Yakult Swallows catcher who piloted the BayStars to a fifth place Central League finish in 1996, then was mysteriously sacked after pulling the team into a second-place standing in 1997.

I have nothing against any of these guys. I know them all and figure any one would tackle the job with tenacity.

However, given the success of American managers Bobby Valentine (won four team titles with the Chiba Lotte Marines in 2005), Trey Hillman (most likely going to make the Pacific League playoffs two out of the last three years with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters) and Marty Brown (has pulled the Hiroshima Carp from sixth to fourth place in the CL), perhaps the Yokohama club should also consider a foreigner as field boss.

Another thing the BayStars need is some katakana in the batting order. The team has no non-Japanese position players, and the starting lineup could use some punch from overseas.

Nobody asked me, but one idea might be to retire outfielder Takanori Suzuki, a fan favorite, and make him the manager. So what if he’s only 34? He’s making a 220 million yen ($1.9 million) salary for an occasional pinch hitting appearance, and the club could use that dough to sign a couple of American sluggers who would help put Yokohama in the pennant race, especially with CL playoffs coming in 2007.

Speaking of which, the leagues did great in getting together for agreement on the playoff format and interleague schedule for next season. The latter was an easy compromise, because the Pacific League wanted a 30-game interleague slate, while the Central loop called for 18 cross-division contests.

Well, duh, they settled on 24, and that should make the traveling easier if the pairings include two-game, home-and-away series against each club. Flights to Kyushu and Hokkaido and longer Shinkansen rides on game days were major complaints made by players.

It appears the Pa League is going to continue with the early Opening Day, as the Nikkan speculates the PL lid-lifters would take place on March 24, 2007, just three days after the end of winter.

I am signing up to run the hot coffee concession in Sendai and would love to sell those heating pads, mittens, ear muffs and scarves to fans attending Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles night games at Fullcast Stadium Miyagi on those freezing evenings in late March and early April.

Speaking of Tohoku, the Yomiuri Giants will be playing home-away-from-home games this week in Japan’s north country.

The Kyojin will be hosting the CL front-running Chunichi Dragons in the first of a two-game series on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at the beautiful Komachi Stadium in Akita. Game 2 of the card takes place at the aforementioned Fullcast Stadium in Sendai on Wednesday, Sept. 13, when it will still be plenty warm in Miyagi Prefecture.

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