Here we are at the All-Star break in Japan’s patchwork baseball season, and enough cannot be said about the job done by Junji Ogawa, manager of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. In his first full season at the helm, Ogawa has had his team in first place since April, and it has been mentioned the teams at the top of the standings at the break are likely to win their league pennants.
Ogawa took over the job as (interim) manager on May 26, 2010, and compiled a record of 59-36, bringing the club from last place to fourth with the best winning percentage (.621) of any manager in Japanese baseball last season. The Swallows front office had no choice but to give Ogawa the job full time, and they must be glad they did.
This year, he took up where he left off last fall and, at the break, he has his club at the top of the standings with a record of 38-24-9, good for a .613 winning mark. The Swallows have an eight-game lead and are the only Central League team with a winning record.
Yakult relief pitcher Tony Barnette was asked about his skipper and said, “I have no complaints (about Ogawa). He is a players’ manager and has earned the respect of all the players on the team.”
Barnette knows full well what it is like to make the most of an opportunity. He was released last autumn after a so-so season as a starter for the Swallows, compiling a record of 4-5 with a 5.99 ERA in 16 games. He was to have been replaced by a Korean pitcher but, after the new guy failed a physical, the team called Barnette to offer him a rare second chance for a foreign player in Japan.
“Thank you,” said Barnette to the Korean guy he has never met and, thanks to the Swallows, the American has found his place after five seasons in professional baseball, realizing now his destiny is — and apparently always had been — as a reliever.
He asked rhetorically, “What was I doing starting baseball games all these years? I love relieving; I love being in the bullpen.”
The Swallows fans love him, too. As the setup man for Yakult closer Lim Chang Yong, Barnette has compiled a record of 1-0 with 17 holds and an ERA of 0.84 in 32 games through the break, and Ogawa has a lot to do with Barnette’s success this season.
“We had a talk last year, and he encouraged me,” said Barnette, despite his release. The manager must have seen something he liked and was obviously a big part of the decision to offer Barnette another shot at Japanese baseball after the Korean pitcher could not pass his medical checkup.
The 53-year-old Ogawa is a very serious, formal type manager. A mostly reserve outfielder with the Swallows (1982-91) and Nippon Ham Fighters (1992), he spent a lot of his playing career on the bench, apparently observing and learning the strategies that have made him Japan’s winningest manager over the past 14 months.
He reminds me of Toshiharu Ueda, also not a great player but one who went on to manage the Hankyu Braves with great success in the 1970s. If Ogawa continues to guide his team as he has, he could become one of the top managers in Japanese baseball history. Right now, he’s the best.
On June 12, we mentioned in this column about Warner Bros. Entertainment Japan and Major League Baseball assisting schools in the Tohoku area affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, by donating baseball equipment and sponsoring school kids on a trip to Tokyo.
Now the “Baseball Bullet-In” would like to recognize others who recently went to Tohoku to help get a group of school kids back to playing baseball. Former sumo ozeki and Hawaii native Konishiki made two trips to Tohoku where he served chanko nabe to 1,000 people and also held a Hawaiian-style barbecue.
When he heard of two elementary schools whose baseball teams lost their equipment , he wanted to assist them as well. Thirty-nine players from the two schools combined to form the Hasebe Kesennuma Shonendan team in the Rikuzen-Takada area which was almost completely destroyed, and they needed replacement gear.
Konishiki, an avid baseball fan himself, called Marty Kuehnert of the Rakuten Eagles ballclub who arranged to have uniforms, spikes, bats, balls, gloves and other gear purchased from the Mizuno Corporation at cost, about one-third the retail value. They were able to get about ¥1.5 million worth of stuff for ¥500,000.
David Halton of BodyPlus International, a sponsor of this column, picked up the tab for the new equipment, and the kids have their baseball program once again. We salute Konishiki, Kuehnert, Halton and the Mizuno Corporation for their generosity and thoughtfulness in helping these kids recover through baseball.
There will be no column next Sunday as we take a break for the fifth Sunday of the month. We’ll see you again on Aug. 7.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com