Gruff Ochiai needs to change if return is in cards


The Pacific League’s Orix Buffaloes announced on Sept. 25 manager Akinobu Okada will not return to run the club next season, and speculation about his replacement indicates Japanese baseball Hall of Famer and former Chunichi Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai is one of the candidates who might be appointed as the Buffs’ new field boss.

Orix is scheduled to play its final game of the year on Monday, and Japanese teams usually do not delay in naming new managers, what with the amateur draft coming up in less than three weeks and a fall camp to be run.

In considering Ochiai, the Buffaloes — or another Japanese team that might be looking for a new man to run the team, for that matter — will have to weigh his proven success as a manager against a reputation as a media-unfriendly guy who did not appear to emit a positive image as a symbol of the Chunichi ballclub.

Sure, in eight seasons (2004-11) at the Dragons’ helm, he led them to four Central League pennants and a Japan Series championship in 2007 after finishing second and winning the Climax Series. His Nagoya team narrowly lost last year’s Japan Series in seven games to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks and, with that kind of a record, the 58-year-old Ochiai should still be directing traffic from the Dragons bench.

However, he was let go, and that decision was made in September of last year, even before Chunichi completed its 2011 season. The said reason for the team’s parting with Ochiai was the fact his image was not helping the team’s public relations and attendance figures for home games at Nagoya Dome.

Having covered Japanese baseball for more than 37 years, I can tell you Ochiai has changed a lot since he broke in as a young infielder with the Lotte Orions in 1979. He soon became a star but would always say hello, pose for a photo if requested, and he was always polite and sociable.

After winning three Triple Crowns with the Orions and achieving superstar status, he was traded in 1987 to the Dragons where he continued to perform as one of the best offensive players in Japanese baseball. He maintained his pleasant personality and continued friendly relations with the fans and media.

Then he became a free agent and signed with the Yomiuri Giants in 1994, playing as the regular first baseman on that year’s Japan Series-winning team. Ochiai seemed at that time to distance himself somewhat from his surroundings.

In 1995, he banged out his 2,000th career hit but refused to join the Meikyukai Golden Players Club supposedly because he had been criticized during his career by Masaichi Kaneda, one of the leaders of the GPC. Ochiai wound up his brilliant playing career as a designated hitter with the Nippon Ham Fighters in 1997-98 before retiring as an active player.

He later became part of the media himself, serving as a radio-TV commentator before being appointed the Chunichi manager in October of 2003.

At the Japan Series that year, played between the Daiei Hawks and Hanshin Tigers, I happened to run into him in the press box at Fukuoka Dome a few days after he got the new job. As I passed behind where he was sitting, I tapped him on the shoulder and offered a few words of congratulations.

Omedeto gozaimasu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” I said, meaning, “Let’s have a good relationship from next year.”

To my surprise, he responded with a backward wave of a hand that seemed to be shooing me away. He did not say anything.

Except at press conferences when Chunichi played in the 2007 Asian Series, I never once had the opportunity to speak to him during his tenure as the manager of the Dragons. I often wondered if, by chance, I had passed him one-on-one in a corridor of the ballpark, he would even say hello.

Ochiai seemed to make minimum appearances on the field during pre-game batting practice and, when he did come out of the dugout, he would head straight over and stand behind the batting cage, not making eye contact with beat writers and other media members hoping for the chance to ask a question or have a chat.

Most Japanese managers “hold court,” inviting radio and TV announcers and writers to join them on the bench during the pre-game warm-ups in a sort-of mini-press briefing for 10 minutes or so. I never saw Ochiai do this, but his successor, the current Dragons field boss Morimichi Takagi, does it all the time.

For those eight seasons, the media covering Chunichi games must have had it tough, needing to write without being able to get comments from the team leader, and I wonder why Ochiai did not seem to be very cooperative.

He is not a bad guy and, if he does get hired as manager by Orix or another Japanese team now or in the coming years, it would be great if he could somehow reverse the change he made several years ago and return to the smiling, amicable Hiromitsu Ochiai I knew as a player with Lotte those many years ago.

I would like to congratulate him again if he gets another job and shake his hand. Next time, though, I would hope for a smile and a response on the order of something like, “Thanks, and I’ll see you at the ballpark.”

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com