A wry smile played across Tom O’Malley’s lips as he nodded in the direction of a group of Hanshin Tigers players stretching on the ground outside of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows’ indoor facility on Sunday as the Swallows wrapped up practice inside.
Hands on hips, and wearing the uniform he starred in so many summers ago, O’Malley was somehow both effusive and reserved in his assessment of the Tigers’ pennant chances.
“It’s all about pitching,” he said. “Up to this point, we’ve hit the ball well, but pitching and defense is what gets you to that next level. If our pitching holds up, hopefully we can remain in the race until late. But we gotta take some pressure off the pitching and defense by hitting the ball.”
That’s where O’Malley comes into the picture.
Tigers manager Yutaka Wada added him to the fold as the team’s new assistant hitting coach over the offseason, and is hoping O’Malley’s experience rubs off on Hanshin’s players.
O’Malley was in the U.S. helping agent Arn Tellem when he heard there might be a chance to join the Hanshin staff, and putting on the uniform again was an opportunity he couldn’t let go by.
“It’s great to be back in uniform,” O’Malley said. “Just being on the field, being able to help out in any way, that’s a good feeling. Obviously I remember how hard they work and how long the days are in spring training, but in the long run, you get the results. That’s the key. You put the time in and get reciprocated for it.”
This is O’Malley’s second stint in the Hanshin dugout, having previously served as a hitting coach under manager Senichi Hoshino in 2003, when the Tigers won the Central League pennant for the first time since 1985.
Hoshino resigned with health problems after that season, and O’Malley went with him, though other members of the coaching staff remained in place, among them the main hitting coach, a former Tigers stalwart named Yutaka Wada.
O’Malley went on to other projects in the ensuing years, including being appointed as manager of the club Livedoor, an Internet services company, planned to establish in the Pacific League in 2005. The deal fell through when a similar company, Rakuten, was granted entry into the PL instead.
Wada, it seems, never forgot about O’Malley and the rapport they enjoyed as teammates, and then as coaches. Now, they confer on a daily basis as part of their new partnership.
“He’s pretty open-minded,” O’Malley said. “We have meetings all the time, and he’s asking me certain things, whether it be with hitting or the foreign guys. There’s an open dialogue at all times.”
O’Malley says Hanshin fans have also welcomed his return with open arms.
“I always tell them that they’re the best,” he laughed. “They like that.”
O’Malley is glad to be back in Japan and enjoying the latest stop in a career that has taken the Orange, New Jersey native on quite the ride.
He was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 1979, and spent eight years in the majors from 1982-90 with the Giants, Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, Montreal Expos and New York Mets.
O’Malley then embarked on a wildly successful six-year run in Japan, playing for the Tigers from 1991-94 and the Swallows in 1995 and 1996.
“Originally just thought I’d come over for a year and see how that went and how it turned out,” O’Malley said. “Then six years later I was still here. You never know what path life is going to lead you on, but obviously I wanted to make the most of it.
“Everyday is an adjustment, and you have to incorporate that whether you’re playing or coaching and just continue to adjust every day and be able to adapt, that’s one of the key things.”
O’Malley never hit below .302 in Japan and was the CL on-base percentage leader from 1992-95. He was also a three-time All-Star and took home both the Central League and Japan Series MVP awards in 1995. He finished his NPB career with a .315 average, a .422 on-base percentage, 123 home runs and 488 RBIs.
He hopes to put his experience to use in his new position, and wouldn’t rule out managing his own team if opportunity knocked.
“I’d love to, that would be a goal of mine,” he said. “I was actually hired at one time, but it never materialized with Livedoor, so that would be a dream come true.
“I’ve been fortunate to get the opportunity to come here and coach again, so maybe that comes to fruition later on.”