With their first pennant in 25 years, the Hiroshima Carp are truly beginning to reap what they have sowed.
While every team in Nippon Professional Baseball makes use of overseas talent and some — notably the Hanshin Tigers and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows — have actually signed more, no team manages it with more class than the Carp.
In the years since their last Central League flag, the Carp have hired a representative in the United States and taken on two former players as full-time scouts.
Jonathan Fine, who spent two seasons working in Hiroshima’s team office in the 1980s, has been working with player contracts since 1994 and is now an assistant general manager.
Former pitcher Erik Schullstrom has been scouting for the club since he finished playing in 2002 and slugging infielder Scott McClain joined him five years ago.
Fine told Kyodo News recently that the trust that permeates the organization, partly because of Hiroshima’s old-school, family-style operation and partly because of people having worked together for so long, is a key to the Carp plan.
He came to Hiroshima out of university and worked for two years in the team’s office, alongside current Carp owner Hajime Matsuda and current general manager Kiyoaki Suzuki. Under those two, the Carp have gone farther than any other team in NPB to make living in Japan with a family a breeze.
“Consistency, respect, trust, loyalty, that has all been there in respect to the people who have been there: our field staff, our translators, our international staff,” Fine said.
“A big part of this is relationships. Erik’s been doing this for 15 years, Scott’s been doing this for five years since he stopped playing. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. You develop relationships, and it’s just like any other business.”
The Carp hired Schullstrom because they wanted to depend on their own people, rather than on the recommendations of baseball people in the States who were not part of the organization. And he said he’s never going to leave the team until they fire him.
Part of the job is being thorough, and an MLB scout told Kyodo News recently that one can’t spend more than a few days scouting in a Triple-A park before running into Schullstrom. But the other part is being treated well and listened to — as a result of having built up credibility within the organization.
“Everyone (every scout) understands how good McClain and I have it, with Mr. Suzuki on business situations and running the team and salaries and budget and what not,” Schullstrom said. “He’s got his role. He’s got our backs. He speaks English. He’s a caring, wonderful guy.
“Mr. Matsuda is going to make decisions on the players, but he trusts us so deeply. I can feel it. I can sense it. I know he listens to us. He doesn’t blink an eye if McClain and I disagree to his face. He understands that’s the best way to do it.
“For us, he (Suzuki) shows us so much respect. It’s unheard of probably for a Japanese front office person to do that. It’s clear that that’s not how it’s done with most other teams. I’m not saying they’re run incorrectly or whatever. What I’m saying is I don’t have one complaint about how our organization is run — which is pretty amazing, because I’m an American.”
The Carp program includes a thorough guide to living in the western Japanese city as a foreigner with a family and people available 24 hours a day to solve any problem that might arise.
The program has drawn rave reviews from former Hiroshima players, and one reason for that, Schullstrom believes, is the team’s ability to deal constructively with feedback from overseas staff.
“They bend over backwards. We pointed out things that could be done differently when it was just Jonathan and I, and before that when it was just him,” Schullstrom said.
“Then he and I got together to voice some things: ‘The players are maybe complaining about that.’ He’d go to Mr. Suzuki, talk to Mr. Matsuda, and over time things would get smoothed out. They got the international department in there. They had people speaking English. They started helping out with their apartments and school. The coaches were good, the city was good, the fans were good — they still are. It’s just a great place to work.
“I always tell the players to try to do your best. If you can be a good citizen, a good teammate, positive, don’t pout, don’t act like what they think Americans act like. We’ve had guy after guy after guy who has come through Hiroshima and been fantastic. (Andy) Sheets was great, (Brad) Eldred’s great. The guys that have been there for long careers, they’re not just great players, they’re great citizens.”