HIROSHIMA - The Hiroshima Carp’s overpowering pennant run this season is, according to former skipper Kenjiro Nomura, the result of the club’s efforts not only on the field but off.
Nomura abruptly quit as skipper in 2014 after twice taking the Carp to the postseason but failing to win the Central League championship or reach the Japan Series. The team, which first took the field in 1950, won its first title in 1975 and had won its sixth by 1991, when Nomura was in his third season as a hard-hitting speedy shortstop.
But Hiroshima’s hopes of extending its dynasty died when the free agent era began after the 1993 season. Playing in cramped and obsolete Hiroshima Municipal Stadium, the Carp slowly began to suffer a talent drain that turned them into perennial fifth-place finishers.
“If you look at Japanese baseball, you see the Carp have been weak for a long time,” Nomura told Kyodo News on Friday at the club’s shiny new ballpark, Mazda Stadium, which opened in 2009. “They’re not a team like SoftBank or the Giants that can drop down a lot of money for players through free agency and so on.
“Because of that, their winning a championship is a testament to their baseball business acumen. So many fans come to the park, the team creates a wide variety of merchandise and sells a lot of it.”
Despite their failures over the years, the Carp have managed to create a base of fans across the country, none more noticeable than its legion of female fans known as “Carp joshi.”
“That the team has become a social phenomenon is due to the club’s efforts,” said Nomura.
“If you look at this ballpark, you can see the difference. I’ve been to different places in America and this one is close to an American ballpark. The atmosphere is fantastic. This is one way that shows the team is attentive to the fans.”
Unlike most Nippon Professional Baseball clubs, the Carp annually make a profit. In the past, that meant building up a merchandise base, paying players as little as they could get away with and exceptionally good overseas scouting.
Foreign players who achieved success in Hiroshima, however, found other teams willing to pay top dollar for their services and moved on to greener pastures.
This season that all changed.
“For the first time, I believe, the club has shelled out a lot of money on a long-term contract for a foreign player,” Nomura said, referring to the June 4 announcement of a three-year extension for lefty Kris Johnson.
But Nomura was not ready to say the team is on a permanent path to success.
“We witnessed something similar this year with the Yokohama BayStars,” he said. “They reached the Climax Series for the first time and their stadium was buzzing. They seem to be on a trajectory toward building a good team. So seeing that, this club (the Carp) has to keep moving forward.
“The question is really about what happens after this. Teams can come out of nowhere to win a championship but remaining strong is considerably more difficult.
“You work to avoid big ups and downs — so you don’t go without a pennant for 25 years.”
Indeed, when Nomura left after the 2014 season and turned the reins over to former teammate Koichi Ogata, many picked the speedy young Carp as favorites to win in 2015. Instead they failed to make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
“(Current Los Angeles Dodger) Kenta Maeda was here, (former big leaguer Hiroki) Kuroda was back, (first baseman Takahiro) Arai was back, and the city of Hiroshima was thinking we will definitely be champions,” said Nomura, who believes the lofty expectations got the best of the team.
“But this year, they became a team. They got some young power, for example outfielder Seiya Suzuki. The bullpen improved with Bradin Hagens and Jay Jackson, while (closer Shota) Nakazaki became mentally tougher.
“As I watched their playoff games, I felt they were playing the same as they had all season, nothing special or different. I think that is outstanding.”
And what they do all season is hustle.
Nomura said that since business success is dependent on the fans, giving them a good product is part of the plan.
“When I was manager, I insisted on running hard to first base, on a ground ball, on a dropped third strike, because you’re a professional and the fans expect it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you aggravate an injury, but it does mean you do all you can, because that’s what brings the fans back.”