Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Hall of Fame skipper Tatsunori Hara reflects on Alex Ramirez’s guts, father’s advice

by Jim Allen

Kyodo

On the day of his induction into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, Tatsunori Hara gave praise to one of his former players, current Yokohama BayStars manager Alex Ramirez.

Ramirez, the only foreign-born player to join Japan’s iconic 2,000-hit club, has called Hara, his skipper from 2008 to 2011, his biggest managing role model. Ramirez said Hara excelled at getting crucial runs late in games, a skill Ramirez has worked to perfect.

“I had heard something about that,” Hara said just prior to his induction ceremony on Monday. “But I’ll tell you what he (Ramirez) did last year, in the Climax Series, that was something beyond anything I could have done.”

Hara, whose seven league championships ranks him seventh in NPB history, was referring to Ramirez’s unconventional postseason managing; Ramirez used his pitchers in unpredictable fashion, helping the BayStars to playoff upsets on the road over the runner-up Hanshin Tigers and the league champion Hiroshima Carp.

“The way in which his team battled into the Japan Series, his managing moves were riveting to those of us who watched,” Hara said. “No one could have imagined what he did.”

In addition to his two terms as Yomiuri Giants manager, Hara also won the World Baseball Classic as manager of Japan in 2009. Asked about the pressures of leading the national team when he took the role, Hara said he initially felt no pressure — not until the weight of WBC job sank in later.

“It’s not like I raised my hand to say I wanted the Japan job,” Hara said. “I was the Giants manager, that was my focus, and when I was asked, it was right before the start of the Japan Series and all my thoughts were on our opponents, the Seibu Lions.”

“At that time, commissioner (Ryozo) Kato and Hawks chairman (Sadaharu) Oh, our first WBC manager, asked me to take it. And you don’t want to be a disappointment to chairman Oh, so all I said was, ‘Yes. I understand.’ “

But the stomach cramps came before his first game, he said.

“I thought, ‘Oh this is what it (pressure) feels like. Your stomach hurts.’ So I took medicine, we played the game and that was that.”

As Giants skipper, Hara revolutionized the way the tradition-bound club utilized its roster. His predecessors typically ignored less-heralded farm-team players and those who failed in their trials with the first team, while the club would eagerly sign every big-name veteran it could get its hands on.

As a result of those policies, the team Hara inherited was old and slow. By giving his fringe players and otherwise untouchable minor leaguers chances to shine, he improved the team’s speed and defense, while lighting a fire under Yomiuri’s minor leaguers.

Indeed, two of the Giants who won CL Rookie of the Year Awards under Hara were developmental players who had been passed over by every team in the amateur draft — pitcher Tetsuya Yamaguchi (2008) and outfielder Tetsuya Matsumoto (2009).

“The distinction between first team and farm team didn’t mean anything,” Hara said. “If the guy was a first-round draft pick or a developmental player, that didn’t matter.

“If you are going to take on a challenge, to try and be better, you can’t be afraid.”

Hara grew up in a baseball family, with his father Mitsugu coaching his high school team. But when he himself became Giants manager, Hara said his father gave him just one piece of advice.

“As a manager you have more things to think about and puzzle over than a player,” Hara said. “My father told me one thing: ‘When your head hits the pillow, stop thinking. If you’re going to think, sit in a chair and turn on the light.’ “

In 2002, his first season as manager, the Giants won the Central League title and the Japan Series, after getting off to a rocky start losing the first three games of the regular season.

“Well, I couldn’t stop thinking,” he said. “So I got up, sat in a chair, turned on the light, and you know what? I didn’t really have anything important to think about. I guess the real lesson was: ‘Stay positive, embrace the challenge and go get them tomorrow.’

“That was the first — and the last — piece of (managing) advice he gave me.”