Known in his native Gunma Prefecture as a legendary high school baseball slugger, it’s been widely speculated for decades that Tsuyoshi Akuzawa could have easily made it to the pro ranks.
Now at age 59, he’s finally stepping into professional sports — to run a basketball team.
On Wednesday, Akuzawa, who led his Kiryu High School to the semifinals at the 50th National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, was introduced as the new president of the B. League second division’s Gunma Crane Thunders.
The news, broken last week mainly by local media, came as a surprise due to Akuzawa’s background in a different sport and his devotion to a career as a teacher and baseball coach.
The club was recently acquired as a subsidiary by real estate and home sales firm Open House Co., Ltd., whose president, Masaaki Arai, is from Gunma. Club management certainly intends to take advantage of Akuzawa’s fame in Gunma, where some baseball fans still recognize him a star.
“There were two criteria in seeking our new president,” Crane Thunders executive Shintaro Yoshida said at a Tokyo news conference on Wednesday. “One was that it had to be someone who’s known in Gunma. And the second was that it had to be someone who has the passion to eventually make the club be the best in the country. Mr. Akuzawa met the criteria.”
Akuzawa has long been considered among the top prospects who never made it to professional baseball.
In fact, the former Kiryu High School left-handed slugger, who became the first hitter to homer in two consecutive games in the 1978 spring Koshien since Sadaharu Oh had done so 20 years earlier, was said to have drawn interest from all 12 pro clubs back then — as well as a number of universities with strong baseball programs.
But Akuzawa opted to stay in Gunma, going to a national university there and later working as a teacher in elementary and high schools, including his alma mater Kiryu. He also served as a high school baseball coach.
Akuzawa has naturally heard all the what-ifs about him going pro. But he laughed them off, suggesting it wasn’t worth dwelling on what didn’t happen.
“I feel embarrassed,” Akuzawa said when asked how he perceives his own legendary status. “But that doesn’t mean I hate it when people talk about me. I often hear ‘what if I continued to play baseball’ and things like that. But to me, it was what it was, because I didn’t play, and the reason I didn’t was that I just didn’t intend to (go pro).”
Now, as the face of the Crane Thunders, Akuzawa thinks his fame might smooth communications with fans and other organizations.
“I don’t know, I haven’t really thought (about how famous I am),” said the native of Ogo, which has now been incorporated into Maebashi. “But when I hand out my business cards, (the receivers) are like, ‘You’re the Akuzawa-san. I know your name.’
“It might make it easier for me and them to talk with each other.”
With the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis hitting the B. League and its clubs particularly hard, it’s hardly an auspicious time to be the president of a team.
Yet Akuzawa believes that there is a potential for the Crane Thunders, who had the second division’s fourth-best record at 34-13 in the shortened 2019-20 season, to be successful because the prefecture has few competitors in the amusement industry.
“In a limited time, I’ve learned about basketball by reading books about the B. League,” said Akuzawa, who had already been with the club since April. “I’ve come to realize that there are few things we can do other than put an emphasis on drawing fans to the games.
“I believe that (even during the coronavirus crisis), we can work hard trying to promote our team and bring those who haven’t come to our games over to us.”
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