As Tsuyoshi Shinjo flashed a “hang ten” sign and preened for the cameras wearing a red suit with a white shirt that had the collar popped to the heavens, one thing was immediately clear: The flashiest star in the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters universe can still effortlessly own a room.
Less clear, however, was whether or not the Fighters’ new manager — or “Big Boss” as he asked to be called — can actually manage, or if it even matters.
Shinjo’s official return to NPB and the Fighters on Thursday was everything anyone could have hoped for when the club announced last week he would be its new manager. The former star outfielder is as much of a rock star as he ever was, and he dressed the part at his introductory news conference.
“I want to be the best team in the world,” Shinjo said.
Shinjo joked (probably) that he intended to be a player-manager, said he doesn’t like the team’s current uniforms (he prefers the aura of the 2006 version), mused that it might be fun to have an Instagram livestream during a game and joked he wanted to descend from the ceiling — which, yes, sounds crazy, but is something he’s actually done before a game — together with the players.
He distributed business cards to the media that read “Big Boss Shinjo,” the name he was called when he lived in Bali.
Shinjo, 49, was hired as much for this as he was to manage. The Fighters, or rather Nippon Ham, knew what they were getting. Shinjo is a showman, and that’s what the franchise wants, someone to fire up the fan base and entertain.
“I’m going to create a new kind of baseball,” Shinjo said. “Stay tuned.”
Maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the franchise, which finished fifth in the Pacific League this year, doesn’t see things getting much better on the field right away and are cranking up the fan service to 100 before leaving Sapporo for a new stadium in nearby Kita Hiroshima in 2023. That’s why you hire Shinjo, who has no experience as a manager, coach or even TV analyst. He’ll be entertaining and maybe he’ll win a few games along the way.
Big Boss Shinjo did at least touch on some of his philosophy going into the job. He said he would form a tag team with former Fighters teammate and newly hired GM Atsunori Inaba while also leaning on former GM Hiroshi Yoshimura.
“I’m absolutely not aiming for the championship,” Shinjo said. “If you set the goal too high, it’s not good for the players. Just practice day after day. Then you get into the season and you can have relaxed games and relaxed days and win. Then you win and win a so forth. Then If we’re fighting for the title when we get to September, then we can say OK, let’s try to win the title.”
Nippon Ham is going through a rough stretch on the field. The club has finished with a losing record and in fifth place in the PL in three consecutive seasons. In addition to making little impact in the pennant race, the team lacks any players who move the needle the way Yu Darvish, Shohei Ohtani, Yuki Saito or Shinjo did when they wore the Fighters uniform.
The Fighters could have chosen a manager from a number of candidates, including Inaba, who led Japan to gold at the Tokyo Games this summer. No potential candidate, however, could dream of generating the type of buzz Shinjo does.
Even if the team continues to struggle, most of the attention will be on Shinjo. The Fighters essentially added a shiny hood ornament that may help everyone forget the car isn’t running. Don’t worry about what’s happening over here or in the standings, what is Shinjo doing over there?
The spectacle is what they want. Come to the stadium to see Shinjo and get excited about the team — and the impending move.
That is, of course, completely unfair to Shinjo, who could turn out to be great. Experience doesn’t mean you can manage any more than having a big personality means you can’t.
Shinjo’s desire to get back in the game is genuine, evidenced by his taking part in the NPB tryout in December 2020, an effort that yielded no offers.
“Of course I wanted to be here as a player,” he said.”I love baseball.”
Shinjo played 13 seasons in NPB with the Hanshin Tigers and the Fighters, where he won a Japan Series in 2006. He also played for three different MLB clubs and in 2002 became the first Japanese player to play in the World Series.
So maybe Shinjo’s experience and the Fighters putting a strong coaching staff around him could make this work.
He’ll certainly need the right stuff to win over the players, who won’t be impressed by flashy suits and catchy soundbites. Players want to win games or at least know the team is headed somewhere. Shinjo is going to have to win them over with his actions behind the scenes or the whole thing will fall apart.
Nippon Ham hired Shinjo to be Shinjo and he delivered. What will matter most to the baseball people in the organization and many of the fans, is the work and team-building that happens when spring camp kicks off in February. The Fighters need to get things turned around, and as popular as Shinjo is now, it would pale in comparison to the status he would reach if he actually wins — since winning games, despite everything else, is still the most important part.
So it will be interesting to watch what happens once Shinjo takes off the sunglasses, extracts himself from that collar and slips into a uniform — he’s planning to keep his old No. 1 warm until another star player emerges — and gets down to business.
The Fighters won’t be boring with Shinjo as the face of the organization. The jury is still out, however, on what kind of team they’ll be with Big Boss in the dugout.
Nippon Ham has launched the new Tsuyoshi Shinjo Experience and it’s coming soon to a ballpark near you.
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