By Jim Allen
A week ago, Senichi Hoshino became Japan’s second Hall of Fame manager to die in the past six months, following the death of Toshiharu Ueda last July. Both were famous for hating to lose, but I became acquainted with both men late in their lives, when their inner furies were calmer and their big hearts easier to see.
As players they were extreme opposites. Hoshino was a marquee college star and Central League pitching ace. Ueda was a catcher whose college batterymate, Minoru Murayama, became a legendary CL pitcher, while he had the briefest of careers before being steered toward coaching.
As managers, Ueda and Hoshino became famous for their tempers.
I met Ueda first, when he was at the end of his run as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters. I was writing my annual sabermetric guides to Japanese baseball then and was able to wrangle visitors passes thanks to the intervention of one of my first readers, Hiroshi Yoshimura, who is currently the general manager of the Fighters.
I was at Tokyo Dome to interview pitcher Kip Gross, and not knowing anything about anything, we chatted in the home team dining room, which is off limits to the media. While we were there, Ueda noticed I wasn’t eating and said, “Help yourself to something to eat! It’s free!”
Years later, when I began working for the Daily Yomiuri, I would often run into Ueda at the ballpark, doing what former and or aspiring managers do, working as a media analyst. He sort of reminded me of a Japanese Santa Clause. Without fail, he’d walk up to me and offer me a piece of candy (“nodo ame” in Japanese). He seemed genuinely interested that a foreigner would care about Japanese baseball.
My first encounter with Hoshino was a little different. He was still managing the Chunichi Dragons, and I was writing the Japan Times season previews. That year I’d written that a pair of 34-year-olds coming off big seasons, the late Yasuaki Taiho and (current San Francisco Giants batting coach) Alonzo Powell would likely see their combined production decrease the following season. Like a lot of ballplayers, Powell was not happy about that kind of “negative” stuff being printed about him in English where his friends and family could see it.
Powell asked to see me, and I interviewed him one afternoon before a day game at Jingu Stadium. He’s a wonderful guy and he said he understood that I had a right to my opinion but was just disappointed by it. While we were talking Hoshino was sitting a ways down the bench holding court with the Dragons beat writers and giving me the evil eye as if I was distracting from his show.
I told that to Robert Whiting, the Japanese baseball story teller emeritus, and he recounted his own first contact with Hoshino in the spring of 1975 after the right-hander won the Sawamura Award and the Dragons had won the ’74 pennant. Whiting was talking to manager Wally Yonamine when Hoshino came in and said, “kono yarou ha dare?” — essentially, “who is this peckerwood?” After being told that Whiting was there to interview him, Hoshino apparently puffed out his chest and warmed up to the situation.
That story, the published accounts of his beating his players and my much more limited Japanese kept me from approaching Hoshino when I was sent out to cover the last three games of the 1999 Japan Series. But four years later, when Hoshino’s Hanshin Tigers were in their first Japan Series since 1985, I felt confident enough to ask him a question or two.
I was following the Tigers as they were on the verge of clinching the pennant, and asked Hoshino about whether right-hander Trey Moore, banished to the farm team for much of the second half, was going to pitch. I don’t remember Hoshino’s answer, but his face lit up as if nobody had asked him such an interesting question all year.
That was prior to the first game of a series at Nagoya Dome against Hoshino’s old club. The day before the series finale, Hoshino walked up to me and whispered, “Your boy’s going tomorrow, haha!”
He smiled as if he were a boy being naughty and in a sense he was, since giving away starting pitcher information — which ostensibly could be used to help gamblers handicap games — was forbidden in NPB and players had been suspended in the past for passing that info on to gamblers.
In the weeks leading up to the end of the season, Hoshino feinted and was rushed to a hospital. He was told stress had caused him to collapse, and he quit managing at the end of the Japan Series.
He took a post as the Tigers’ senior director, and I’d occasionally run into him. But one night on the train with my wife, I noticed an ad with Hoshino’s mug on it and it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him in a long while — only to share an elevator with him the next afternoon at Tokyo Dome.
I told him that and he said out loud so that all the other occupants of the elevator could hear him, “That was an omen that was!” and he clapped me on the back.
After he took over the Rakuten Eagles in 2011, my wife baked him a loaf of bread for Opening Day — delayed for several weeks by the earthquake that had damaged his team’s home park and that of the Lotte Marines where the Eagles opened their season.
When he saw me at the park that day, he greeted me in what was to become our ritual: “What the heck are you doing here?”
To which I would answer: “I’m here to report on you.”
“That’s a lie!” he’d say, laugh and walk off before returning to chat. For a while though he’d answer, “Oh I thought maybe you brought me more bread.”
At that time, I had become acquainted with a couple of players from the Hiroshima Carp’s first pennant-winning team in 1975 and was thinking about a book on that. The Dragons, then the defending CL champs, lost a close race to the Carp and Hoshino would talk in dribs and drabs about that season and those days before game time, but when it came time to commit to a longer interview away from the field, he always kept his distance and the interview never happened.
About that same time, I began pushing Ueda for an interview, too, since he won his first Pacific League pennant as manager of the Hankyu Braves in 1975 and had defeated the Carp in their first Japan Series. Instead of an interview, Ueda invited my wife and I out to dinner with his grandson and gave us a lovely gift afterward. That was the last time we met.
Here’s a story I wrote for Kyodo News after Ueda died.
The last time I saw Hoshino was in January 2016 at his Hall of Fame induction. I congratulated him and asked if we couldn’t get an interview before too long, and he said, “Yes. Let’s do it,” but we never got beyond that. Because there were other people there that day whose stories I was less familiar with, and wanted to hear more from, I lost my last chance to spend time with “Sen-chan.”
For a lot of people, an old-school, bust-your-chops manager like Senichi Hoshino could be a put off. He was after all, famous for intimidating umpires and his own players, but he got results.
As a pitcher, he was respected for his combativeness, particularly against the Yomiuri Giants — due to his grudge against them for passing over him in the 1968 amateur draft. He was more of a great competitor than a great pitcher, but he was a tremendous manager.
My first sort-of encounter with Hoshino came while I was chatting with Alonzo Powell on the visitors bench at Jingu Stadium. Powell was then still with the Chunichi Dragons. While we were talking, Hoshino was chatting a few feet away with reporters, and the skipper kept giving me suspicious looks.
Although I had a better chance to talk to him when I went to Nagoya to cover the Japan Series for the first time in 1999, I was frankly a little frightened by him and not very confident in my truly lousy Japanese. So it wasn’t until he was managing the Hanshin Tigers in 2003 and they were on the verge of their first Central League pennant in 18 years that I mustered the nerve to speak to the great ornery one.