Forget the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Baseball’s new “We Are Family” champions are the Hiroshima Carp.
Although a few teams have signed more foreign talent in recent years, Hiroshima’s family-oriented international operations are the envy of Nippon Professional Baseball.
The basic process is the same for every team: find good players and sign them. But the Carp go to greater lengths to get the process right under owner Hajime Matsuda and general manager Kiyoaki Suzuki. Part of the payoff is in the yearly performance of players like pitcher Kris Johnson and slugger Brad Eldred, who have helped power Hiroshima’s revival along with first-year pitchers Jay Jackson and Bradin Hagens, but it has a human side that goes beyond individual numbers.
Suzuki said the ideas of family, loyalty and trust spring from the city’s nature, and that idea extends to the players’ families, for whom the Carp have established an office that looks after the players’ needs off the field.
“Hiroshima is a compact town, everyone is family,” Suzuki said.
“From searching out restaurants to various other things, we are able to respond to needs 24 hours a day, providing care for children and so on. They can call their interpreter 24 hours a day, wherever they are. If you take good care of a player’s wife and children, he can play with a sense of security.”
Former Carp pitchers Dennis Sarfate and Bryan Bullington are fans of what the team does. Asked if he would recommend the Carp to a friend wanting to play in Japan, Sarfate didn’t hesitate.
“Hiroshima would be my first recommendation because of the way they treat you off the field,” he said.
Bullington, who is out of baseball this season after four seasons in Hiroshima and one with the Orix Buffaloes, said his family made good use of the team’s resources and assistance.
“Every team has some sort of resource, perhaps a lot more reliance on the interpreter or someone else. But because the Carp have three or four people working full time, trying to manage your apartment scenario and bills, taking kids to doctor’s appointments, it is a little unique,” said Bullington.
“Especially that first year, we definitely used the guidebook for things to do with the kids, parks, pools that kind of stuff, and also trying new restaurants and stuff. They’ve done their research. It definitely helps having that type of info, and we used it a lot.”
Interperter Hirofumi Matsunaga (松長 洋文) said part of his job is taking sick children to the doctor.
“We always have female staff in the office, who speak English and can take care of the wives’ needs,” he said. “It’s us interpreters who usuallly do a lot of the other things like taking kids to the doctor.”
“They always seem to get sick when we’re on the road and on weekends, when hospitals aren’t open, so it’s hard to find one.”
But the players aren’t the only ones who appreciate Hiroshima’s special focus.
Former pitcher Erik Schullstrom, who finished his four years in Japan with the Carp in 2002, has been scouting for Hiroshima ever since. He and and former infielder Scott McClain scour the U.S. minor leagues for talent.
“I’m super happy,” Schullstrom said. “I’ve told the owner. I’m never going to leave my job. You can fire me. I’m never going to quit if I get offered another job, another club, a major league club, I will not take it. I’ll be working for the Carp forever. That’s how happy I am. I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this organization. Mr. Matsuda has a relationship with my children. They go and visit him, and he treats them like they’re his own kids, or his grandkids or part of his family. He’s so generous. He’s just a great person to work for.”
American assistant general manager Jonathan Fine has been the team’s representative in the United States since 1994 after working briefly alongside Suzuki and Matsuda in the front office in 1989 and 1990. He said getting the right players starts with frank discussion among coaching staff and front office in Hiroshima to identify needs, continues with Schullstrom and McClain doing a thorough job of identifying players with skill and character, and the trust that permeates the operation allows him the ability to quickly go after the players the club wants.
“There have been a lot of changes in the (Japanese) work place the last 25 years, but the Carp remain a traditional Japanese company,” Fine said. “They are run that way and their people are treated that way. Loyalty is expected and loyalty is earned and rewarded. It’s rewarded in the ease of getting things done. Barriers come down, people can participate in conversations, frankly. Decisions can get made relatively quickly. We’ve been able to beat other NPB teams to the punch to get good players in the past because of the ability (to move quickly).”
Schullstrom said he looks for maturity, flexibility and – with pitchers – the ability to make Triple-A batters swing and miss. But another key factor is hunger and the desire to build a successful career in Japan.
“They need to be hungry. They need to be broke. It helps to have no money. I’m not kidding,” Schullstrom said. “Guys who have some money in the bank almost never do well. They’re not interested in it. They don’t want to jump through the hoops. Some of the things we see (in Japan) are bizarre. They’re totally foreign.”
“I would say (we want) guys who have hunger and some patience and ability and flexiblity in their personality. And you can see that. You can see guys: how they play, how they get along with other players. If they have a bad game, if they strike out four or five times in a game. You can look into the dugout, you see how guys are talking to each other. You watch Kris Johnson come off the mound after a bad inning. How is he behaving? How is he reacting? How is he running out to the mound the next inning? Is it consistent?”
Schullstrom pointed to difficulties that Eldred and former Carp slugger Greg LaRocca faced and how the team’s trust and patience allowed them to achieve success.
“Eldred got sent to the minor leagues and he could have pouted,” Schullstrom said. “You can react a bunch of different ways. But, if you stand tall and act like a man, good things can happen. Toledo (where he last played in Triple-A) is way better than being in the minor leagues with the Carp.”
“LaRocca got off to a terrible start for 3 weeks. And Koji Yamamoto was our manager and he just kept putting him in the 3 Hole. And he stunk. He kept grounding out to third and rolling over balls.”
“There are no expectations (from the media) in Hiroshima. The press is relatively friendly to the team. It’s not like Osaka. They (the team) showed patience and look what he did. He hit 40 home runs, batted .328 with 100 RBIs. If a foreigner starts to struggle after 10 days, you’re out in almost every other town. But in Hiroshima with the whole coaching situatation there’s more trust. Now we (scouts) have a little bit of a track record with having success, so the leash is even longer for those guys. And sometimes it takes a little longer. We can take some credit, Mac and I, but the majority of the credit goes to the people in Japan for making it easier to succeed in Hiroshima.”
Eldred said that not only do the Carp look after the player’s family but the team IS a family.
“If a guy is new and struggles for 10 games, some teams forget about them,” Eldred said. “It’s nice to have a team that brought you here because they know you’ve got talent, and they’re expecting you to do a lot. It’s nice that they’re willing to give you as many opportunities as they can.”
“They (the Carp) always treated me very well. My second year, I had an injury and broke my hand and missed some time. I didn’t play as well as I liked, but they trusted in me and brought me back and I had a really good (third) year. That shows loyalty to their players. Once you’ve built up some time and become part of their family, they really treat you the right way. I think it’s a big family organization.”
When players arrive in Hiroshima, they have to prove themselves, and they have to put up with lots of things that are different, but Eldred and Jackson were used to playing abroad from winter ball and came in with open minds.
“I talked to other players and knew what to expect. Then when you get here, you see how helpful everyone is and how nice it is. It is very easy to trust them and be comfortable,” Jackson said.
“When I played in Mexico, when I played in Venezuela, I saw stuff I never thought I’d see, and here it’s a little bit more extreme, because baseball is so big here.”
It’s not easy coming to a different country and a different culture, but whatever the Carp can do to make it easier, they do and they do it in style, and everyone feels that the owner has his finger on the pulse of the team.
“It helps to have an owner who is involved and knows what’s going on,” Eldred said. “He takes care of us foreign players really well. When we have family or friends in town he always sends us out for a nice Japanese dinner. It’s kind of cool for him to take care of us like that. You never expect something like that, but he thinks of us.”
Sports agent Alan Nero, who represents Eldred, called Matsuda, “an outstanding individual.”
“He’s let players move on to other teams where they had better opportunities,” Nero said. “That’s very unusual. Most teams wouldn’t do that.”
Former Carp reliever Kam Mickolio, who has spent the past two seasons with the Rakuten Eagles, said, “I loved playing in Hiroshima. The owner is awesome.”
“Because of all they do, and how they are willing to structure contracts, the Carp are able to sign players for a lot less money than it would take for them to sign with any other team,” he said.
What Matsuda and the Carp have built is special and other teams have taken notice. Sarfate said the Hawks have built a similar program to take care of players’ families and Mickolio said the Eagles are doing the same.
“Rakuten’s always asking about what they do in Hiroshima, because they want to model their program after what the Carp do,” Mickolio said.
It’s not hard, but it’s not something that happens overnight. It takes time and trust to develop the bonds of loyalty that makes a system like the Carp’s sing. And it takes someone at the very top to give it a heart and soul.