Following the money

Heard of the house that Ruth built? This is the scoreboard that Darvish built.
Heard of the house that Ruth built? This is the scoreboard that Darvish built.

This photo is the answer to the question a listener to the Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast asked last year: What did the Nippon Ham Fighters do with the $50 million posting fee they received for Yu Darvish.

According to Fighters chief executive Toshimasa Shimada, the answer is this scoreboard at the Fighters’ minor league facility in Kamagaya, Chiba Prefecture.

Another Giants pitcher done for gambling

It’s not that surprising that another Japanese player admitted to betting on baseball on Tuesday, since the Yomiuri Giants’ investigation last November consisted of asking everyone with the club whether or not they gambled.

Prior to Feb. 29, the team had declared the investigation done. That day the club received a call from weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, asking about details of Takagi’s involvement. Takagi’s name had not come up originally. He said he quit after losing roughly $7,000 in 2014 in bets on pro baseball games through the operator of a pub known only as “B-san.” Takagi, did however, introduce teammate Shoki Kasahara to B-san, and Kasahara introuduced to other minor league teammates.
The news broke after a gambler called the Giants in October and demanded the team pay one of the pitcher’s illegal gambling debts.

According to the Giants, Takagi said B-san visited him during autumn minicamp with an unkown man who promised to make sure the pitcher’s name would not come up in NPB’s investigation — if the pitcher were to give him a “souvenir.” Takagi said he rebuffed the offer of help.

The team said it was continuing to investigate although repeatedly said it was difficult since B-san failed to take their repeated calls. This is probably not the end of the trail since it is unlikely Takagi made the gambling connection without an introduction from someone he trusted in baseball.

On the announcement of Takagi’s involvement, Tsuneo Watanabe, the most powerful figure in Japanese baseball, resigned again. 11-1/2 years earlier, Watanabe — then the titular owner of the Central League club — joined several other owners in quitting after it was revealed their teams had been paying university pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba.

Within a year, Watanabe officially returned as the team’s supreme advisor. Although Watanabe’s dominance of Nippon Professional Baseball policy has slipped due to the rise of the rival Pacific League, as long as Watanabe remains alive, NPB as a whole will be unable to move forward as a whole in joint licensing and marketing ventures.

Since Watanabe has remained in charge despite having no official status within NPB since quitting as owner, his resignation as special advisor means nothing.

The boys of March

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Sho Nakata, NPB’s middle o the order guys, are asked about what they eat to stay big and strong.

The night before leaving to cover Nippon Professional Baseball’s reasonable facsimile of a national team play Taiwan in a two-game series, T, my wife, said, “I was told these games are meaningless.”

Certainly, no prize money or trophy goes to the winners at Nagoya Dome and Kyocera Dome Osaka. But for the Japanese, they represent the countdown to the next World Baseball Classic, something that is really, really important here.

In 2013, when Samurai Japan failed to win the WBC after two straight championships, alarm bells rang. Through 2012, NPB had made last-minute managing selections. Its first two managers were taken from NPB’s active managing ranks, but with no active skippers willing to step in in 2013, it went for a retiree. Koji Yamamoto hadn’t managed in years and hadn’t done that well when he did.

Probably figuring that if NPB couldn’t be bothered to actually find a real manager, none of Japan’s big leaguers who were asked to join came (Junichi Tazawa wasn’t asked) .  In the wake of Japan losing to Puerto Rico in the WBC semifinals, NPB opted for a regular manager and turned to Hiroki Kokubo, a well-respected veteran who had just retired but who had never managed.

With the union unhappy that only a fraction of the money from Japan-based sponsors who spend heavily in the WBC reached NPB and its union, NPB Enterprises was founded. The company manages the business of the “national team” and captures sponsorship income for the 47 months between WBC.

With a manager and a structure for seeking sponsorship money, NPB is more committed to the WBC than anyone but the tournament’s organizing body World Baseball Classic Inc. While the results of the Taiwan games are not meaningful, it is a crucial time for Kokubo, his players and coaches.

“We are now less than a year away from the WBC, and we will only be with the players once before then,” batting coach Atsunori Inaba said Saturday. “This is a big time for us to improve our communication, and for the players to learn. You put the best players together in one place and they are going to pick up things up from each other. It makes them better, it makes the team better.”

It certainly helped Yomiuri Giants pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, who was coming off a mediocre effort in last autumn’s Premier 12, but was razor sharp in Saturday’s opener.

“This gave me a chance to be myself, to just focus on what I do while wearing the Japan flag on my uniform, having wound myself up too tight in the Premier 12 trying to do more than I could do,” Sugano said. “The next WBC is a huge target, and I want to build on this over the course of the season so that I can be selected next year.”

Yanagita puts on home run show

Yuki Yanagita put on a power show on Friday. In this video Yanagita is facing the Hanshin Tigers’ Randy Messenger and hits it well back into the seats in left for an opposite-field homer.

While he didn’t get all of that one, he did get all of this 149-kilometer fastball from Rafael Dolis.

Yanagita, the 2015 Pacific League MVP, has yet to fully recover from shoulder surgery he had after last year’s Japan Series but his home runs did more than just dent a couple of seats. They also left an impression on Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh, who hit a record 868 in his career.

“That was something,” Oh said. “There’s a lot of value in hitting home runs that amaze the fans.”

NPB’s last Triple Crown winner hangs up his bat

Nobuhiko Matsunaka, who in 2004 became the seventh batter in NPB to win a triple crown, announced Tuesday that he was retiring after failing to get a tryout with a new team.

Matsunaka won two Pacific League MVP Awards, in 2000 and 2004. He didn’t really deserve the ’00 honor, but won as the premier player on the pennant-winning team–at the expense of Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui. Yet from 2004-2006, Matsunaka was Nippon Professional Baseball’s most dominant player.  In 2005, the award went to Hawks lefty Toshiya Sugiuchi, who went 18-4 with a 2.11 ERA that season. The following year’s award went to Michihiro Ogasawara, who led the Nippon Ham Fighters franchise to their first Japan Series in 16 years.

Matsunaka was complicated. For years, he was the team leader. When Julio Zuleta joined Daiei in 2003, he said Matsuzaka was the one who welcomed him with open arms and helped him a lot. Asked about that, Sadaharu Oh said he was grateful for the veteran’s presence because being chummy with players was something he wasn’t good at. Yet, Matsuzaka appeared to become a polarizing figure and was fairly easy to offend. Individuals who got on his bad side would get shut out.

While stocky and not overly fast, Matsunaka was a superb base runner, who it seems never misjudged his chances of scoring from third base on a fly ball — even though he would often go on fairly shallow flys. He is one of 26 players with 5,000-plus plate appearances who stole fewer than 35 career bases and hit fewer than 20 triples. Among that group of slowpokes, he scored 26.5 percent of the time he reached on a ball other than a home run. That figure is fourth behind LeRon Lee (.278), Masahiko Morino (.272) and Takeya Nakamura (.265). Although he didn’t attempt to steal often, Matsunaka was a 72 percent base stealer.

The second draft pick of the Daiei Hawks in 1996, Matsunaka was a key figure as the club led the PL’s regular season standings for five times between 1999 and 2005. The Hawks went to three Japan Series during that stretch and won two of them. Although he was a superb regular-season performer, Matsunaka always seemed to be pressing in the offseason and accomplished very little. When the PL introduced a playoff system in 2004, the Hawks lost the league title at home for two straight seasons.