Moore no longer in talks with for Hawks return

Lefty Matt Moore, who bounced back from injury in a respectable 2021 season for the SoftBank Hawks of Japan’s Pacific League, has ended talks with the four-time defending Japan Series champs, according to a Tokyo Sports report on Wednesday.

Moore, who will be 32 on June 18, had one of Japan’s more effective changeups and did well to miss bats over 78 innings in his first NPB season. According to Delta Graphs, Moore was seventh in swinging strike percentage among the 53 pitchers with 70-plus innings.

He completed his season with seven hitless innings en route to the win in Game 3 of the Japan Series, which the Hawks swept for the second year in a row.

Moore, whose 2020 season with the Tigers was wiped out by an early injury missed two months after suffering a left calf muscle injury in July. He was non-tendered in December although the Hawks were keen to keep him and had been trying to bring him back. The Tokyo Sports report said the pitchers’ agent had suspended talks and that he would seek a major league deal for 2021.

Tokyo Sports is probably Japan’s least reputable outlet, but that is largely because it is the No. 1 forum for former players wishing to dump on active managers in encourage job openings in uniform for guys now sitting in press boxes.

This report, however, has the ring of truth to it, with Hawks officials telling local media that bringing back Moore was one of their offseason priorities.

The Hawks are now only the second Japanese team in history to win four Japan Series in a row, following the Central League’s Yomiuri Giants, who won the national title nine straight years from 1965 to 1973.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Eagles to make formal offer to Tanaka

The Rakuten Eagles will make a concrete offer this week to their former ace, Masahiro Tanaka, Sankei Sports reported Tuesday, citing a source.

According to Sanspo, the sides have spoken repeatedly and while major league teams have expressed interest in the former Yankee, the Eagles appear to be the leading contender to land the 32-year-old free agent, who last pitched for them in 2013.

The news comes just six days before the Eagles begin spring training in Okinawa.

Tanaka, who won 28 consecutive regular-season decisions from 2012 to the end of the 2013 season, often trains at the Sendai-based Pacific League club’s facilities.

The 2021 season will be an emotional one for the Eagles, coming 10 years after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan and killed nearly 15,899 with over 2,500 still listed as missing. The Eagles’ home park was seriously damaged in the earthquake, while the following tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster.

Although Japan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been better than that in the U.S., Japan has yet to even approve any vaccines, and much of the country is once more in a state of emergency. Imported players who do not currently possess Japanese residence permits are currently unable to enter the country.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Oh praises Aaron

Japan’s home run king, Softbank Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh, on Saturday paid tribute to his longtime friend Hank Aaron following the Hall of Fame slugger’s death in the United States at the age of 86.

Oh, who holds Japan’s home run record of 868, and Aaron, who long held Major League Baseball’s career home run record with 755, built a long friendship that helped drive the founding of the World Children’s Baseball Foundation and its annual baseball week in Japan.

The two competed in a home run derby at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium on Nov. 2, 1974, and three years later, on Sept. 3, 1977, Oh surpassed Aaron’s career total with his 756th home run in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Oh’s remarks were released in a Japanese language statement released by the club:

“He set the world record of 755 at that time and compiled an amazing number of home runs hits, and RBIs. He had a long career and was a tremendous gentleman and the epitome of a major league baseball player.

“Then we started to promote the sport of baseball through the WBCF, he in America and me in Japan. While he was still able to get around, he would come every year and contribute to children getting into baseball. In recent years, he often wasn’t able to come, but he always kept us in his heart. I believe he had a spectacular life in baseball.”

“I thank you for so many things and pray for your soul.”

Sadaharu Oh

Oh and Aaron in 1991 at the second WBCF baseball week in Japan.

Read the Kyodo News English story.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Life’s unfair

Wednesday’s news from NPB was about the format of the upcoming season, and updates about what players might be delayed due to coronavirus travel restrictions. One manager, however, said some teams were being unfairly treated because new players were unable to travel.

Rakuten Eagles General Manager Kazuhisa Ishii, who this year will also manage the Pacific League club on the field, said he asked what was up with new players according to Sankei Sports.

New work visas are not being issued and only players holding residence cards are being allowed back into Japan at the moment.

The Eagles non-tendered productive outfielders Stefen Romero and Jabari Blash, and relievers J.T. Chargois and D.J. Johnson, and have since signed lefty Adam Conley and infielder Brandon Dixon. While returning relievers Sung Chia-hao and Allan Busenitz are able to return, the new signings are not.

“If we had known it was going to be like this we would have been better off keeping more of the players who were already here,” Ishii said.

Players arriving now, such as the Yomiuri Giants’ Angel Sanchez, who came Thursday, will have to quarantine for two weeks, and will mean missing the start of spring training on Feb. 1, one of the dates the media treats like life-or-death deadlines.

Big days

When it appeared Daisuke Matsuzaka would be unable to return to Japan from his offseason training base in the States, the stories were “Matsuzaka to miss the start of camp!” only to be followed by next day’s news that he was already in country and sports editors the length of the country must have imagined that the nation was going to breath a collective sigh of relief.

Managers and coaches put a lot of effort into the training programs for camp, which essentially lasts three to four weeks and is not to be confused with the preseason exhibition season or “open games” which begin in the final days of February.

The other life-or-death day of course is Opening Day, and this used to be treated by most teams as if they got extra credit for opening the season with a win. Years ago at the Yomiuri, John E. Gibson and I were instructed to translate the Japanese paper’s copy ahead of the Mariners and Oakland A’s Opening series at Tokyo Dome.

One of the Yomiuri Shimbun stories had the line: “Ichiro will try hard to have a good game on Opening Day, since how a player does on Opening Day is a barometer of how his season will go.”

This is probably a little extreme but it pretty typical of the mindless drivel written about Opening Day in the Japanese press. Managers used to parrot it, too, but recently have bowed to logic, that it’s nice to be ready on Day 1, but that one game is still just one game.

Then again, maybe it’s not just Japan. Maybe hyperbola is in baseball’s DNA. But the start of camp is also a respite from the news about who and how players will be arriving in camp.

The middle of January is filled with news about which players will be in first-team spring training camp and who will be reporting to the minor league camp on Feb. 1.

Two of last year’s most highly touted young pitchers, Roki Sasaki of the Marines and Yasunobu Okugawa of the Swallows will report to first-team camp, while young Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami will be with the first team after a bout with coronavirus although on a separate training menu.

It’s enough to make one long for stories about how many balls in a player’s first BP go over the fence.

Lions reach agreement with Dermody

The PL’s Seibu Lions announced Thursday that 30-year-old former Chicago Cub lefty Matt Dermody has agreed to sign a contract, although nothing was announced other than that he’ll wear No. 98.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

10-inning games for 2021

Nippon Professional Baseball’s 12 managers met online Wednesday, when NPB reiterated its plan to have the 143-game schedule it’s been operating under since 2015, but will keep the 10-inning limit imposed last season as a response to the coronavirus.

Active rosters will remain at 31 instead of 29 with five imports allowed on the active roster and four eligible to play.

As reported earlier, the Central League will not adopt the designated hitter rule for its league games and both leagues will pass on adopting Major League Baseball’s three-batter minimum.

NPB also announced that the eight teams holding spring training camps in Okinawa have agreed to the prefecture’s request that their camps be closed to the public. Teams training in Miyazaki prefecture have already said their training there will be held behind closed doors.

BayStars imports not expected on time

New DeNA BayStars manager Daisuke Miura may need better luck from the umpires this year after telling reporters Wednesday that the club’s imported players are not expected to arrive in Japan in time for camp, Sponichi Annex reported.

The Japanese government has ostensibly suspended its exemption for non-resident athletes, but some players have arrived since that exemption — supposed to run at least until Feb. 7 — went into force.

Hanshin unveils Tigers Women

The Hanshin Tigers Women were unveiled at a Wednesday press conference when the players’ numbers were announced, and 28-year-old Iori Miura was introduced as the team’s first captain, Daily Sports reported.

The women’s uniforms appear identical to the Tigers’ regular kit, something that Miura, a veteran of Japan’s professional women’s league, commented on.

“I am happy to be able to play games in this uniform, and I feel some pressure since it’s one everyone knows,” Miura said.

Another former pro, Minami Takatsuka, said it would be good for women’s baseball that they are wearing the same uniform as Hanshin’s storied men’s club.

“It’s a good way to promote not only women’s baseball but the game itself. I hope to be a role model,” said Takatsuka.

Perhaps the team can start by having a sitdown with the Daily Sports— the Tigers’ main paper since one of their pieces described Takatsuka as “a too beautiful outfielder.”

The Seibu Lions have also formed a women’s team, not named the Cougars, as the number of women’s hard-ball clubs continues to increase around the country. Hopefully, the other 10 NPB clubs can get with the program, although I’m sure they could find better names.

Cows might be bad for Orix’s team, but “Buffalo Girls” — as in the song James Stewart sings in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” might work. Carp Joshi might be good, too, although that would leave a nation full of the team’s female “Carp joshi” followers who are not on the team. I also wonder how many women would want to be known as Dragon Ladies.

Points of view

Was I ever wrong.

I thought the 2021 Hall of Fame votes were clearly in the rearview mirror until today’s story about Nobuhiko Matsunaka coaching the Lotte Marines in spring training.

When rushing to cast my Hall of Fame vote, I admit only glancing at the ballot’s pitchers on the ballot and may have underestimated what good arguments some of them have for inclusion. Yet, there was little doubt in my mind Matsunaka was the best choice of the bunch, a guy the Players’ Division voters should have intentionally walked into the Hall of Fame.

When I saw the story about Matsunaka, however, it reminded me that he was named on a piddly 17 percent of the ballots, and the way voting can be skewed by how “journalists” see a player. That’s because Matsunaka was complicated.

It wasn’t just his triple crown stats that made him such a strong candidate. There are players who are always alert on the field, who over and over make good decisions on tough plays. That was Matsunaka — at least the part of his game that constantly amazed me — his ability to advance on fly balls that many faster players would never have risked.

He is a big guy who was never overly fast, but I never saw a player so good at scoring from third on flies hit so shallow into the outfield. Matsunaka was, for a while at least, the team’s unofficial morale officer. When Julio Zuleta first arrived with the team, he told me Matsunaka took him under his wing to provide some of the extra support that new guys — particularly new imports — often need.

Trey Hillman said Matsunaka was one of the two players, the other was Takeshi Yamasaki, who always greeted him at the start of a series, showing him the kind of respect players often give to opposing Japanese managers.

So that was one side. Matsunaka’s other side was that he could be prickly. Once at spring training, while wandering through the Hawks’ indoor practice facility, I decided to break the ice with him with humor. My Japanese then was pretty crappy, but I don’t think it would have mattered. I asked Matsunaka, who was wearing a phiten necklace the size of an ox collar, if it was big enough for him. He said something under his breath and stalked off. That was the last time he spoke to me.

A year or so later, a colleague who’d covered the Hawks for years with their local paper, Nishinihon Sports, told me that Matsunaka was no longer the big guy, that he was overrated and all the young players saw shortstop Munenori Kawasaki as the team leader.

I don’t know if it’s related to anything, but Matsunaka signed a six-year contract with the Hawks before the 2006 WBC. When Japan advanced to the quarterfinal round in Anaheim, he told reporters that nobody on the team had better dare see it as a chance to show off for major league scouts.

Years later, when Zuleta joined the Marines, we talked about Matsunaka again, but his opinion of his former teammate had shifted. I mentioned his hustle and judgment on the bases, and Zuleta rolled his eyes and said, “You better look again.”

As injuries took their toll, Matsunaka became a bench player after the 2009 season and wasn’t productive after 2011. The team would have loved to dump him but those things involve huge PR hits, so they hung with him.

As a player, the only possible cloud on Matsunaka’s legacy was his complete inability during his best years to perform in the postseason. At the very end, he snapped out of it. But it was painful to watch the country’s best hitter do so badly when everyone was watching. It didn’t help that the Hawks during those years were managed by Sadaharu Oh. Oh is one of the people I admire most in the world, but he was a terrible manager in big games.

Oh and Matsunaka were an interesting combination. Oh told me he relied on the slugger to be the warm and friendly face of the team to newcomers because his own phobia about being too close to the players. The skipper, now the SoftBank Hawks chairman, is so well respected that I wonder if some players wanted to win big games so badly for him that they tightened up. I could certainly see that happening with Matsunaka.

My point is that if you look at what Matsunaka actually did, be the best player on a team that won three Japan Series, and led the PL in regular season wins five times, that’s plenty. I’m guessing that in addition to his ability to play baseball, he also had a talent for pissing people off, but that’s just a guess.

I wrote in this week’s newsletter that unlike America’s National Baseball Hall of Fame, Japan’s doesn’t have huge elephant-in-the-room issues balancing players’ PED use, domestic violence and sexual assault with their career value to determine their worthiness. I mentioned Craig Calcaterra, who has had enough of the whole exercise and decided he doesn’t care anymore about what being a Hall of Famer means.

“if one does not need the Hall of Fame to assess baseball greatness, and if the Hall of Fame is hopelessly ill-equipped to assess the character of players, why should anyone care about an institution that not only tries to do both of those things, but tries to mash them together into a single assessment?! “

–Craig Calcaterra in his Dec. 31, 2020, “Cup of Coffee” newsletter.

We do things much more simply in Japan, at least for now.

It seems to me that Japan’s standard is to vote for players who were kind to you and don’t vote for those who told you to piss off.

That’s not because Japan doesn’t or didn’t have those same problems, but because Japan’s problems are not well known. That’s how things work. Abuse is a huge problem in societies, but many assume that because it rarely makes the news in Japan, it doesn’t exist. In a kind of Trumpian chauvinist bravado, use that lack of reporting as the reason to praise the Japanese for their innate moral character.

Former Japan Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu once told his South Korean counterpart that no Koreans had been brought to Japan to serve as forced labor during or before World War II because there was no record of such a thing. This prompted a flood of 50-year-old documents from Japanese companies confirming their rosters of conscripted Korean laborers. Kaifu then committed political suicide by issuing an apology to South Korea.

Times change, and it’s hard to predict when information that had been hiding in plain sight will flood the landscape and force a reckoning or at least encourage people that a reckoning is in order.

Before long Japan will no doubt catch up in its awareness of claims of sexual assault and domestic violence — even against ballplayers. At some point — and we might already be there without my knowing it due to the lack of public dialog about the voting — voters may ask “How good does a player have to be to get into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer despite credible allegations of domestic violence?”

Beat writers know a lot more about players’ lives than guys like me who poke around and talk to people on different teams when I have time. Who knows? Perhaps some players’ poor performance in the voting is due to beat writers expressing their wrath about things that aren’t public knowledge.

Before writing this, I was optimistic Japan’s voters will find a better solution to the problem than those in the States have, but four years ago I also held some naive sliver of hope that Donald Trump wouldn’t be a total dumpster fire as president.

Having thought about it again, @craigcalcaterra may be right.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

writing & research on Japanese baseball