This is the story of three men, and how they helped revolutionize Japanese baseball. In so doing, they created a space for the kind of individual pursuit of excellence that Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto have engaged in and been rewarded for.
Their huge contracts this winter, as surprising as they are now, would have seemed impossible to those watching Japanese pro baseball in the 1980s.
This is the third part of a series discussing the transformation of Japanese pro baseball.
Part 1 outlined how NPB has continued to grow and thrive:
- Through unintended consequences of owners trying to restructure the existing domestic balance of power
- Through effort of individuals working on their own and eventually with others to create new paradigms within obsolete structures.
- Through a collective effort by players to combat owners’ abuse of power
Part 2 is about how owners’ efforts to petrify a system and ensure their control, set in motion a set of circumstances that ensured players would strike out on their own for MLB.
Don’t get me wrong, the baseball of the era was fun and the players entertaining, but it was being portrayed as a morality lesson on the purity of playing for one run, and the absolute necessity of executing boringly predictable tactics.
Today’s story starts in the 1960s, a free-wheeling era for Japanese baseball and discusses Tatsuro Hirooka’s attempt to rein in the chaos of his time and perfect the game. It’s about a quiet counterrevolution, where his contemporary, Akira Ogi, presented an alternative view of baseball that unleashed the unique Ichiro Suzuki, whose impact resounds to this day.
Shadow of the past
The Yomiuri Giants “V9” dynasty of nine straight Japan Series championships under manager Tetsuharu Kawakami not only generated generations of fans, but also created a massive cadre of coaches who fanned out to spread the lessons of the Giants’ success across the breadth of NPB.
Kawakami’s Giants were powered by the ability of Yomiuri to outspend every other team for amateur talent and were built around two of Japan’s greatest stars, third baseman Shigeo Nagashima and first baseman Sadaharu Oh. As players did then, both Nagashima and Oh developed their own styles, and mastered them.
When Yomiuri’s dynasty crashed in the mid-1970s due to the competitive balance ushered in by the draft, and the replacement of Kawakami with newly retired superstar Nagashima, former Giants rushed in to explain how baseball could progress if it learned the lessons of the past and refined successful tactics, approaches, and techniques to their ultimate form.
Continue reading A lot has changed, Part 3