Curmudgeon Corner

One of Japanese baseball’s most infamous hard-ass managers, Tatsuro Hirooka, let loose on his old team, the Yomiuri Giants in a Shukan Baseball column. He wrote this last Monday, a day after they finished being swept in two straight series by the Yakult Swallows and Hiroshima Carp and before four losses over five winless games awaited them.

Hirooka, the Giants’ regular shortstop from 1954 to 1965, managed the Yakult Swallows to their first pennant and Japan Series title and won three PL pennants and two Japan Series in his four years there. He, and his chief disciple, Masaaki Mori were the leading figures in establishing a tactical quality control orthodoxy in Japanese pro baseball in the 1970s and 1980s.

He left the Lions after their 1985 Japan Series defeat to the Hanshin Tigers and resurfaced as general manager of the Lotte Marines in 1995 when he hired Bobby Valentine when the Marines came out of nowhere to contend for the pennant despite a season-long civil war between Hirooka and Valentine. When the skipper received a huge amount of the credit for their success, Hirooka pushed the owner to fire him and cooked up a Trumpian excuse about how Valentine didn’t help the Marines compete but rather cost them the pennant.

Valentine, he said–if I recall the number correctly—lost 25 games that an ordinary manager would have won, which is a bizarre figure. He dragged out actual games and tactical decisions, which didn’t pan out in those losses, like using a better pinch-hitter in a certain situation, leaving this pitcher in too long, and pulling that one too early, assuming of course, that Hirooka’s choice in retrospect would have had a 100 percent success rate.

In his Shukan Baseball column, Hirooka blamed the Giants’ predicament on pretty much everything under the sun. He asserted:

  • The Giants make a habit of signing big-name talent away from other clubs without instructing the newcomers in the game’s finer points.
  • The lack of cohesion means that when losses mount up, hitters respond by swinging harder and harder until the strikeouts get out of control.
  • This puts extra pressure on the team’s good pitchers, who then get beat up.

“If I were manager,” Hirooka wrote. “I’d show each player video, showing why pitchers are getting them out. That would make each player memorize the pitches that they were going to see. Is the current coaching staff doing that? If each player studied on his own like that, there’d be no need to have advance scouts.”

Hirooka criticized the Giants’ lineup selection:

“It’s natural for people to get bent out of shape when the team is losing while the only players producing in the way we expect from Giants middle-of-the-order guys are batting seventh and eighth. It’s a waste if players don’t know who the starting lineup is until they get to the park because they can’t prepare ahead of time.”

He then launched into some prime old-fart noise.

“In the era when Shigeru Mizuhara was employed as Giants manager, every guy fought for all he was worth to win a position. We proudly battled to be the only one worthy of that job, and we were taught that our teammates were taught the same way. We made an incredible effort not to be outdone.”

“We’re now in an era where effort is not required. Everyone is used to playing on artificial turf, which is easy compared to playing on dirt. That makes players lazy. If I were out there, I could catch the ball blindfolded.”

Not surprisingly, Hirooka is no fan of strength training and drew on some old-fashioned racism to make his point.

“One more thing,” our old guy baseball Colombo wrote. “The rampant misunderstanding that simply increasing one’s weight will lead to an increase in power is also a problem. The very concept is simplistic. It’s not true that imitating anything and everything done in America is a good thing. A good thing about the Japanese is their supple flexible muscles. Because this is Japan, we must teach everyone the dos and don’ts as fundamentals.”

He said he can’t watch baseball today because teams, like their players, lack ambition and discipline.

I’m guessing Hirooka might have had one too many when he wrote this, although the incoherent logic is much in line with his organized campaign in 1995 to discredit  Valentine.

He argues that the Giants don’t gel because the veteran players they sign from other teams don’t know how to play baseball, which is kind of stupid.

As far as the strikeouts go, I don’t think he’s wrong about that. The Giants are under intense pressure to win. I think it’s less of a lack of training as much as cohesion, the kind of thing we witnessed in 2004 and 2005 when a host of new big-name domestic and imported stars absolutely collapsed and stopped playing as a team.

The Giants do lead both leagues in batters’ strikeouts, and the team seems rudderless. One doubts seriously that the problem is a coaching one, but it might be a messaging one. A constant danger with Japanese teams is that big-name players and prospects can be exposed to conflicting advice from a host of different directions and really can get lost in the babble, and the worse the results, the more cacophonous the messaging.

The rest is pretty much “today’s players aren’t as good as we were.” After all, Hirooka and his contemporaries had pride, which today’s guys lack, and made effort, while today’s players are lazy, and probably, unlike him, would probably struggle to catch balls blindfolded. The bit about strength training is ironic since he attacks the idea as a misconception while at the same time demonstrating that he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about, and instead stakes a claim for Japanese exceptionalism since it’s important to curtail foreign influences as being unsuited to Japanese physiques, and because “this is Japan.”

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