Farewell Mr. Chiba

Isao Chiba, the energetic and dauntless record keeper for Japan’s Pacific League passed away of a brain hemorrhage Wednesday morning in Tokyo. He was 85.

Chiba-san was fascinated by records and the stories behind them and always sought to broaden peoples’ understanding of not just the numbers but how they told stories. For 56 years starting in 1961, Chiba-san authored 2,897 “Stats notebook” columns for the weekly magazine “Shukan Baseball.”

We first met after my original English language analytic guide to Japanese pro baseball was published in 1994, and whenever I could escape to Ginza for a few hours, I would stop into the league offices in the days before they were assimilated into the NPB commissioner’s office.

An annual feature of my guides was explaining differences between Japan’s scorekeeping and records and those in the majors, and Chiba-san was the ultimate guide. Through him and through his colleagues in the two league offices, it became easy for me to get information about how things worked and why.

Thinking back, it suddenly occurs to me that Chiba-san was in some ways like Hall of Fame catcher and manager Katsuya Nomura, who passed away last year. They both loved the game so much and absolutely beamed when asked to recount stories and explain hidden details, but also couldn’t abide those who took baseball for granted.

When the PL adopted its playoff system in 2004, he was outraged, calling it “the stupidest idea ever.”

Because his wife was a passionate fan of things Egyptian, their home looked like two traveling exhibits, one from Cooperstown and one from the Egyptian wing of the British Museum had to be housed in the same building. One entered through an Egyptian themed space, but he wasn’t happy until you reached the center, his study, where one wall (then) had every box score from every NPB game pasted into scrap books.

The first time, I visited, about 25 years ago, Chiba-san took me aside and said, “The instant you hear of my death, you have to rush to my home and take all of these.

I said I would but now the thought of fulfilling that promise fills me with sadness.

One day, Chiba-san called at my office to tell me how the two of us had been the driving force behind making NPB’s save rule identical to that in the majors. After my first guide went out in 1994, I asked him why the rules were different.

For roughly 30 years after Japan introduced its save rule in 1975, a reliever entering with the bases loaded in the final inning, could get a save if his team held a six-run lead. Chiba-san explained that to me, but then went digging into why it was so. He found that Japan’s rule had originally been mistranslated and petitioned the rules committee to change it.

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