On Friday, Jan. 18, Sadaharu Oh spoke to reporters at Japan’s National Press Club in Tokyo. The SoftBank Hawks chairman was speaking on the subject of pro baseball during Japan’s Heisei Era — which will end when the current emperor abdicates this spring.
During the press conference, Oh spoke of how over the past 30 years, Japanese baseball made itself heard in America, with the success of Hideo Nomo in 1995 and later Japan’s triumph in the first World Baseball Classic, which he managed.
“That first time, I didn’t know what was what, and it just became a case of leaving it to the players who volunteered,” Oh said. “I became emboldened when Ichiro (Suzuki) called. He was the first.”
Oh wasn’t kidding when he said he didn’t understand what was what. He didn’t particularly want to manage Japan in 2006, but no one was stepping up to do it. He had been a proponent of the project in 2004 and 2005, when Nippon Professional Baseball was suspicious of dealing with Major League Baseball and accepted the job because no else wanted it.
Jim Small, currently MLB’s vice president for Asia, had just opened up shop in Japan so that MLB could negotiate TV rights and licensing deals without having to outsource them. The WBC turned out to be a hard sell and the process involved a lot of public sniping from NPB’s secretary general at the time, Kazuo Hasegawa.
With the deal finally agreed to late in the summer of 2005 and with Oh now in charge of selecting his team, people wondered which of Japan’s major leaguers would take part. Outfielders Ichiro and Hideki Matsui were the biggest stars. It was assumed that second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, then en route to a World Series championship with the Chicago White Sox, would sign on since he had played under Oh with the Hawks.
For one reason or another, the common assumption in Japan was that Matsui and Iguchi would play, but Suzuki would not.
And so I thought until a chance meeting with Jim Small on a shinkansen heading west out of Tokyo. Small had been sitting in the same carriage, saw me and brought up the subject of Ichiro.
After listening to me spout the common view, Small said, “I’ve heard he wants to play. And he’s waiting for Oh to call him.”
I was in Fukuoka a few weeks later when the Hawks hosted Bobby Valentine‘s Lotte Marines in the final stage of the Pacific League playoffs.
The king and I and Ichiro
I can’t properly explain my relationship with Oh, Japan’s all-time home run king, who is a household name and an icon here.
After I started working at the Daily Yomiuri in 1998 after six years as a free lancer, I ventured up to Oh on the sidelines at Tokyo Dome one day. I am sure I was shaking as I quizzed him on Japanese baseball in my fairly broken Japanese. His demeanor was friendly, reassuring and straightforward. It wasn’t me. It’s the way Oh is.
So on one of those days during that series in Fukuoka, I remembered what Small had said on the train, that Ichiro was waiting for Oh to call him.
“Can I do that?” Oh asked. “Is that permitted?”
I didn’t know if it was permitted or not, but suggested that it was worth finding out. I also haven’t asked Oh since then exactly how that play out. It is just as likely that he forgot what we talked about and only thought about it when someone else mentioned Ichiro. At some point, Oh began pursuing Matsui, with the progress of that courtship playing out in the daily sports pages.
After Matsui turned Oh down, Oh sought out Iguchi. Although everyone thought he would jump at the chance, he was reportedly less than thrilled to be considered an afterthought and turned down a spot on the WBC roster.
But with Ichiro in tow, the rest was history, as Japan largely lucked its way into the WBC final despite two losses to South Korea and Oh’s insistence on sacrificing with batters he had no business putting a bunt sign into their heads. *
“I’m good when I’m the first,” Oh said. “And at that time, too, I remember thinking, ‘My luck is still holding.’ My first time wearing the rising sun emblem in baseball empowered me.
*–His extreme small-ball approach in 2006 is ironic when one considers his recent comments about how Japan’s national team should play.