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

Upon further review

Star-crossed umpiring

Something I’ve wanted to do since umpires began taking requests from managers who felt wronged by their judgements on the field was see whether some teams were more or less likely to have the initial calls go their way.

There has long been a perception in Japan of umpiring bias toward the Giants, but without hard evidence, there’s not much one can say about it.

When Tokyo Dome first opened, Nippon Television, which owns the rights to the home games and is owned by the Giants’ parent company, frequently showed video of pitches from a camera suspended below the dome ceiling — until too many of those shots were called strikes not close to being over the plate.

Like watching from the cheap seats

One problem with the “Request System” is that the umpires have to work from whatever crappy little monitor the home team’s owner provides for them. This once led to a disastrous decision against the Orix Buffaloes, when forced to review a long foul ball in the top of the 10th inning at Kyocera Dome. On the crappy little monitor provided by Orix, the umps saw the ball disappear from the screen as it crossed the line of the foul pole. They called the ball a home run, and the Hawks won in extra innings.

After the game, they looked at the call on a better monitor and were shocked to see the ball pass on the foul side of the pole. Orix, whose fault it was the umps didn’t have better equipment to work with, was outraged that such an awful mistake could have happened to them in their home park.

Osamu Ino, the head of NPB’s umpiring technical committee, said recently that things haven’t changed much since then, that the monitors available to the umps are often substandard.

Since the Nakamura call, however, the umps have resolved to only overturn calls on the field when there is clear evidence that it was wrong. They seem to deviate from that standard from time to time, but it’s probably right to assume that if you can’t see it on the monitor, then perhaps the person on the spot was in the best position to judge.

Bad luck Alex

I noticed today that the data I’d collected this season included a record of which teams reviewed calls and whether the calls on the field were overturned or upheld, so I ran them into a database and had to wonder if some umps were among those singing for Daisuke Miura to replace Alex Ramirez as DeNA BayStars managers.

I have a record of 480 video requests during the 2020 season. There may have been more, but these are the ones I have notes on. Of those reviewed calls 63 were overturned or 32 percent. The Pacific League’s Rakuten Eagles and the Central League’s BayStars ranked 1, 2 in the number of challenges by their skippers, and for good reason, those two teams led their league in calls against them that were overturned.

In last year’s CL, there really were four teams in the middle with little separating them, but one could argue the BayStars were really the second-best team in the league behind the run-away champion Giants. Finishing second might not have helped Ramirez’s chances of staying on with a team that was looking for excuses to get rid of him, but it didn’t help that he had to do extra work to correct the umps.

Of the 21 calls in BayStars’ games that were overturned upon review, 18 had originally gone against DeNA. The Eagles were second percentage-wise with 63 percent of the overturned calls having first gone their opponents’ way.

TeamOverturned against teamOverturned against oppsPct

Hawks come up empty

I have only one year of data to work with but of the 243 requests by the batting teams, the SoftBank Hawks made just 15, the fewest in either league, and every one of those times, the umps’ call on the field was upheld.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Fix the hall

With the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame failing to elect a former pro player for the first time since it went two straight years in 1986 and 1987, people are asking what the heck is wrong.

It’s not a shortage of good candidates. In three years, the Players’ division has managed to elect only longtime Chunichi Dragons second baseman Kazuyoshi Tatsunami, while arguably the best candidate, Tuffy Rhodes, treaded water in the middle of the ballot.

This year’s ballot was both larger, increasing from 21 candidates to 30, and better stocked with players who had huge careers.

This year’s results

Reliever Shingo Takatsu and outfielder Alex Ramirez, each got the same number of votes as they did last year, but it’s not true that everyone who voted for them a year ago did so again, because I didn’t. But Masahiro Kawai, a perplexing high flyer dropped from 218 to 210, while Rhodes crashed from 102 to 61.

This year’s poor outcome, however, might encourage some changes to the way things are done.

What can be done

I’m glad you asked. I don’t have a concrete solution, like changing the way the ballots are structured or voted, but while the whole process is administered efficiently and above board, it is a closed circuit.

Baseball writers who cover players during their careers then vote on those players. The results are then announced to the media and only then relayed to the public through that media filter. The event is a press conference in the long narrow hall where the plaques are hung, and as wonderful as the surroundings are, it’s not a good venue for a press conference.

Unlike the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, Japan’s wonderful museum at Tokyo Dome is closed on the day results are announced. TV cameras are there to record the introductory speeches and the speeches of those being enshrined — or their survivors.

The only public part of the enshrinement process is when new members are presented with their plaques at Game 1 of the annual all-star series. There are fans in the crowd, but there’s no time for anything more than a wave to them.

The first thing to do is take the private process and make the fans a part of it.

Hold the induction ceremony outdoors and invite the public. Give honorees more than a day or two to prepare their remarks. Give their fans time to show up. Make it an event that for one day stops baseball time in its tracks.

Give voters a chance to go public

Look I may be wrong when I say Masahiro Kawai– whom I loved as the Yomiuri Giants infield anchor at short for years–is not really deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame. I’m wrong a lot. But if you think he is, why not tell everyone your reasoning?

Sure, full disclosure might bring abuse from the public, but it would ensure more careful deliberation by voters. How about we go halfway, and have the ballot committees give voters the chance to make their votes public. Then we can have a debate and I can learn stuff and the public can be more involved.

Of course, every writer has that option in this day and age, but I may be the only one who uses it other than a few Hall of Famers who take to the press each year to issue proclamations on who is and isn’t up to THEIR standards.

My podcast partner John E. Gibson complains about the lack of standards, but neither of thinks that’s really the problem, but I like the idea of looking at who is in and what the current candidates have in common with most of them.

If we don’t find a positive way to solve it, I’m sure the Hall of Fame can come up with a “solution” that causes more problems.

A little background

The first nine members were selected by the special committee, and that group included only one former professional player, the Yomiuri Giants’ first Japanese ace, Eiji Sawamura. The following year, his Russian teammate, Victor Starffin, became the first player to be selected by the competitors’ ballot in 1960.

The competitors’ ballot, considered anyone and everyone who played amateur or professional ball, managed, coached or umpired until it was disbanded after 2007 in favor of two competitors’ divisions, the players’ division for recent retirees and the experts’ division for those who hadn’t played in 21 years.

At least until 1965, former players still in uniform could be elected, since the manager of the Nishitetsu Lions, Tadashi “Bozo” Wakabayashi was elected in 1964. The next year, the Hall inducted the managers of the Yomiuri Giants, Tetsuharu Kawakami, and Nankai Hawks Kazuto Tsuruoka.

Perhaps someone didn’t like the idea of Hall of Famers in uniform, because from 1966 to 1996 nobody was allowed on the ballot who had been active as a player, manager or coach in the past five seasons.

Thus, Sadaharu Oh, who last played in 1980 and then coached and managed until 1988, couldn’t be considered until 1994. It created a huge logjam as guys like Oh, Masaichi Kaneda, Kazuhisa Inao, Katsuya Nomura and Shigeo Nagashima had to leave the game for five years before they could go in the Hall of Fame.

The Players’ division can now consider guys in uniform if they haven’t played for five years, while the experts’ division can handle anyone out of uniform for six months, and can consider other contributions to the game. The special committee is now how non-players and amateurs get in. It used to be the last resort for players, and players selected by the special committee are not considered competitors, even if they did little else but play.

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

Date with corona

Ikuhiro Kiyota was suspended indefinitely by the Lotte Marines of Japan’s Pacific League on Friday after he was fingered by a weekly magazine as the culprit behind the Pacific League club’s coronavirus cluster last September, Nikkan Sports reported.

The Marines issued the suspension a week after the magazine “Friday” published a photo of the 34-year-old outfielder dining out in Sapporo in violation of the team’s coronavirus protocols.

Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido has been one of the nation’s coronavirus hotspots. Pitcher Daiki Iwashita tested positive after the Marines returned from a road trip to play the Nippon Ham Fighters. Although no one admitted breaking the rules, a total of 14 players — including Kiyota — tested positive for the virus, forcing the club to call up a large number of reserves from the farm in order to field a team.

Kiyota is now prohibited from joining the team for spring training, starting from Feb. 1, while Naoki Matsumoto, the club’s head of baseball operations received a severe warning for failing to adequately prevent adult professional athletes from breaking the rules.

The Marines finished second last season in the PL despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus cluster within the organization, but it may be a while before we here Kiyota’s ear-worm “oenka.”

Sign up to receive news and alerts by mail

writing & research on Japanese baseball