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By Jim Allen
It wasn’t a huge surprise that Masataka Nashida announced he was stepping down as manager of the Rakuten Eagles. After winning championships with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and again with the Nippon Ham Fighters, that the Eagles’ continued poor results would eventually cause him to step aside.
When I began getting paid to write about Japanese baseball in 1998, I had to learn how to talk to players and managers and get material for stories despite my horrible Japanese. Sadaharu Oh was perhaps the first manager to welcome my silly questions with open arms, and in 2000 Nashida became another.
Nashida, a former catcher who played his whole career with the Osaka-based Kintetsu Buffaloes, had been successful as Kintetsu’s minor league manager before moving up to the big chair. Nashida was one of those managers who would meet reporters before every game. The questions were often about the comings and goings of fringe players, the prospects of the new rookie, follow-ups on incidents from the previous day’s game and so on.
Not being a beat writer, but one who would go to the park once a week to write a game story and collect material for my column in the Daily Yomiuri, most of those questions went over my head and my attention would occasionally wander. It was those times, when I might be staring at the dugout ceiling, that Nashida would pounce.
“That’s the way they do it in the majors, isn’t it?” he’d ask me, always when I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about.
More often than not, I’d say, “No, not always” to a question that could well have been whether or not big leaguers ate raw squirrel meat before games. I was basically a nobody, but like Oh, and Lions manager Haruki Ihara, Nashida tried his best to explain things to me. I sincerely wanted to understand how Japanese baseball was the way it was, and he offered his time and insight.
He once explained what it meant to be a coach in Japanese baseball.
“The coach’s job is of course to prepare players to win games,” he told me. “But they are also like lightning rods. When a player makes a mistake, the coach is expected to show how tough he is in dealing with mistakes and correcting them — not for the player’s sake or for the team’s sake, but so the coach himself won’t be criticized in the media.”
“If a pitcher gives up a base hit on an 0-2 count, the battery coach is asked why he didn’t order a pitch that was too far out of the zone to be hit.”
I asked, “You’re a former catcher. Do you like those meaningless 0-2 pitches?”
“Me? No. I hated them when I was a catcher, and I hate them now when I’m a manager.”
“Then why do your coaches still ask the catcher to call for them?”
“It’s their job, unfortunately. Part of their job is to not be criticized the next day in the papers. It is what it is.”
Nashida had the look of a man who sincerely loved his players, and under him, a lot of Kintetsu and Nippon Ham players blossomed. As one of the Pacific League’s two Osaka-area clubs at the time, the Buffaloes took on a lot of journeyman rejects from the Hanshin Tigers. Having escaped from the Koshien pressure cooker, Nashida trusted them, taught them and let them find themselves, and many contributed to the Buffaloes’ 2001 pennant.
more to come…