Mr. Nemoto’s mystery tour

There was an interesting story last month about Rikuo Nemoto, one of Japan’s most cunning executives, who for a while was one of the few people to create any kind of team dynasty since the introduction of the draft leveled the playing field somewhat.

The story, published in Nikkan Sports, talks about how in the autumn of 1994, Nemoto managed to secure his top draft target, slugging catcher Kenji Jojima, without the hassle of having to deal with Japan’s ubiquitous draft day lottery for marquee amateurs coveted by several teams.

The story is a nice summary of the superficial story, with enough additional information thrown in to imply to the reader that the story spelled out is not quite the whole story.

I dug into it because, I’ve heard a number of stories about Nemoto, and his various talents, and expected to find some nugget I hadn’t heard, but instead, we get a story which looks like the writer wanted to be able to deny he suggested any under-handed dealing by Nemoto, while pretty much doing just that.

Jojima was poised to enter Komazawa University after high school, and had told teams not to draft him for that reason. Jojima had already been accepted and had filed his paperwork for a scholarship, so it seemed like a done deal.

When the other 11 teams looked elsewhere for their top picks, Nemoto swooped in, selected Jojima unopposed, and the other teams were furious and pushed commissioner Ichiro Yoshikuni to investigate.

The story credits Nemoto’s ability to divine Jojima’s thoughts and desires, that he truly preferred pro ball to college, and would sign, which he did, after a visit from new Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh.

The investigation consisted of commissioner Yoshikuni seeing if Komazawa’s manager was angered by having a star player ripped away from him, but the manager proved oddly silent, and the investigation died with a “what do you expect me to do about it?”

I chose this article as material for my Japanese language lesson, and my teacher suggested something I hadn’t considered: that Jojima might not have intended to go to university and that the entire thing was a charade orchestrated by Nemoto. The writer of the article never suggests this, but does everything but suggest it.

There is talk that Jojima received a signing bonus of $10 million in addition to the cash Daiei publicly offered him, and there is a story of money changing hands between Daiei and the Komazawa manager. Another player at Komazawa was reportedly on Daiei’s payroll as an amateur, something that was pretty common in Japan until teams’ subsidies to university pitcher Yasuhiro Ichiba in 2004 forced several owners to step down.

After praising Nemoto’s acumen to the skies, the writer goes on to describe the lip-service investigation by the commissioner, and a long list of other players who miraculously became available for Nemoto’s teams to acquire in the draft.

The most infamous incident was probably Nemoto’s disappearing high school catcher trick.

This involved a star second-year high school catcher, who transferred from his powerhouse high school in Kumamoto in 1980 to move to Saitama Prefecture, where he attended night school. The young man, future Hall of Fame catcher Tsutomu Ito, dropped off the radar, except to Nemoto, whose Seibu Lions employed him as a trainee, and then took him as their first-round draft pick in his senior year.

Over and over, players would convince other teams that they would not play pro ball, only to sign soon after with one of Nemoto’s teams.

That’s how his Lions acquired high school pitcher and future Hall of Fame outfielder Koji Akiyama as an undrafted free agent, because the other teams that had been following him were convinced he would attend university.

Oh said Nemoto was a superb organizer and communicator. The late Sachio Kinugasa, who was managed by Nemoto, said he had a unique talent of understanding everyone’s perspective. He built a massive network that enabled him not only to gain information but, it seems, fabricate elaborate deceptions.

Nemoto, was a key architect of the Hiroshima Carp dynasty of the 1970s, the Lions after that and the Hawks after that. He died in 1999, just months before the Hawks won their first Japan Series under Daiei, and was elected to the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, where he was lauded for his success.

It was success built on being a master spy, a baseball man who could concoct elaborate cover stories and deceptions and then get others to buy into them. Nemoto was the fox in Japanese pro baseball’s hen house.

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