Parsing the ‘big boss’

New Nippon Ham Fighters manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo had his presser on Thursday, and it was 100 percent Shinjo: outlandish and hard to tell where the Shinjo act stopped and the baseball started.

Shinjo’s world

There were some funny moments, like his clothes, and the pre-arranged jokes he exchanged with top executive Koji Kawamura, who said that Shinjo’s job was to field a winning team and be entertaining, something one doesn’t typically hear at new-manager press conferences, but that is pretty much expected with Shinjo.

The weirdest thing about the show was the TV people in attendance kissing Shinjo’s ass, and relishing in calling him “Big Boss.” The presser was also filled with other bits of nonsense about how he wants a team filled with celebrities, and about how he doesn’t want a coaching staff because he wants to be the center of attention.

But some of what he said applied to baseball, and I think that’s where we need to focus. When Shinjo was hired, I wrote about the ways it might work and might fail, but having listened to him, I think there is actually a chance the team could be successful with him as mascot manager.

Players win games, managers don’t

This is probably the hardest thing to grasp since wisdom is supposed to flow from the managers in a way that organizes the team’s talent and masterminds its tactics.

Shinjo said the players are “really all very skilled,” and that his messaging would be oriented toward their self-improvement as individuals, increasing their awareness of their humanity. Japanese baseball likes to tout the way it teaches young players how to behave in society, but Shinjo is really serious about this.

At the presser, he told how he reprimanded former teammate Hichori Morimoto for talking back to a coach. After the presser, reporters at different teams’ fall camps asked managers their opinions of Shinjo. New Hawks manager Hiroshi Fujimoto told of how in his last year with Orix, he and Shinjo lived in the same condominium and would always leave for their respective ballparks at the same time.

“He was always courteous. He was a nice young man,” Fujimoto said.

Managers, of course, can screw things up, by sticking with too many players who are unproductive for too long in critical roles, by burning out their pitching staffs or by being completely and totally tactically inept.

But the players do know how to play and the coaches know things that fo the most part can help them be better at it.

It’s the players’ job to figure things out

Shinjo contradicted himself in his press conference. He first said all players would be equal at the start of camp and that nothing would be decided, and then afterward said he would enter camp already with his starters pretty much decided.

The first one is, surprisingly, what most managers say when the latter is closer to the truth. Managers have some idea of the talent they have and how it will likely shake out, but they all like good surprises. To this end, he told the players, “Over the offseason, build up your bodies, think about what you can be and need to do, and then be ready to win a job in camp.”

Focus on the here and now

Few of the things Shinjo said made as many waves as his assertion that he would never “aim to win the championship.” This contradicts the standard line for every manager, which makes sense because every manager when he begins the season has to think of how a championship might be possible with the players and coaches on hand.

You name it, whatever manager is speaking after winning his league or the Japan Series next year, with the exception of Shinjo, will say, “On the first day of camp we set a goal of winning the championship.”

Shinjo said that players don’t play well if the target is too high, and instead, he would prefer they relax, be in the moment, and win games without worrying about the big picture.

“Work hard, practice day in and day out heading into the season, and then play loose and win,” he said. “Then when you get to September and you’re in a pennant race, then go for it.”

I’ve got a secret

When Shinjo was joking or speaking tongue-in-cheek or kind of testing the waters, like with his idea of having him and his players descend to the Sapporo Dome surface from the ceiling as he once did as a player, he was laughing, smiling, winking or giggling. You could tell he was just there having fun.

But when he spoke of his hobby, “I enjoy thinking up tactics and translating them into action,” I couldn’t tell if he was serious in his belief that he is a tactical genius. He looked completely serious about being the innovator of a tactical revolution that will sweep Japan as teams learn to “score without getting hits.”

Shinjo knows his style of reckless-abandon baseball, all hustle, big swings, and throws, but if he ever in his life demonstrated that he understands the parts of the game that can help you if you know them and hold you back if you don’t, I haven’t seen it. Will he know if he’s going down a blind alley? Will his team tell him?

90 percent is mental, the other half physical

…as Yogi Berra once said about pitching, Shinjo is a big believer in mental growth, saying that a lot of managers and coaches in the past have held players back.

If there’s one single thing Shinjo can do that could be huge, it would be to throw open the gates and encourage players to develop their unique physical and mental skills in a way that might unlock their potential more than Japan’s customary paint-by-numbers approach to success, by emulating someone else’s successful style.

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