Tag Archives: Katsuya Nomura

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.

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The order of Japan

This is the second part of a look at the history of pitchers in Japanese pro baseball batting orders, how a need to achieve orthodoxy in the 1980s turned Japanese baseball into a cult of orthodoxy and how some managers, like Alex Ramirez have learned to survive despite going against the grain.

Part 1: Why ninth?

Japanese history

While having the pitcher bat eighth is looked as a fad or a failed experiment, it used to be extremely common in NPB.

In the Japan Series, there have been two distinct phases when it comes to pitchers batting higher than ninth. From 1950 to 1971, 17.3 percent of Japan Series starting pitchers batted eighth or higher. Since 1972, it’s been 2.2 percent, with the 2017 DeNA BayStars accounting for three of the eight pitchers who’ve batted higher in the last 48 years.

The operator of 2689web provided me with a data set of every starting pitcher who has ever batted higher than ninth in a regular season game.

The use in the regular season had two spikes.

When pro baseball had its first year of league play with split spring and fall seasons in 1937 and 1938, pitchers batted higher than ninth more than 55 percent of the time. The figures remained in that ballpark until 1941. They spiked after Japan’s war in China spilled over South East Asia and the Pacific. In the final wartime season, 1944, pitchers batted ninth in less than 19 percent of all games.

That wave declined, with pitchers batting ninth more often than not for the first time in 1949 –the year a smaller strike zone was introduced and offense exploded. That year, on-base percentages jumped by 30 points and runs scored increased by 1.3 runs per nine inning.

There was a kind of backlash to the big offense numbers that were further boosted by 1950’s big expansion. And though rules were not changed, small ball became the way to play, and offense levels sank to their lowest point since the war. In 1956, 91 percent of pitchers were batting ninth. By 1960 it was 98 percent. By 1965, it was 99.6 percent.

Then a weird thing happened.

In 1966, first one manager then another started doing it. The year before he won the first of his five PL pennants with the Hankyu Braves, Hall of Fame manager Yukio Nishimoto, began batting his pitchers eighth, once in April, once in May, three times in July and five times in August. In 1965, only six pitchers batted higher in that season’s 1,680 lineups. In September, Chunichi Dragons manager Michio Nishizawa started doing it, and he kept it up in 1967.

Nishizawa began his career as a pitcher, who batted eighth 54 times in his career, and who finished his Hall of Fame career as a slugging first baseman. The weird thing is that it wasn’t like different managers all doing it once. It was more like a conspiracy to preserve the old ways.

Nishimoto did it for a while and then stopped. Then Nishizawa picked up the torch in the CL in September, and started doing it again from the end of May 1967 until the end of July. Then Yomiuri Giants manager Tetsuharu Kawakami started up. As a player, Kawakami was a rival of Nishizawa’s, and like him a good-hitting pitcher who found his true calling at first base. Kawakami’s interest slackened a bit in September—when another Hall of Famer and a former teammate of Kawakami’s, Tigers manager Sadayoshi Fujimoto, picked it up. By the end of the 1967 season, everybody was doing it.

It wasn’t just the managers. There was at that time, a cadre of good hitting pitchers, like the Giants’ Tsuneo Horiuchi and Masaichi Kaneda, and sometimes their managers would drop them into the No. 8 hole.

Before Kawakami achieved legendary status as a manager, Hawks skipper Kazuto Tsuruoka and Kawakami’s Giants’ predecessors, Osamu Mihara and Shigeru Mizuhara were the three most influential managers in the 1950s and 1960s. Tsuruoka, perhaps the most innovative manager in Japanese history, abandoned the practice between June 1950 and August 1956, when he used it a lot down the stretch. Then at the end of September, 1967, he once more developed a taste for it with a select set of his pitchers.

In 1966, 98 percent of pitchers were still batting ninth, but in 1967 it was 93 percent, and by 1968, all of the most influential managers were doing it, with only 81 percent batting ninth. In 1969, orthodox lineups were down to 75 percent.

From 1970, however, the idea that pitchers could bat anywhere but ninth began disappearing from the scene, perhaps because offensive levels began to rise again from 1971 and perhaps because the wily old guys who had played when pitchers typically batted eighth, Kawakami, Tsuruoka, Mihara and Mizuhara were leaving – or in Kawakami’s case, forced out.

Why the batting order?

The funny thing is that batting the pitcher eighth or higher was a real part of Japanese pro baseball, but it died out as these managers’ disciples had no use for the eccentricities of their elders. At the same time, another aspect of Japan’s traditional game, the sacrifice bunt, took on a Frankenstein’s monster life of its own as a larger-than-normal misshapen misunderstood representation of the real thing.

Kawakami’s most influential managing disciples were Giants shortstop Tatsuro Hirooka and Giants catcher Masaaki Mori, who became Hirooka’s right-hand man, successor with the Seibu Lions, and eventually his arch-enemy. Those two took the sacrifice bunt, polished it and created a cottage industry around it with the Lions.

The campaign to romanticize the sacrifice based on the Lions’ success in the 1980s and 1990s, in some ways mirrored that of warriors’ code “bushido.” Although the ideas of proper warrior behavior existed in a feudal society, the actual written documents known as “Bushido” were a kind of Edo-era MAGA PR campaign, designed to get the idlers, wastrels and scoundrels born into warrior families to act like samurai in a society that had no need for warriors. It essentially told them to accept their poverty with dignity in the knowledge that they were better than others.

With Japan at peace, its warrior class had become – at best – petty bureaucrats and civil servants on fixed stipends paid in rice, the value of which fluctuated. Bushido described a warrior class that was far closer to historical fiction than reality and told those suffering in the current circumstances to just suck it up, straighten up and fly right.

And that’s what happened to the sacrifice bunt in the 1980s. Hirooka and Mori created historical fiction about how the sacrifice bunt was Japan’s secret to baseball success.

This campaign to sanctify the sacrifice bunt as a sacred right, was part of an ideological movement that had been building within the game and without that espoused uniformity and “quality control” and was popular with those pushing the idea of Japanese ethnic and cultural uniqueness.

The 1980s were a time when writers around the world were trying to explain Japan’s economic miracle. As a student of Japanese history at the University of California Santa Cruz, one course focused on modern Japanese history and interpretations of its growth and systems.

Many scholarly explanations focused on the acceptance of quality control philosophies and government intervention, and these analyses often tripped over themselves trying to explain why Japanese so easily bought into quality control programs in the work place – with some arguing Japanese culture simply placed a higher value on quality workmanship and efficiency.

Not quality control but failure control

The truth probably has less to do with how Japanese respect the importance of quality work and more about the way people improve their social and economic standing in Japan’s group-oriented society. People essentially advance their status when others above them make mistakes. Japanese may crow about some noble samurai spirit where quality is pursued with warrior-like intensity, but the truth is that Japanese quality is more often driven by a desire not to be singled out for failure.

I can’t speak about Japan before I arrived in 1984, but it often seems the easiest way to avoid failure is to keep your head down and follow the most orthodox path, because failure can be mitigated if done by the book.

In the 1980s, the automatic sacrifice bunt after the leadoff hitter reached base in the first inning became the only way to play. A name was attached to the set of orthodox tactics and techniques of which the bunt was one component: “Winning baseball.” Opting not to bunt in such situations was criticized. Using a slugger in the No. 2 hole was wrong.

This was an era when a baseball-loving nation that had long adored individual quirks and a diversity of batting and pitching styles changed. Informed by ideologs such as Hirooka and Mori, those seeking to avoid criticism began attacking diversity with a kind of missionary zeal. The Seibu Lions under Hirooka and later Mori, succeeded because they had solid pitching and defense and a tremendous power-hitting lineup, who could also beat you by playing small ball.

Yet, despite playing in an era of unprecedent offensive levels, the sacrifice bunt snake oil remedy Hirooka and Mori pedaled tirelessly became the only acceptable way to win.

Iconoclasts

Not every manager fell into line, however. Nippon Ham Fighters manager Keiji Osawa antagonized Mori in public, calling the PL-rival Lions boring and predictable. Mori’s answer: “Who cares if it’s boring? So what if winning is boring?”

But following blindly creates opportunities for those with vision. The era’s two best managers, who succeeded despite lacking the resources of the Lions or Giants, were Akira Ogi and Katsuya Nomura. Both were old school, disciples of Mihara, and Tsuruoka, respectively, who exploited the period’s mindless march toward homogeneity by going against the grain.

Ogi gave free reign to players with unorthodox styles, most notably Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki. Nomura, in addition to his uncanny eye for talent and his belief in analytics, excelled in developing pitchers, polished Japan’s greatest catcher of that era, Atsuya Furuta, and filled out his team with rejects and castoffs, often guys whose primary skill was drawing walks.

Most managers, however, flout orthodoxy at their peril.

In the 1986, Taiyo Whales manager Sadao Kondo batted his pitchers eighth 25 times and was fired. In 1988, Sadaharu Oh did it 15 times and he was fired, although in his case it had to more to do with not winning the pennant for the fourth time in five years.

Batting pitchers anywhere but ninth does not help job security.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Alex Ramirez’s batting his pitcher eighth 108 times 2017 was why some speculated he wouldn’t be re-hired despite pushing the SoftBank Hawks to the very brink in the Japan Series. The following year, 2018, he batted his pitcher eighth in every game, something that might have been without precedent. In the summer of 2019, after not batting his pitcher anywhere but ninth for the first three months of the season, Ramirez said his pitching coach didn’t want his pitchers batting eighth.

How to be different

That’s when he laid out the No. 1 condition for batting the pitcher eighth: “He has to be a good bunter.” But I believe his thinking is deeper than he lets on. He is well versed on how to thrive in the Japanese baseball world in a way few imported players have been, and sometimes his explanations smack of being pre-packaged for media consumption like McDonalds Happy Meals. He knows when he needs to step back and conform and what to say when he believes doing it his way is best.

It’s actually OK to be unorthodox in Japan, provided one shows Ramirez’s kind of political savvy.

My favorite similar story is of Daiei Hawks manager Rikuo Nemoto. In 1994, he batted slugger Kazunori Yamamoto second and sacrificed only 39 times. Nemoto excused his shameful behavior by saying he had no one who could fill that crucial spot so often given to slap-hitting offensive zeros. Because of that, the skipper said he just had to just bite the bullet and use a guy who got on base and hit for power.

Nomura, the best manager in Swallows history, eventually wore out his welcome with Yakult. It probably didn’t help that he was thoroughly unapologetic about being an iconoclast or the smartest person in the room. The same thing happened to Yokohama BayStars manager Hiroshi Gondo–still the most successful manager in that franchise’s history. Gondo was fired because people couldn’t endure his frank assessments about how much of Japan’s conventional baseball orthodoxy was nonsense.

People love to criticize Ramirez because he’s different. As a player, he was able to maximize his physical skills because he studied how teams and individual opponents would compete against him. He learned the context of the game as well as any import in history. And that’s how he manages, by using his understanding of context to do things his way while at the same time saying the necessary things to preserve the social order.

Catching and quality control in Japan

This is the first in a short series about catchers in Japanese pro baseball and how teams see them. This installment concludes with a list of five catchers with the longest careers in Japan despite being terrible professional hitters — compared to other catchers.

Although I was bashing people this week on Twitter about making broad generalizations about Japanese baseball after someone said major league players would hit a billion home runs if they played their games in Japan because the parks here are so small. But sometimes forming a hypothesis starts with a general statement.

Today’s question, posed by Australian Scott Musgrave, who used to blog about the Nagoya-based Chunichi Dragons, was do Japanese teams favor offense or defense when selecting a catcher?

My gut response was the latter, having seen a number of promising hitting prospects’ careers stall because they were not up to the high minimum standards expected of catchers in Japan.

Tune into the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast HERE.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized the answer was not nearly so easy. After spending way too much time looking at the careers of Japan’s professional catchers since the end of World War II, I will say, the first preference is for defense but that teams generally settle on the best option available, and sometimes beggars can’t be choosers.

I believe the preference for defense comes from social pressure within Japan to eliminate mistakes. More Japanese baseball men than I can remember have told me that Japanese baseball is not about winning, but about avoiding defeat, and a belief that a lack of mistakes is the hallmark of excellence.

In the 1980s, the era of “Japan as No. 1” one popular narrative driven by Japan’s propagandists and allies was that Japan was obsessed with quality, to the point that some argued it was virtually part of their physical DNA, if not part of their cultural genetic makeup. Japan succeeded because it cared. There is some kernel of truth to that, in as much as Japan’s artisan heritage still runs fairly strong and honest-to-goodness craftsmen are not hard to find, but a cultural obsession with quality? Give me a break.

After about 10 years here, the truth finally hit me: What was being passed off as some kind of shared Japanese altruistic belief in the sacred value quality was actually the byproduct of a national obsession with not being caught making mistakes. I’ve written about this here and there over the years, but the general point is this: People advance in Japanese society by leapfrogging colleagues whose mistakes have been revealed.

Twentyfive years ago, when I worked as an English teacher at Pepsicola Japan, one of my students was overjoyed to find a tiny barely noticeable printing flaw in packaging material for our new bottled water brand. That mistake, he said, would be worth tens of thousands of dollars in discounts from the supplier. Quality control in Japan is more about mistake control and mistake spotting.

When I had my first Jim Allen’s Guide to Japanese Baseball published in 1994, the endpaper was in the wrong location. When I told the woman handling my order, she took nearly $500 off the price of the printing run out of her commission.

The engine that runs Japan is fueled by a desire to avoid errors while gaining an advantage by ruthlessly exploiting those of others, including those of one’s coworkers.

TV broadcasts here often follow an error in the field by zooming in on the head coach in the dugout writing in his little notebook. The head coach is every team’s drill instructor and those camera shots remind viewers that pros cannot get away with mistakes.

Japanese children, I’ve learned recently, are often trained to hit the ball on the ground especially to the left side of the infield because their opponents, other young children, are poor at fielding and likely to make errors.

I don’t know, but I believe that this is the reason that so few second basemen, catchers and shortstops develop into Hall of Fame-caliber players. It’s not that their defense is being undervalued – as I once believed. SoftBank Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya has developed into a solid offensive player but said he put his offensive work on the back burner when he was trying to earn a job because any failure to execute defensively could disqualify him.

I now believe the lack of solid hitters up the middle of the diamond is largely due to teams’ unwillingness to accept big hitters who are below-average fielders because going against the grain here looks like a mistake and invites criticism.

A below-average defensive shortstop who is small, fast and a left-handed hitter whose only offensive strength is bunting will get playing time. Take the same defensive skills and pair them with a right-handed hitter with some pop who draws walks but can’t bunt, and you’ve got a guy who will spend more time in the minors because while he may be a more valuable player, he does not look the part.

Other than pitchers, another species altogether, catchers are the best positioned to lose a game by making mistakes. Not only do they have so many responsibilities, but they also need to be in sync with their pitchers.

The late Katsuya Nomura said once as a young catcher, a coach smacked him on the head after a power hitter homered off a curveball, “Don’t you know not to call for a curve against a power hitter?” When another hitter took a fastball deep, the same coach reprimanded him for calling a fastball to a power hitter. Nomura said that even though he was a teenager, he realized the coach didn’t know what he was talking about.

Nate Minchey, now a Yomiuri Giants scout, said about a pitch that ended up in the outfield seats when he was pitching for the Lotte Marines, “The coach got on the catcher, but it’s not like he threw that hanging curveball.”

Itaru Kobayashi, the former Hawks GM, said, “It’s hard for a catcher to make it to the first team if the pitchers don’t feel comfortable working with him.”

Former Dodgers GM Dan Evans once said that any regular catcher in NPB would be above average defensively in the majors, ostensibly because the standards are so high here. Although that’s also a generalization that would come with exceptions, it’s a product of an overly restrictive selection process that eliminates some worthy candidates in the minors and creates a talent shortage in the top flight.

In the second world war, the Imperial Navy’s naval aviation doctrine washed out all but a tiny percentage of flying candidates. While that allowed for a qualitative advantage early in the war, it soon led to severe talent shortages.

While there’s no problem with moving a quality hitter who is a weak defensive catcher to an easier defensive position, especially if he can run, some slow guys who can really hit get cast as catchers who can’t play defense in the minors and never advance or succeed only because, for once in their careers, fortune turns their way.

Sometimes, because teams believe there are no better alternatives, they stick with inferior catchers whose principal strength is their team’s unwillingness to use an untried alternative.

On this week’s Japan Baseball Weekly Podcast I blurted out that while it’s easy for good-field, no-hit catchers to get some playing time they don’t have long careers. But some have, and below we’ll get into the first list of guys who had good careers despite being really, really bad at producing runs.

Good field no hit

Using Bill James’ Win Shares to calculate win shares per 27 batting outs, I found five catchers since the end of the war who played more than one season as the No. 1 catcher after having two seasons in which they made 0.1 Win Share or less per 27 batting outs as a regular. The numeral in brackets is the number of full-time catching seasons after their second “offensive zero” season as a regular.

  1. Ginjiro Sumitani (7). After 13 seasons for the Seibu Lions and spending 2019 with the Yomiuri Giants, Sumitani, currently owns the best career in Japanese history for a catcher with virtually no offensive value. Sumitani demonstrated he could catch at the pro level straight out of high school and by hitting two home runs in a single game as a rookie – in tiny Kitakyushu Stadium – held out promise Sumitani might someday turn into a hitter. An above-average defensive catcher for most of his career, through his first 11 seasons he’d amassed a total of 0.3 win shares on the offensive side. Ironically, his offensive production has improved since turning 29, while his defense appears to have slipped. He’s won two Golden Gloves.
  2. Takeo Yoshizawa (6). Chunichi’s No. 1 from 1958 to 1961, when his run-ins with first-year manager Wataru Nonin saw him traded to the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the next season. In 1959, Yoshizawa set a CL record by failing to record a hit in 47 straight at-bats, since tied by Chunichi second baseman Masahiro Araki in 2016. He was the No. 1 catcher for the Buffaloes for four seasons, during which time the club finished last three times and fourth once. Yoshizawa died of a stroke at the age of 38.
  3. Akihiko Oya (4). Yakult’s main catcher from his rookie year in 1970 until 1980, Oya won six Golden Gloves and two Best Nine Awards. He had below-average defensive metrics as a youngster but could hit a little. Those two quickly switched, and defense became his strength from his fourth year as a pro.
  4. Masahiko Mori (7). The Yomiuri Giants’ No. 1 catcher from 1959 to 1972 is in the Hall of Fame with the help of his managing career, although he did win eight Best Nine Awards. Japan’s Golden Glove Awards were first handed out in 1972, when Mori was 35, and he didn’t win one. He was not a total disaster as a hitter, but like most catchers of his era, wildly inconsistent, mostly — I’m guessing here — due to frequent injuries that were not severe enough to keep him out of the lineup. He played seven full seasons after his second season as an offensive zero and had five sub-standard batting years in his long career.
  5. Kazuhiro Yamakura (5). The Giants’ No. 1 from 1980 to 1987, Yamakura was the CL’s MVP in 1987, when he had a career year at the plate at the age of 31 – his final year as a regular. Yamakura won three Golden Gloves and three Best Nines. About league average defensively according to Win Shares, Yamakura had a good year at the plate in his first year as a regular and then did little until his MVP season.

Having looked at Mori’s career, I’m pretty certain he doesn’t belong there, and I would love to talk to him about it. I’ve ripped into his published opinions – primarily in his role as Japan’s greatest living apologist for the sacrifice bunt — quite a lot, but the one time we spoke briefly I found him to be a charming gentleman.

Next: The other guys.

An tribute to Katsuya Nomura from Joe Stanka’s grandson

The following letter was distributed to media in Japan from Josh Stanka, whose grandfather Joe won 100 games in Nippon Professional Baseball, an MVP award and a Japan Series MVP award in 1964. His longtime Nankai Hawks batterymate, Hall of Fame player and manager Katsuya Nomura, died at the age of 84 on Tuesday.

Forevermore the term “catcher” will be synonymous with the name Katsuya Nomura. Over the coming days and weeks much will be written about his prodigious stats (his 1965 Triple Crown comes to mind), his unmatched longevity and his encyclopedic knowledge of the game that he loved, lived and breathed.

But to those fortunate enough to be his teammates, his players, his friends and most importantly his family; attempting to use mere numbers to describe Nomura-san would be like trying to describe Mount Fuji simply by its height and dimensions. Because the true greatness of Nomura-san lay not just in his ability to smash home runs or manage multiple teams to championships or tutor numerous generations of pitchers and catchers in the art of yakyu.

The true greatness of Katsuya Nomura was something intangible. A work ethic and a passion for the game that few possess and that cannot be taught. A living testament to the truism that no matter how humble a persons beginnings may be, with enough desire and hard work and moxie there are no limits to how high a person may rise. In many ways his story is a microcosm of the attributes of the Japanese people themselves in the post-war years who exhibited the same irrepressible drive to succeed and rebuild a whole new society that became the economic marvel of the twentieth century.

When our family arrived in Japan for the first time in 1960 Nomura-san welcomed us warmly. 

When our family was struck by tragedy in 1965 in our family’s darkest hours Nomura-san was a kind and supportive friend. 

And in the interim he and my grandfather played games of pitch and catch in legendary stadiums just as they had played games of pitch and catch with their schoolmates when they were boys growing up 7,000 miles apart in Mineyama, Japan, and Hammon, Oklahoma.

With apologies to Hanshin Tigers fans they played a couple of truly memorable games of catch in Koshien Stadium in 1964 the likes of which may never be equaled.

Nomura-san once said of my grandfather that he was an American with the soul of a Japanese. 

My grandfather once said of Nomura-san that he never met anybody so determined to win.

Perhaps the one constant Japan and America have shared through all the years has been baseball.

Baseball has marked the time.  It has been a constant reminder of a love that our countries share.

Because when my grandfather would take the mound to throw to Katsuya Nomura, they ceased to be American or Japanese. They became partners, willing to do whatever it took to achieve victory.

So as the Stanka family with heavy hearts mourn the loss of our dear friend Katsuya Nomura we offer our condolences to the entire nation of Japan but most especially the Nomura family with whom we will always share a deep and meaningful bond.

And disregarding momentarily his trophies and records and accolades, our family offers in tribute to Nomura-san perhaps the highest compliment that can be given in this game we all love and share.

Katsuya Nomura was a baseball player.

Sayonara Nomu-san

Katsuya Nomura, one of the greatest baseball players in history, a player worth comparing to Josh Gibson, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella, died suddenly at the age of 84 of ischemic heart on Tuesday in Japan.

An elite slugging catcher, Nomura played in an era when Japan’s talent depth was quite a bit lower than it is today. And like some of his peers, Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh and Isao Harimoto, Nomura was able to stand above the crowd like a colossus and added to his legend by becoming a superb manager and a celebrity analyst.

In a 27-year career, Nomura won nine home run titles, led the Pacific League in runs three times and RBIs seven times. He was a Triple Crown winner and a five-time MVP.

A driven, gifted athlete, Nomura was also blessed with a keen mind that he constantly exercised in his bid to stay one step ahead of his opponents — a talent that helped him become the most successful manager of his generation. The peak of his managing success came with the Yakult Swallows from 1990 to 1998. Taking over a team that had been perennial weaklings, Nomura won four Central League pennants and three Japan Series championships.

On Tuesday, the impact Nomura had on his players and rivals echoed around Japan as word of his death spread. Players recalled how he motivated them with his harsh words and how he educated them and trained them to win.

Nomura turned pro in 1954 with the Osaka-based Nankai Hawks, then in the middle of a dynasty under the leadership of Hall of Fame manager Kazuto Tsuruoka.

From 1970 to 1977, Nomura served as the Hawks’ player-manager, although it was largely a collaboration between him and influential coach Don Blasingame. After winning the 1973 pennant, Nomura became the first Hawks manager to fail to win a pennant in four consecutive seasons since Tsuruoka had Hawks to their first pennant in 1946. But turmoil within the club, that Nomura blamed on a faction aligned with Tsuruoka, and Nomura’s enemies blamed on the skipper’s future wife Sachiyo — the mother of their five-year-old son — came to a head and Nomura was fired after the 1977 season.

Nomura moved to the Lotte Orions in 1978 before finishing his playing career with the Seibu Lions, which in 1979 were transplanted from Fukuoka to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, on the western outskirts of Tokyo.

Although Nomura would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer, the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame required candidates to be out of uniform for five years before they could go on the ballot. Since many stars became managers and coaches, this created a huge logjam of worthy candidates and Nomura was not elected until 1989. The following year he took over as manager of the Swallows and turned them into a minor dynasty.

Just as he had been the leader with Nankai, the Swallows were built around their catcher, bespectacled big-hitting defensive wiz Atsuya Furuta, the second player Nomura took in the 1989 draft and a future Hall of Famer.

In his stints as Hawks and Swallows manager, Nomura showed a talent for working with young pitchers, getting big performances out of them and then overworking them.

He was also an incredible evaluator of talent, and a motivator. Former outfielder Atsunori Inaba, who someday should be voted into the Hall of Fame, credited Nomura with turning his career around by telling him his outfield defense was useless. Inaba responded by turning himself into a superior right fielder.

He is best known, however, for his fascination with analytics and advance scouting in formulating game plans against opponents, something he had begun as a player studying films of opposing pitchers to discover how they were tipping their pitches. The Swallows famously shut down PL MVP Ichiro Suzuki in the 1995 Japan Series.

Nomura was ahead of his time in building a club made of guys with high on-base percentage, often collecting aging castoffs like Eiji Kanamori, a slap-hitting on-base machine, thus earning the Swallows the nickname of “Nomura’s recycling factory.”

As a manager, Nomura displayed amazing verbal acuity. He loved to make up little phrases, quips and songs about players and rivals. And while he was a master storyteller, he often couldn’t resist the urge to rip into others in public. His constant jabs against the Swallows’ top rivals, the Yomiuri Giants, and their manager, Nagashima, became tiresome for the club’s executives and they cut him loose after the 1998 season — although by all accounts he was as tired of them as they were of him.

He went off to manage the Hanshin Tigers, where he figuratively put his foot down on the team’s prima donna, celebrity outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Nomura left him on the farm team at the start of the season and said he might use him to pitch, but had no use for him otherwise. As it had with Inaba, Nomura lit a fire under the Tigers poster boy, who followed by turning in three of his best seasons.

Although the Tigers finished last for three straight seasons under Nomura, the talent he nurtured there provided the foundation for the club’s 2003 and 2005 Central League championships. Nomura’s run, however, was cut short after his wife, Sachiyo, was arrested on suspicion of tax evasion in December 2001.

After a successful run as manager of corporate league side Shidax, Nomura was asked to rescue the Rakuten Eagles, who fired the club’s inaugural skipper, Yasushi Tao, after the club’s 2005 disastrous debut campaign. Nomura again was able to make big strides in the development of a young pitcher. This time, however, it was in the form of powerfully built youngster Masahiro Tanaka, who blossomed under Nomura’s tutelage.

The Eagles reached the playoffs for the first time in 2009, but that proved to be Nomura’s swan song. Once more, turmoil within the front office left people pointing fingers and Nomura was out.

My only real interactions with Nomura were during that time with Rakuten, because he was supremely approachable. While most field managers who meet the media before the game do so in sessions lasting five to 15 minutes before wandering onto the field, Nomura came out early, sat on the bench, where his cushion and bottle of green tea would be waiting for him.

For the entire Eagles practice, he would chat with reporters, covering the usual team news, but also telling stories. It seemed like the responsibility of the beat writers to keep him engaged so he would continue to tell his tales. It was magical stuff we may never see the likes of again.

Once more, however, some of the groundwork he laid in Sendai contributed to a later pennant. After a failed 2010 season under Marty Brown, the Eagles hired Senichi Hoshino as their fourth manager. Hoshino, who had succeeded Nomura with Hanshin and won the 2003 CL pennant, steered the Eagles in 2013 to their first Japan Series championship.

In between managing gigs, Nomura was at his critical best as a sharp-tongued TV analyst, harshly laying into managers and players who failed to meet his high standards on the field. It wasn’t simple bitterness, but rather a powerful mix of his love for the game, a dislike for half-measures and his talent with words.

In 2012, one of his former Swallows players, Hideki Kuriyama, took over as manager of the Nippon Ham Fighters and led them to the Japan Series title in his first season. Asked about the form journeyman outfielder turned analyst and university lecturer, Nomura said, “The Pacific League has certainly gotten pretty weak if that guy can win a pennant.”

As teams lowered their flags to half-mast on Tuesday at their spring camps and held moments of silence in Nomura’s memory, Kuriyama said, “I never heard a single word of praise from him. I’ve been giving it all I’ve got up to now so that I might once hear him say, ‘You’ve done a good job, I see.’ I so much wanted him to see me take that next step forward.”

Cheating, Japanese style

Now that two MLB managers and one GM have lost their jobs over a sign-stealing scheme, I thought I’d relay this conversation I had with former Chunichi Dragons cleanup hitter Kenichi Yazawa.

A few winters ago, he brought up the topic of the late Morimichi Takagi, who died suddenly on Friday. The taciturn Hall of Fame second baseman had a knack to spot opponents tipping their pitches. From there, the conversation moved to sign stealing, and the elaborate ways Japanese teams went to transmit that information to the guy in the batter’s box.

“Takagi loved finding out how guys tipped their pitches. He’d spot something like where the pitcher’s palm was. He’d tell me what to look for. But when I was at the plate, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t see it,” Yazawa said.

“When he was on the bench, he’d never say anything. He spent every instant concentrating on the pitcher. You could do that with (Yomiuri Giants star Suguru) Egawa. He’d hold the glove in front of his face in his windup, and you could tell by the size of the gap between the top of his glove and the bill of his cap whether it would be a fastball or not.”

“But for me, even if I could figure it out, I didn’t want to know because the whole process messed up my timing if I was thinking about that.”

“A former Taiyo Whales catcher, (Hisaaki) Fukushima. In the late innings once, when the score would be 6-0 or 7-0, he’d say, ‘Yazawa, what kind of pitch do you want next?’ I’d think, what would be good, so I’d say, ‘OK. How about a curve?’ I asked him if I’d really get one, and he said it would be a curve. And it was. So he’d ask if I wanted another one, and it here it came.”

“I liked to think along with the pitcher, try to guess based on the kind of pitcher he was. This type we’ll probably throw this, while another type of pitcher would throw that.”

“At old Nagoya Stadium, the Dragons used to station a scout inside the scoreboard. They weren’t like the electronic ones now. They had numbers and letters on boards. If we were playing the Giants, there would be a “G” and below it a “D.” If a curve or a breaking ball was coming, the scout would wiggle the “D,” so you’re there looking at, it’s in your line of sight to the pitcher. If it didn’t move, it meant the next pitch was a fastball.”

“That stuff all started with (Hall of Fame catcher Katsuya) Nomura with the Nankai Hawks. Blazer, Don Blasingame, was involved in that. He was really good at it. Another of the coaches they had at Nankai was Takeshi Koba.”

“Koba liked to do that when he was the manager in Hiroshima. At old Hiroshima Shimin, they had a member of the team staff in the scoreboard and there was a light in the scoreboard that would flash once for fastball and twice for a curve. Actually, I was the one who discovered that. After that they quit. Later they used a radio signal to trigger a buzzer that Koji Yamamoto and Sachio Kinugasa and players like that would have concealed in their sliding pants.”

Dr. Gail Hopkins, who played two years for the Carp when Koba was their manager and finished his Japan career with the Hawks under Nomura and “Blazer” — as Blasingame was known — has confirmed Yazawa’s account.