Tag Archives: Sadaharu Oh

Oh praises Aaron

Japan’s home run king, Softbank Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh, on Saturday paid tribute to his longtime friend Hank Aaron following the Hall of Fame slugger’s death in the United States at the age of 86.

Oh, who holds Japan’s home run record of 868, and Aaron, who long held Major League Baseball’s career home run record with 755, built a long friendship that helped drive the founding of the World Children’s Baseball Foundation and its annual baseball week in Japan.

The two competed in a home run derby at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium on Nov. 2, 1974, and three years later, on Sept. 3, 1977, Oh surpassed Aaron’s career total with his 756th home run in Nippon Professional Baseball.

Oh’s remarks were released in a Japanese language statement released by the club:

“He set the world record of 755 at that time and compiled an amazing number of home runs hits, and RBIs. He had a long career and was a tremendous gentleman and the epitome of a major league baseball player.

“Then we started to promote the sport of baseball through the WBCF, he in America and me in Japan. While he was still able to get around, he would come every year and contribute to children getting into baseball. In recent years, he often wasn’t able to come, but he always kept us in his heart. I believe he had a spectacular life in baseball.”

“I thank you for so many things and pray for your soul.”

Sadaharu Oh

Oh and Aaron in 1991 at the second WBCF baseball week in Japan.

Read the Kyodo News English story.

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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.

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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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Sugano’s decision

Yomiuri Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano will be back in Japan for 2021, and though he probably is not the best pitcher in Japan right now as some in the U.S. media have labeled him in the crush for hyperbola, he’s not far from the best.

I speculated on some of the reasons why a Japanese star should not just leap into a major league deal, and Sugano himself cited the direction MLB is going during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Sunday, Japan got a bit of perspective.

“It wasn’t something I could be 100 percent satisfied,” Sugano told Japan’s media.

His agent, Joel Wolfe, had a media availability, a portion of which was aired on TV in Japan and that clip was then shared on Twitter.

  • Wolfe: “It was very tough.”
  • How many teams made a clear offer?
  • Wolfe: “Six. He had several four-year offers, three-year offers and two-year offers.. Our expectation and his expectation what a fair contract was a bit different. And I ended up having to call that general manager with two minutes to go. “
  • Wolfe: “He was able to draw on his relationships with (Yu) Darvish and (Kenta) Maeda. They all offered so much assistance and advice. I don’t think he will ever regret…”
  • Wolfe: “I think the major league teams are really going to regret…”

Although Wolfe implied money kept the two sides apart, it could well be that the money offered was not enough to outweigh Sugano’s concerns about playing in the States now.

Waseda University manager Satoru Komiyama, for years the workhorse of the Lotte Marines rotation, and briefly a New York Met, threw in his two cents. In a Facebook comment, he said considerations of money shouldn’t matter if one really desires to work from a major league mound. He suggested that agents, not players, were the ones who made a big deal about contract value.

Here’s a Kyodo News‘ 2019 interview with Komiyama

When veteran Japanese stars take pay cuts to play in the majors, or who turn their back on minor-league deals to return to lucrative contracts with their old teams in Japan, there are questions.

I have questioned the quick U-turns of Takashi Toritani, Nobuhiro Matsuda and Ryosuke Kikuchi. Each espoused a great desire to play abroad, but at the same time prioritized a happy exit from their Japanese clubs. None of them would negotiate past a certain date, they said, because that would leave their clubs back home in a bind about whether or not they would be available for the upcoming season.

To be sure, Matsuda’s case was unusual. A Japanese attorney negotiating his next contract with the Hawks complicated his American agent’s negotiations by talking directly to the San Diego Padres’ people on the ground in Fukuoka.

Every deal, however, is unique in its way because every player has different concerns for his career, for his life off the field and for his family. It’s probably never JUST about money.

Sugano really wanted to play in the majors. Either that or he’s been really good at making people think that for years.

On Sunday, SoftBank Hawks chairman Sadaharu Oh, who would have given some part of his anatomy for a chance to play in the majors when he was young, told TBS network’s Sunday Morning, “He absolutely wanted to go.”

“I believe he wanted to see how well his pitching skill would play in America.”

Sugano has reportedly received a four-year offer from Yomiuri with annual opt-outs allowing him to go a year from now if he likes, although he could also sign a one-year deal and file for international free agency if he can compile the necessary service time.

“Is next year the best chance for him given his age? I think so,” Oh said. “But I think he really wanted to do it now.”

Dennis Sarfate in Japan

Dennis Sarfate did more than just blossom as a baseball player in Japan, he turned his life around.

On Saturday, the SoftBank Hawks right-hander announced on his Facebook page that he is headed for a career-ending hip-replacement surgery. He achieved great things in Japan, won awards, set records and earned the respect of Japanese people in the game–which is no easy accomplishment.

But he is more than that.

Sarfate once said how after making it to the majors, he had everything he’d wanted., but despite a beautiful loving wife and a dream job, he was extremely unhappy and admitted he went through a time when he didn’t want to live.

Coming to Japan, he said, coincided with his finding his Christian faith, and this changed him. He learned as I assume most people do at some point, that life isn’t about you, but what you can do for others, what you can build with others.

When Sarfate arrived, he thought he was at the end. It turned out to be another beginning.

Like a lot of hard-throwing imported pitchers, his team expected him to blow fastballs past hitters. But Japanese baseball is more about execution than sheer physical strength, and Sarfate took that side to heart, and like a lot of others who have come here and had success, he embraced the opportunity to learn and grow.

He rediscovered his curveball, mastered throwing it for strikes, learned to command a splitter.

Sarfate will talk about how others have changed him, his wife, his father-in-law, a pastor who influenced his spirituality, his teammates. One of those was catcher Toru Hosokawa, another former Seibu Lion, whom he worked with during his first three seasons in Fukuoka with the Hawks.

Hosokawa was always challenging him, making him be the best version of the pitcher he could be. Sarfate doesn’t say it, but his teammates tend to say the same about him. In Japan where complex is often misconstrued to be a synonym for quality, Sarfate helped other Hawks pitchers identify those things they needed to simplify their thought process on the mound.

He spent his first two seasons in Hiroshima pitching for the Carp, and I rarely had a chance to speak with him until 2013, when he pitched for the Seibu Lions, who play west of Tokyo, just across the border in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.

I found him to be straight forward and someone who will go out of his way to help others. He has always been happy to share his insight into Japan’s game and how he fit into it, and where he didn’t:”They don’t let me attend meetings.”

My favorite memory of Sarfate came on a scorching afternoon in Chiba, before a day game. I saw him and asked for yet another interview for the Japan Weekly Baseball Podcast, where he probably should be listed on the credits as a guest star considering the number of times he consented to be interviewed by John E. Gibson and myself.

He said he’d do it after he finished practicing, I had to do triple duty that morning, file a story on Masahiro Tanaka’s start for the New York Yankees, cover the Marines-Hawks game and grab an interview for our podcast that weekend.

I tried to finish my Tanaka story while watching the field to see when Sarfate was finished practicing so I could catch him. But as I concentrated more on the story, I focused less on the field. When I realized I had blown it, I went out to look for Sarfate against hope I might still catch him.

Just as I came out, I saw him disappear into the visiting locker room at what is now known as Zozo Marine Stadium. Then to my surprise, he came out, explaining he needed more water. He’d been getting dehydrated waiting in the sun for me to come out and start the interview. It was a small thing, but it told me a lot.

In 2017, Sarfate set Japan’s single-season save record, was named the Pacific League and Japan Series MVP and was awarded the Matsutaro Shoriki Award, an honor intended for the person who contributes the most to Japanese pro baseball.

The Shoriki Award is voted not by writers like most of Japan’s awards, but by a small panel commissioned by the award’s sponsor, the Yomiuri Shimbun. Non-Japanese had won it–the award was first created to honor Sadaharu Oh, a citizen of Taiwan, for hitting more home runs in Japan than Hank Aaron did in the majors.

Although Oh’s father was from China, he was born in Japan, and was always considered a domestic player. No imported player had ever won the Shoriki Award. In fact, in 2001, when Tuffy Rhodes tied Oh’s single-season home run record of 55, he would have been a perfect choice to win the award. He had the kind of season that went with that award.

Rhodes won the PL pennant with the Kintetsu Buffaloes and had learned to speak Japanese, and honored the game with his work ethic. He could be fiery, but he respected Japan’s game. But instead of Rhodes, the Shoriki voters opted not to select an imported player. Perhaps it was because Rhodes is black. I don’t know. But for the next 15 years, an award that had often gone to players, became the automatic award given to the Japan Series champion’s manager.

There were exceptions. In 2003, both Japan Series skippers earned a joint award. In 2006, Nippon Ham Fighters manager Trey Hillman was passed over in favor of Japan’s WBC skipper Sadaharu Oh. In 2012, Yomiuri Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe was named in tandem with his manager, Tatsunori Hara.

But basically, it was for managers, until Sarfate. He set a record, he won a pennant, he was the league’s MVP, and then in Game 6 of the Japan Series against the DeNA BayStars, he came out in relief in a losing effort.

After 66 regular-season games and 54 saves, another three games and two saves in the playoffs, and two games and two saves in the series, Sarfate came out again.

With the Hawks trailing by a run, Sarfate worked a scoreless ninth. He worked two more innings until SoftBank won on a walk-off in the 11th to clinch the championship. With the exception of a lack of bloodshed, it was a samurai drama come to life, where the hero, spent and exhausted, summons every drop of strength to survive and conquer.

Maybe that was what it took. Because when the Shoriki Award committee, chaired now by Oh, the SoftBank Hawks chairman, they broke with precedent.

I would like to say it is because times have changed, and I suppose they have. Few players have had heroic finishes like Sarfate’s but I also have to think that the respect he earned from his teammates and those in Japan’s game was also a key.

Horiuchi, Giants’ worst manager ever, has a cow

Tsuneo Horiuchi, the worst manager in the history of Japan’s oldest existing pro baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, blew his top Thursday night when the team sent their top pinch-runner, Daiki Masuda to the mound to get two outs in an 11-0 blowout loss to the Hanshin Tigers.

Horiuchi, the 72-year-old former ace, managed the Giants in 2004 and 2005. His .480 winning percentage over 284 games makes him the only skipper on the club’s long history with a sub .500 record.

The current skipper, Tatsunori Hara, has won eight pennants in 13 seasons, tied for second in team history and next year will have more managing wins than any other Giants manager.

On his official blog, Horiuchi wrote a post called “You must not do this.”

“Daiki Masuda took the mound. This must not be done. The Giants are not that kind of team.”

“This team is leading the league. It is not permissible for a strong team to do this. I wonder what the opposing team must think. They must think we are taking them lightly.”

“When Masuda took the mound, I turned my TV off. I couldn’t stand to watch any more.”

–former Giants ace and manager Tsuneo Horiuchi in his official blog

Horiuchi is a wonderful personable guy, but old farts disease can strike anyone.

Emergency pitchers to save the bullpen are never needed in Japan, because games only go 12 innings, this year 10 because of the coronavirus, and teams have 29 active players to choose their 25 game-day players (this year 31 and 26). Because of that, teams have between three to five starting pitchers who are active, but not taking up space on the game-day roster.

Take that, and a day off every week and the ability to call up minor leaguers an unlimited number of times with no chance of them running out of options, and voila, no emergency pitchers.

Unlike most weeks, the Giants don’t have Monday off, and were using Thursday as a bullpen day, so they were pretty stretched out and in a game with virtually no chance of winning. Masuda, a former high school pitcher, walked one batter and recorded two outs against the heart of the Hanshin Tigers lineup at the end of a game the Giants had virtually no chance of winning.

It was a creative adaptation to circumstances by a manager who has revolutionized an organization by organizing his team along the lines of a meritocracy–as it had once been in the days under legendary skipper Tetsuharu Kawakami.

Horiuchi turned pro out of high school under Kawakami and earned a reputation as a great, great player, but also a kind of selfish brat.

In a famous incident, described by Sadaharu Oh in his autobiography “A Zen Way of Baseball,” Horiuchi was talking loudly on the phone at an inn while his teammates were trying to sleep. Horiuchi was so annoying that even Oh, the Giants’ calm, stoic superstar slugger, had enough and punched him out.

The Yomiuri’s ownership pushed Kawakami out in 1974 to make way for Shigeo Nagashima, who was Japan’s most popular player ever but utterly unprepared to manage. That move signaled an organizational change that put popularity on an even footing with quality.

As a player Hara was a popular star who was hyped as the next Nagashima. Hara was a very good player who was hyped excessively. Hara considered Nagashima a mentor, but as a manager, but other than an occasional attempt to explain something through a catchy but nonsensical phrase, Hara was little like Nagashima as a manger.

Hara broke with tradition and benched stars so that unheralded fringe players could contribute. This was big because for nearly 10 years the Giants had sucked up most of Japan’s free-agent talent, and signing old big-name guys had made them SLOW and a poor defensive team. Hara cultivated youngsters who produced on the farm whether anyone had heard of them or not.

When Horiuchi replaced Hara for two seasons from 2004 because Hara quit over then-Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe’s bizarre Steinbrenner-like behavior, the team turned into a rudderless mob. It was ugly. Horiuchi attacked his players and got into a pissing match with popular but unmotivated slugger Kazuhiro Kiyohara, resulting in the manager being booed by the fans at Tokyo Dome.

It was ugly.

If the Onion were writing this story, the headline would read, “Lousy manager angry former team looks this bad without him in charge.”