Tag Archives: Sadaharu Oh

Giant tricks, old and new

After their second straight Japan Series 4-0 sweep at the hands of the SoftBank Hawks, no one was surprised when the Yomiuri Giants’ public response to their failure was to claim the rules put them at a disadvantage. Even though it’s an old story for the Giants, this new one comes with a hidden twist and the possibility of the organization actually doing some good.

The irony of Yomiuri blaming a system that it has managed and contorted to suit the best interests of its team alone at the expense of its other 11 business partners was not lost on anyone.

When the Pacific League jumped on the Olympic baseball bandwagon in 2000 by sending stars and not playing on national team game days, Tsuneo Watanabe, the president of Yomiuri publicly threatened to kick the six PL teams out for breaking NPB rules.

Four years later, when Yomiuri became an Olympic sponsor and pushed “Mr. Giants” Shigeo Nagashima to manage the team, Yomiuri became was the loudest advocate for the Athens Olympics’ baseball tournament.

Yomiuri and its Central League minions have done this over and over, denigrating every Pacific League innovation, until they worked. Every successful PL policy has gone from being the target of CL ridicule to being coopted by the CL with a new name slapped on it.

This is why Japan’s postseason games between the regular season and the Japan Series are not called playoffs because the Climax Series was based on the PL playoffs. The CL owners made a few superficial changes and slapped a new name on it, although a decidedly stupid one, in the hope people would look see them as something more than whiny unimaginative imitators.

In the past, Yomiuri responded to its team’s failure to dominate by changing the rules.

  • 1934: Blackmailed amateur pitcher Victor Starffin into joining Yomiuri’s new pro team by using the owner’s influence to get the pitcher’s father off a murder rap.
  • 1948: Tampered with Hawks ace Takehiko Bessho to force Nankai to let him go to the Giants.
  • 1978: Failed to create a loophole that allowed Giants to sign amateur pitcher Suguru Egawa. When that didn’t fly, they forced NPB to accept a trade that sent the player to the Giants with pitcher Shigeru Kobayashi.
  • 1993: threatened to quit Nippon Professional Baseball if the other 11 owners didn’t go along with a free agency system that would let the Giants scoop up Japan’s top veteran players.
  • 2021: Having failed to win a Japan Championship for a franchise-record eight years running, the Giants suddenly realized that the PL’s designated hitter rule, adopted in 1975, gives that league an unfair advantage.

Of course, nobody is fooled by this Yomiuri PR move, since nobody thinks the organization cares one bit about the quality of pro baseball beyond that of players wearing Giants uniforms.

The Giants’ bullying and hypocrisy are normal. What is new is the stuff the Giants aren’t talking about, a renewed effort to build a talent base from the ground up, through the developmental roster.

A review of the developmental system

The first time I heard of the developmental “ikusei” system was a CL official complaining that it was just another Yomiuri scheme to hoard talent to keep it away from other clubs.

Yet, the Giants were one of the first two teams to grasp the possibility of the developmental draft. I don’t profess to know much of this story, but Giants manager Tatsunori Hara had a good relationship with Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine, who was that PL club’s de facto GM from 2006 to 2008.

Valentine was an advocate of broader minor league development and after the Rakuten Eagles made the minor Eastern League a seven-team circuit, the Giants and Marines collaborated on a plan to get extra games between the teams’ youngest players and the EL team without an opponent for a few days.

After drafting more developmental players than the rest of the PL combined between 2005 and 2009, Lotte’s enthusiasm for developmental players waned after Valentine was ousted in the team’s infamous 2009 coup. The small amounts paid out in developmental contracts mean few opportunities for front-office grift and kickbacks that once were common in front offices.

It’s probably no surprise that the team that became the new champions of developmental deals started doing so in 2010. The winter before, SoftBank cleaned its front office, replacing the old-school grifters and hangers on with a more dedicated group, led at first by GM Itaru Kobayashi. After drafting no developmental players in 2009, the Hawks began grabbing five or more every year.

Signing lots of developmental players itself is no sign of a well-run organization, but when a team drastically changes the number of players it takes after the regular draft ends, it may signal a policy change.

What this has to do with the Giants

I didn’t notice it until doing this year’s rosters, but Yomiuri drafted 20 players in the regular and developmental drafts, almost a sixth of the 182 signed by all 12 teams combined. Of those, the Giants set an NPB record with 12 developmental picks.

With major league penny-pinching reaching new heights, people have for the past three years talked about when Japanese teams might take advantage of the situation. Until now, MLB has depended on Japan’s foreign player limits to prevent NPB teams from dipping into the majors domestic and amateur talent pool.

The Hawks, and more recently, the Chunichi Dragons, have been able to profit from some of Cuba’s impressive talent, but it took the signing of American pitcher Carter Stewart Jr in 2019 to crack open a door that MLB had expected would stay shut forever.

This past week, the Giants opened that door a little further by signing two 16-year-old Dominican prospects, outfielder Julian Tima and shortstop Jose De la Cruz to developmental deals.

Although there is no minor league free agency in Japan and players can only become free agents through first-team service time, developmental players can only be reserved for three years, by which time Yomiuri will have to either sign them to their 70-man roster or release them on Nov. 31, 2023.

A full-count story said the Giants see the pair as long-term investments and are preparing a support program that will include Japanese language instruction. Although the Giants have been big believers in mass farming of cheap amateur talent, the idea that 16-year-old imports were worth a longterm investment and a new setup is noteworthy.

If the Dominican amateur talent stream becomes a river for Yomiuri, it would be no surprise if the team that once boasted its pure Japanese lineup despite its best star, Sadaharu Oh, being a foreign national suddenly decided the four-player foreign limit was antithetical to the spirit of Japanese baseball and needed to go.

If that happens, it is easy to see how the Giants might find a way to combine their old trick, changing rules to suit their needs, with their new-found trick of mining foreign talent and, for once actually try to make the entire pro game better.

Warren Cromartie speaks

Warren Cromartie recently met with subscribers to talk about his experiences in the majors and in Japan and share his opinions on a variety of topics from “insensitive” comments by former Seattle Mariners CEO Kevin Mather to baseball in Montreal and new Red Sox reliever Hirokazu Sawamura.

Have a listen. If you want to take part in one of the live chats, you need to join jballallen.com on either a free or paid subscription.

Slugging it out in Japan, again

For the last two years, Cromartie has been living in Japan with his wife and child, and spent much of the 2019 season as an on-field advisor to the Giants.

Getting by in a foreign language

Asked about former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather’s candid comments about service-time manipulation and his characterization of players by their language skills, Cromartie talked about the challenges of playing in a country where many don’t speak your language.

Lost in translation?

Banzai

On-field celebrations can be a tricky subject for MLB players, but in Japan they are welcomed by fans and part of the scenery. So when former major leaguers get in the act there is sometime friction.

Japanese fans customarily cheer the players who drove in runs in the previous half inning as they take the field, upon which the players respond by tipping their caps, bowing or waving. Cromartie tells how his response became one of his trademarks.

Going to America

Asked about Japan stars back in the day that he thought could play in America. Of course prior to free agency, players couldn’t go during their career. And until Hideo Nomo proved otherwise, the prevailing belief both here and in the majors was that Japanese weren’t good enough.

Sawamura goes to the Sox

During his time with the Giants, Cromartie became familiar with right-handed reliever Hirokazu Sawamura, who recently signed with the Boston Red Sox.

Making adjustments in a new country

Everybody goes to Nicks…

…to paraphrase the line from “Casablanca.” On those few nights a year when all of NPB’s teams were in town, the imported players would all gather at Nicola’s Pizzeria in Roppongi, whose owner, Nick Zapetti, was the intriguing anti-hero of Robert Whiting’s “Tokyo Underworld.”

“There used to be two foreign players on a team. There would be times when all the teams would be in Tokyo at the same time, about two times a year, and we would all meet up at Nicks, this pizza place in Roppongi. It was like a brotherhood. We couldn’t wait to all get together. Whenever we played each other during the season, we’d always go out to dinner. We’d get the chance to see two other foreigners, the four of us would go out to dinner.”

–Greg “Boomer” Wells

Here’s what Crow had to say about those nights.

Bring back the Expos

On baseball in Montreal, it’s history and its future.

Should kids from America go straight to Japan?

Crow on conformity

Conformity is certainly a topic in Japan. Do all Japanese play the same way? I’m not convinced but there are times when watching a series of NPB at-bats is like a video representation of those “Can you spot the 10 differences” picture puzzles.

Sadaharu Oh

Ok. This time’s it’s Cromartie’s turn to talk about Sadaharu Oh.

That’s a hit in Double-A rookie

Cromartie talks about his rookie debut with the Expos against the then power Pittsburgh Pirates.

Is Japan’s hustle for show?

The balance of power in Japan

Cromartie expresses his views on the differences between Japan’s two leagues.

Kuwata’s back

Giants manager Tatsunori Hara this year brought former ace Masumi Kuwata onto his staff as a pitching coach, and Cromartie couldn’t be happier.

Leon and bob’s wonderful wayback machine

As promised, here are the videos of last week’s live zoom chat featuring author Robert Whiting and former Japanese pro baseball star Leon Lee.

Bob was gracious enough to share more than an hour of his time, so I’ll add that you can now pre-order his memoir “Tokyo Junkie.” I haven’t read it but I’m sure it will be a page turner. Bob is a master story teller who saw all of Tokyo from its seedy early 60s glory to its slicker, more polished facade of today.

Bob’s 1st game

So where did the Robert Whiting phenomenon as a baseball icon begin? I’ve pegged that date down to July 17, 1962, when Oh and Nagashima each homered in both games of a doubleheader at Tokyo’s Korakuen Stadium, with a crowd

Leon Lee on the WBC

On Ichiro Suzuki

More about Ichiro as a class act

Sibling rival Lees

Leon was asked about playing as a teammate with his older brother Leron during their time with the Lotte Orions, and we learn about their one fight.

The “gaijin strike zone”

You’ve all head about it, but Leon said a veteran Central League umpire, the late Kiyoshi Hirako, explained the strike zone to him. I mention Hirako, who retired in 1992. Because he’s famous for misjudging a ball off the center-field wall at Koshien Stadium as a game-tying home run on Sept. 11 of that year, that resulted in a 6-hour, 26-minute, 15-inning game between the Swallows and Tigers.

How Ichiro got into the WBC

OK, so this is my story, but we were on the topic of Sadaharu Oh, Ichiro and the WBC, my apologies to those who’ve heard it before.

Sacrifices

I wrote a while back about how Japan’s quality-control-is-in-our-blood nonsense that was pedaled around the world in the 1980s to explain Japan’s economic “miracle” seemed to infect baseball, and so I asked Bob if he knew more about it. The article was really about why pitchers batting eighth, once a fairly common practice in Japan was eradicated in the 1970s.

Since the chat, I had a back-and-forth with Bob about how often the old Giants bunted and I’ve written about that, too.

Practice makes more practice

Bob talks about Japan’s passion for practice

Bob Horner in Japan

Lee had the pleasure of being Bob Horner’s teammate with the Yakult Swallows for one year, and he spills on some of the memorable highlights of that season.

Discipline in Japanese baseball

Yasuda passes away at 73

Yakult Swallows stalwart Takeshi Yasuda

Former Yakult Swallows pitcher Takeshi Yasuda passed away on Saturday at the age of 73 from stomach cancer. I saw Yasuda a few times on the sidelines as a Swallows coach in the early 1990s when I spent a lot of time at Jingu Stadium in the company of a couple of colleagues who were Swallows fans, having joined our company from Yakult.

While the names of other veteran pitchers and players might draw a nod, Yasuda’s name always brought a smile to their faces. I’d never seen video of him until I found the Youtube clip about him above.

In Sunday’s news in Japan, I learned that the side-armer was known for his “penguin” pitching style. In 1983, he set an NPB record by not walking a batter over 81 consecutive innings. Although his battles against left-handed hitting Giants slugger Sadaharu Oh were famous, Oh surpassed Hank Aaron’s career total with his 756th in 1977, and hit No. 757 off the Swallows lefty (thanks to Dave @npbcardguy for that catch).

The Central League’s 1972 rookie of the year, Yasuda attended Waseda University, but played corporate league ball before turning pro and led the CL in ERA in his first two seasons. He was a typical front-line pitcher of that era, starting about half his games, and completing nearly half of his starts while also coming out of the bullpen in high-leverage situations.

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.

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.