With his 1,067th victory on Friday, Tatsunori Hara now has more wins as a Yomiuri Giants manager than any of his predecessors, pulling him out of a tie with legendary skipper Tetsuharu Kawakami. It is a remarkable achievement for Hara, who, like his first manager, Shigeo Nagashima, was groomed to be the face of the team from the day he first put on a Giants uniform as a player.
Hara’s success as manager is a testimony to the ability of people to surprise you. Hara was a serious, smart player who seemingly tried extra hard to fit the plastic PR image the Giants created for him. Hara can be a charming guy with a winning smile, by becoming the team’s front man as a player he seemed entirely superficial.
When Hara was named manager for the 2002 season, it seemed like he was chosen more for his PR value than for any other skills he might bring to the table.
His predecessor, Nagashima, had benefitted from Yomiuri’s deep pockets and its ability to change Nippon Professional Baseball’s rules to suit its own goals – primarily forcing the other teams to accept free agency and modifying the draft so marquee corporate and college stars could pick the teams they wanted to sign with.
Hara, we all assumed, would stick with the Yomiuri program, a lot playing time to the biggest name and oldest free agents, and the best amateurs available and just throw those guys out and let the team win. The Giants farm team at that time was a gulag for discarded out-of-favor non-stars and make-weight organizational players, who if they were lucky might get a shot with another team.
The idea that Hara, the quintessential superficial Giants star, would change that defied belief, but the skipper turned the Giants into a team it hadn’t been since Kawakami was put out to pasture in 1974 – a meritocracy.
Kawakami won nine-straight Japan Series championships. A feat no one has come close to matching. Ousting the extremely-capable Kawakami for the novice Nagashima, Japan’s most popular player, broadcast Yomiuri’s essential message loud and clear – image is more important than substance.
Kawakami’s successors, Nagashima, Motoshi Fujita, Sadaharu Oh, Fujita again and Nagashima again, more or less towed the Yomiuri company’s line that the Giants’ way was to win championships was to play the biggest stars, and discard failures as quickly as possible. Nagashima, Fujita and Oh were all fierce competitors but the pressure from the newspaper that owns the team is relentless, and the necessity to play the stars Yomiuri spent heavily on is palpable.
When the Giants were in the middle of a record losing streak a few years ago under manager Yoshinobu Takahashi, he and his coaches remained positive and worked to keep the players focused on preparing for the next game. But when readers began citing the team’s poor play when they canceled subscriptions, the players were subjected to top executives coming in to the clubhouse and berating them for their failures. Being unpopular is not an option if you are the Yomiuri Giants.
After Hara was appointed manager, his first head coach, Yoshitaka Katori, said Hara wanted to use the whole 70-man roster and that everyone on the farm would have to stay ready in case he called. This sounded like the bilge every manager on every team ever invented spills when they have no real interest in anyone out of their sight. But before long, Hara transformed a petrified three-tier organization of stars, scrubs and minor leaguers into a dynamic outfit. Because of the large influx of older free agents, the Giants lacked team speed and defense—and Hara fixed that by giving starts to guys who until that time had no real role.
When Hara failed to follow his 2002 Japan Series championship as a managing novice in 2003, Japan’s greatest-ever windbag owner Tsuneo Watanabe began launching into drunken rants that Tokyo’s sports press eagerly gobbled up and put in the next day’s papers. Hara got tired of reading every day how his job was on the line should he lose another game and when the Giants were eliminated, he quit. Watanabe never had any intent of firing him, but Hara wouldn’t be bullied.
Forced to find an emergency replacement, they settled on former lone wolf ace pitcher Tsuneo Horiuchi, who was a disaster. Horiuchi is a wonderful, warm guy, but he’s no leader or organizer. In his two years at the helm, the team disintegrated and Hara was brought back. And when Hara came back, he came back with a vengeance, giving key roles to players few outside the Yomiuri organization had ever heard of.
If you prepared, played hard and had skills he needed, Hara would use you. Hara also had the benefit of having Shinnosuke Abe on his team. Arguably the second-greatest catcher Japan has ever produced behind the late Katsuya Nomura, Abe was the cornerstone of a Hara team that not only signed stars from other clubs but was also willing to replace any superstar who wasn’t getting it done with a minor leaguer eager to punch above his weight.
Two Giants rookies of the year, center fielder Tetsuya Matsumoto and reliever Tetsuya Yamaguchi, were signed after tryouts when no other teams were interested in them but played their way into key roles with the Giants because Hara, a guy who had been marketed more as a name than a player during his career, cared nothing for pedigree.
Sometimes his desire to throw open the doors of competition gets the better of him. In 2002, Hara inherited a productive veteran second baseman, Toshihisa Nishi. But for some reason, the two never hit it off.
Tactically, Hara was pretty much a disaster from the start, although he learned and got a little better as the years went by. His strength has been building the talent players by rewarding quality with opportunity and not getting down on those who fail in brief trials. He is particularly good at leveraging one-run situations, not because he’s smarter but because his love of pinch-runners means he always has speed on the bench and because he is extremely well organized and a good planner.
Ironically, his problems with Nishi foreshadowed another idiosyncrasy of Hara’s: His inability to ever settle on a regular second baseman. Nobody has ever been good enough to be a regular, so the spot has essentially been held down briefly by whoever is the flavor of the month or week. Once Hara’s weird second-base obsession and his belief in his ability to turn hustling minor league straw into gold got the better of him when he decided a guy unable to hit in the Eastern League, Daisuke Fujimura, could be his regular second baseman with enough effort. Fujimura led the CL in steals in 2011 with 28 playing in 119 games with a .507 OPS in his only full season.
As the years go by, Hara has slowly let out more of his inner Nagashima, exercising his mentor’s fondness for silly incomprehensible phrases. One day after a win at Koshien Stadium, he said, “I want my fielders to play attacking defense and my hitters to employ defensive batting.”
Nobody there could explain what he meant, but Hara delights in taking good-natured jabs at reporters. At his postgame pressers, he’ll sometimes refuse to answer a question and instead say, “I’ll let you explain it. I’m curious to see what’s in tomorrow’s papers.” He’ll follow that with a little smirk that says, “I know something you don’t.”
So while he can be sincere and friendly, there’s often this edge about him when he assumes
a kind of “I’m baseball royalty and you’re not” attitude.
After learning of Hara’s stated policy that his door was always open to players, former closer Marc Kroon went in one day to discuss something only to be informed later that impromptu visits were not tolerated. But that could be because Hara never saw anyone taking him up on the visit and was unprepared.
Hara seems to be very routine-driven. Before regular season games, he’ll answer questions from the first reporter who catches his attention when he comes onto the field. He’ll listen and choose his answers, then move on. Nobody else gets a question.
Talk to him prior to the start of a postseason or WBC game? He’ll shoot you a look like the one he probably gave Kroon.
Ask Hara a question on a practice day, and he might explain his world to you. One such day in Fukuoka, he somehow got onto the subject of pro wrestling and started mimicking a favorite wrestler’s move and laughing so hard I thought his hat would fall off.
His animated conversation drew a crowd of reporters to the visitors’ bench at Fukuoka Dome, where a few minutes later, pitcher Geremi Gonzalez walked past on the way to the field patted the skipper on the shoulder and said to Hara, “My friend!”
Hara thought about that for a moment and then shouted at Gonzalez in Japanese, “Hey buddy I’m not your friend dammit!” Hara laughed, and the reporters joined in because it was funny.
It was, however, unintentionally honest. Hara can be friendly, but he’s not there to be your friend. He’s there to win.