On Friday, the same day we in Japan first heard of the “arm barn,” we got the news that a pro baseball team, the Nippon Ham Fighters, has hired a showman, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, for its manager. Shinjo was also a ballplayer, and a popular one, partly because of his good looks, and his uncharacteristic desire to express joy in playing a game when Japanese baseball culture begs for stoic conformity and solemnity.
Leaving aside for the moment, the question of why the Fighters made their unorthodox choice, let’s delve into questions about how it might work out. I have never spoken with Shinjo outside of a single all-star game press huddle in 2004, but he’s fairly famous for doing and saying off-the-wall things.
Shinjo the player
Shinjo was a big swinger with impressive physical tools, speed a powerful arm, who walked infrequently and didn’t make contact often enough to hit for average or make optimal use of his ability to hit the ball hard.
The game he brought to the pros in 1991 was more or less the same game he had when he retired at the end of the 2006 season. One needs a certain amount of discipline to get as far as Shinjo did, but his fame and popularity were more due to his being fun and unpredictable than from the runs he produced on offense and saved on defense.
Shinjo hustled, played hard, and was an excellent outfielder, but he didn’t hit for enough power to make up for the outs he made at the plate.
The Fighters’ job
The Pacific League’s Fighters are one of the two teams where the manager has limited authority over player personnel, development, and medical policy. They, and the Central League’s DeNA BayStars who were organized based on the Fighters’ model, try to give the manager the best tools and talent to work with at the major league level.
The front office initiates trades, determines draft picks, and decides fitness, conditioning, and rehab practices. Back before he became Japan’s unhappiest front office boss as Fighters GM, Hiroshi Yoshimura said it was extremely hard to find qualified managers who would agree to have less than supreme authority.
Those controls limit the damage an individual can do the system, and make it conceivable that a guy, like Hideki Kuriyama, who took the Fighters job with no managing or coaching experience in 2012, can succeed. Kuriyama, who served 10 years, is currently the most successful manager in franchise history.
The job requirements
Media evaluations of managers’ success range from player development to tactics, lineup selection, and pitching staff usage. Player injuries are reported as poor luck if the manager is Japanese but occasionally used as evidence of poor managing by non-Japanese. It takes some real stones to accuse a Japanese skipper of failure to practice sufficiently, but it’s considered a go-to explanation for every failure by a non-Japanese.
But that’s the media.
Managers can influence teams in a whole host of ways, but at the very minimum, they must command the respect of the players and coaches. Even in Japan, managers occasionally lose the respect of individuals or factions within their team. At which point it’s hard to recover.
Guys can succeed in lots of ways. They can be good at evaluating talent or committing to untried players, good at keeping everyone positive and focused, good at motivating, good at tactics, good at understanding what players need to succeed, good organizers, good communicators, and good at holding people accountable for their actions without being tyrannical.
Tsuyoshi Shinjo’s brain
Toshimasa Shimada, the club’s former chief executive, took me to task for criticizing Shinjo’s hiring. He asked me whether I knew him and knew what he lacked to be a good manager.
The answer is I don’t. I can’t peer into Shinjo’s brain and evaluate what he’s capable of. Maybe Shinjo understands the nuances of baseball that he displayed no mastery of as a player. I can’t say he didn’t know the strike zone, but for whatever reason, he doesn’t appear to have ever developed approaches that allowed him to use it to his advantage.
Shinjo and Nakahata
I told Shimada that Shinjo’s hiring reminded me of DeNA’s first manager, Kiyoshi Nakahata. Shimada is older than me and is far more familiar than I was with Nakahata as a player, and he rejected that notion.
Nakata was a more gifted hitter, but they were both charismatic, entertaining players, who never showed any kind of plate discipline throughout their careers.
Despite his empty pronouncements and playing to the media, Nakahata did project a kind of gutsy image. He inherited a BayStars team that had for years folded when things went bad in games against quality opponents and turned it into a team that played hard against everyone.
I can see Shinjo cutting players loose to unleash their talents, allowing some guys to blossom. If he steps in and takes the heat for his players’ mistakes, and is willing to commit to players who depart from orthodoxy, it could bring huge rewards.
If Shinjo knows his limits and allows coaches with expertise the authority to fill in those blanks, it could work out. He was always a guy who was on the players’ side of any equation rather than a corporate type, and I can imagine where the head coach is the authority figure and Shinjo the manager is the mediator.
Shinjo has a clown act for the fans and the media, but he was a serious ballplayer, if not serious about Japan’s baseball establishment and all its codes. That’s the main reason I think a lot of people see him as being entirely unqualified.
Where it could go wrong
The biggest question, for me, is whether Shinjo will be disciplined enough to demand accountability from his players and coaches. When Tsuneo Horiuchi managed the Yomiuri Giants from 2004 to 2005, the former primadonna ace pitcher failed to hold the team together. Players and coaches began pulling in different directions and pursuing their individual agendas.
When Shinjo was in his early 20s and already a star with the Hanshin Tigers, he announced his retirement after the 1995 season. The TIgers had replaced Katsuhiro Nakamura, the manager who made Shinjo a regular, with hard-ass Taira Fujita. As farm team manager, Fujita demonstrated his authority over players with iron discipline and had a run-in with Shinjo when he was rehabbing with the farm team earlier that summer.
It makes me wonder whether Shinjo is going to be the manager who will bench a player giving 100 percent or send him to the farm because another player is better? Maybe the 49-year-old Shinjo can be that leader.
As a player, Shinjo seemed more ring leader than leader. He influenced and encouraged others, he established rituals the other outfielders followed. When the Fighters changed pitchers during innings, he would gather the other outfielders in center field, where they would each take a knee and wear their gloves on their heads. He encouraged players to adopt individual color-coded wrist bands and undershirts. He was big on creating visual impact, on performing stunts.
The current dilemma
Shinjo’s hiring is not taking place in a vacuum. The Fighters are facing serious issues not entirely related to finishing fifth for the third straight season.
During Trey Hillman’s years as Fighters manager, from 2003 to 2007, accountability became the cornerstone of the Nippon Ham organization. When he found out the team’s minor league manager kicked and beat a player, Hillman threatened to quit over it unless the front office took action.
The weird events of this past summer suggested that this organizational pillar is no longer as strong as it once was.
In August, cleanup hitter Sho Nakata assaulted a teammate and was sent home. Nakata apologized and expressed remorse, and the victim said it was water under the bridge. In such a case, most teams would have deactivated him for 10 days and moved on.
But the Fighters said they needed to dig much deeper and conduct a thorough examination, suggesting there was far more to the story than one teammate slugging another. The team suspended Nakata indefinitely and then shipped him off to the Giants as fast as they could arrange Nakata’s train fare.
There has never been any real explanation of the rest of the story that made Nakata disposable.
After Nakata surfaced with the Yomiuri Giants, a tweet surfaced from early in the season in which Nakata could be heard “kidding” black teammate Chusei Mannami by telling him he spent too much time at tanning salons.
Someone within the organization has leaked to the media that the parent company NH Foods Ltd., received lots of complaints from fans over the issue and wanted Shinjo to change the team’s image before the team moves into its new ballpark in 2023.
Shimada was very doubtful of this, saying “That’s hard to believe. There is no one that can make that kind of decision in the parent company.”
Although he no longer works for the team, Shimada understands the dynamics of the organization in ways few ever will. He suggested the media were getting that story wrong.
If those multiple media outlets were wrong, it is because someone in the organization has deliberately steered them wrong, rather than all the writers making stuff up.
That story depends on the premise that Shinjo, because he is supremely unorthodox, is a disaster waiting to happen, and that the parent company would prefer a different, fun narrative rather than having people ask what the heck went wrong in 2021.
If it is true then the Fighters are headed for trouble.
Shinjo, the Tigers and the Fighters
The Tigers did that in 1996 when they made peace with Shinjo after he boycotted the team after Fujita’s hiring.
While Shinjo sulked in the offseason like Achilles in his tent outside Troy, Tigers teammate, Tsutomu Kameyama, was a voice of reason, saying if Shinjo doesn’t want to come back, then they would play on without him. Unlike Shinjo, Kameyama was a good outfielder and a good offensive player, a grinder not a celebrity.
When Shinjo returned to the fold, the Tigers embraced him and exiled Kameyama, whose career nosedived and never recovered. The team then did a cannonball dive into the deep end of the pool of mediocrity with “Prince” Shinjo as its poster boy. The Tigers sacrificed whatever organizational principles it had to grasp at appeasing fans by embracing Shinjo and banishing the adult in the room.
If the Fighters are hiring Shinjo because they believe he can really, truly deliver wins and make the team better, more power to them. If it is, however, a superficial stunt aimed at covering up the rot, then the team is in serious trouble that no amount of good managing can cover over.