This job can make you sick

On Sunday, Seibu Lions manager Kazuo Matsui “went on leave for health reasons,” and it appears he didn’t even know he was feeling poorly.

There is an expression in Japanese which describes the blues that one gets in the second month at a new school or after joining a company after leaving school. It’s called “gogatsu byo” or May sickness. But it could also apply to baseball managers whose teams’ performance is so far below expectation that their jobs are on the line.

It’s about that time of that every now and then a manager will be announced to be taking leave of his duties for health reasons, “kyuyo.” Unless there is an actual illness, this is Japanese baseball-speak for getting fired.

Back in the before time, when I was married to my first wife, we were spending Golden Week in 1992 visiting friends in Hamamatsu, where I’d taught English for two years. While we were there, I remember reading a comment about Taiyo Whales manager Yutaka Sudo stepping down from Masaaki Mori, who was then the Seibu Lions manager.

“It seems pretty early in the season for a manager to be getting sick and needing to convalesce,” the Nikkan Sports reported.

But a look at the record shows that May is the most common month for managers getting fired during the season. Mind you, managers in Japan rarely ever get fired during the season, they either are put on sick leave or they quit. In 2003, Orix did fire Hiromichi Ishige, but that was a rarity.

Matsui gets sick

When meeting reporters after the Lions come-from-behind victory over the Orix Buffaloes, Matsui said, “Once more, we are just approaching each game as it comes,” when asked about his plans regarding the start of interleague play from Tuesday.

Two hours later, the team released a statement from Matsui saying he needed to accept responsibility for the team’s poor results despite what he called “the young players’ developing and grasping what they needed to do.”

We had a famous case when Shigeru Takada insisted before a game that he had no intention of quitting and that the team was 100 percent behind him, only to say immediately after the game, that he had decided to quit that morning. But why the turn-around after the game?

So instead of taking it game by game. Matsui is now done, with the Lions top management having already stuck a fork in him, perhaps when the team fell behind and were in danger of losing their 11th series of the season.

He’s being replaced by former manager and current GM, Hisanobu Watanabe. A Tokyo Sports article claimed that Watanabe was stepping in out of a sense of responsibility, having brought Matsui back to finish his career with Seibu as part of the club’s “OB Project.”

The purpose of the project is not clear to me, since the article said it was meant to combat the team’s losses to free agency and posting, but the problem with the Lions’ free agency losses has largely been top management’s indifference.

When ace pitcher Takayuki Kishi brought the Lions the offer he’d received from the Rakuten Eagles back to Seibu to see if they could do better, the Lions’ response was essentially: “We told you what we’re willing to give you. Take it or leave it.”

How bringing back Kiyoshi Toyoda to be pitching coach, and signing Daisuke Matsuzaka and Matsui was supposed to fix that, I have no clue. But the story said Matsui was being groomed for the Lions manager’s job from the day he told Rakuten he had no interest in trading his bat, glove and spikes for a coach’s stop watch and notebook.

I at first ascribed Watanabe’s appointment as GM/manager to his age preventing him from escaping the room before he was “it.”

What went wrong?

Tokyo Sports didn’t stop with describing why Watanabe was the new guy in charge. They went on to say why Matsui was a failure, quoting some old-school hard-ass kanri-yakyu guy in the Lions organization as saying Matsui was too nice.

The story said Matsui’s problem was that he refused to scapegoat players who made mistakes to the media, and never publicly embarrassed players by yanking them off the field or sending them to the minors for making mistakes.

This, the article said, encouraged players who should be practicing day and night to win everyday jobs with the team to slack off in the knowledge that no matter how poorly they did, they would always get another chance.

A Japanese colleague at the day job and I were talking, and he admitted that in a society where peers are differentiated by the mistakes they make, praising colleagues is extremely counter-intuitive and difficult to do.

By refusing to single out individuals for team failings, Matsui is essentially turning his back on the rules that make Japan tick, and there are people who can’t tolerate it.

If Matsui deserves to be fired it’s because he’s been unable to simply stick Shinya Hasegawa in the lineup everyday and let him adjust to major league pitching. The guy is arguably the best pure minor league hitter in Japan right now and turned 22 last week. On top of that Hasegawa threw out nine runners in 49 Eastern League games in 2023.

Hasegawa, however, is stuck in a group of players who are all getting half-chances to show what they can do, like Takuya Hiruma, who is two years older and wasn’t as good in the minors.

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