- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
- 0 Shares
The most intriguing baseball import from Japan in the past five years doesn't throw a gyroball or rip line drives into the ivy; he throws batting practice and swings a fungo. His Japanese is laced with a Texas twang, his defense steeped in drills learned in Hokkaido.
And while Royals skipper Trey Hillman will tell you he's no different than any other major league manager, don't believe him. As the first guy hired to lead a U.S. club on the strength of his record in Japan, Hillman isn't just another manager. He's an idea bubbling to the surface, a question begging to be asked: Now that we have Trey Hillman, how long will it be before a Japanese manager runs a major league team?
"It's inevitable," says Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti. "Only a matter of time."
Think about it. Not long ago, the idea of a Japanese pitcher no-hitting a big league team seemed absurd. Hideo Nomo changed all that.
Not long ago, scouts were certain that Japanese position players didn't have the strength or stamina to survive at the major league level. Ichiro destroyed that theory. The prospect of a Japanese manager at the helm of, say, the A's or Pirates may seem unlikely, but the great Sadaharu Oh—whose badass samurai stance and 868 career home runs personified Japanese power—warns against getting too comfortable with the status quo. "We have shown what we can do in the majors as players," he says. "I hope people will recognize our baseball style, too, and want to learn from our philosophy and technique."
Every time Ichiro steps into the batter's box and carefully aims his bat toward the mound or skillfully threads a down-and-away slider through a hole between two infielders, we get a glimpse of the Japanese style. But only a glimpse. While Japanese players have captivated the imagination of American baseball fans, they haven't changed the culture so much as fit into it. The revolution will really begin when an MLB team moves beyond trolling for Japanese talent and looks for a leader who offers a competitive edge using the core principles of Japanese baseball itself.
"There are certain elements of the game they're better at than we are, especially in conditioning and defense," says Hillman, who was a minor league manager for the Yankees and director of player development for the Rangers before taking over the Nippon Ham fighters in 2003. The big difference is in the way the game is imagined. In the U.S., teams try to outscore the opposition; in Japan, the goal is to stop runs from scoring. In the U.S., the game is played by extraordinary physical specimens; in Japan, it's played by relatively ordinary looking men who prepare meticulously and grind for every possible advantage.
During batting practice before an April game in Sapporo, Fighters utility man Yuji Iiyama takes a hundred ground balls on the left side of the infield. Second baseman Kensuke Tanaka mirrors him, grounder for grounder, on the right side. Behind them, star righthander Yu Darvish and other pitchers long-toss behind a wide screen in centerfield, while outfielders practice taking caroms off the wall in right. In foul ground between home and first base, hitters crack soft-tossed balls into nets. Crouched in foul territory on the third base side, catchers receive balls from a pitching machine and make putout throws to a trainer standing 120 feet down the line. And tucked along the leftfield wall, just past the catchers' drill, three players shuffle from side to side, like speed skaters—balancing first on one foot, then on the other—except that they have 25-pound steel bars pressing across their shoulders. And so it goes, for two hours before each game. "Everyone is committed," says Fighters righthander Ryan Glynn, who has pitched for the Rangers, Blue Jays and A's. "They all take their job and try to perfect it."
So let's say you're a GM tired of the steady erosion of fundamentals that's increasingly accepted in the majors. With the right leadership, a variation of the Japanese routine could be your throwback vision for the future. Let's say you're Oakland GM Billy Beane, an enterprising small-market type who sees a luxury in the typical American ballplayer's frame, a structural head start that makes it possible for him to perform at a high level without fully realizing his potential. A regimen like this could be your leg up in an incredibly competitive environment. "If you could combine Japanese methods with the strength and skill of American players," says Fighters pitcher Brian Sweeney (formerly of the Mariners and Padres), "you'd have the perfect ballplayer."
Easier said than done. Major league players would likely fight the idea of reinventing the workout wheel—"The union would go crazy," says Japanese baseball historian Robert Whiting—and might not be too keen on taking direction from someone outside the culture of American baseball. Upon introducing himself to his team and the Kansas City media this spring, Hillman downplayed his Japanese training, then increased the length of the Royals' workouts.
The first Japanese-born manager in the majors would need to be a great communicator, a charismatic leader who could convince players to try something new, but also someone willing to temper the demands of the Japanese approach, who wouldn't be strictly bound to the martial arts imperative of exhausting the body. He would need to speak English or come with an extraordinary translator or both. "The language barrier could undermine everything you're trying to do," says former Rangers and Mets skipper Bobby Valentine, who has become conversational in Japanese as manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines. It would take someone familiar with the U.S. media, and someone who had proved himself to such a degree that his hiring wouldn't be viewed as a promotional stunt—although such a marketing move can't be ruled out as motivation.
Sounds like we're talking about Ichiro or Hideki Matsui, Kenji Johjima (who played under Oh for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks) or the recently released Nomo. Each of them is schooled on both sides of the Pacific. Each of them has earned the respect of their major league teammates and coaches, as well as the affection of U.S. fans. Each will almost certainly get offers to manage in Japan, where the majority of Nippon Professional Baseball managers are former star players—so why not in North America, where they could significantly expand a team's claim on the ever-booming trans-Pacific economy?
There are caveats. History tells us that U.S. stars who've become managers, from Ted Williams to Pete Rose, rarely have patience for inferior players. Also, the first wave of players who made the leap from Japan consists largely of standout talents with iconoclastic personalities. They're here and successful in large part because they're mavericks, not teachers looking to pass on a philosophy. "A modern-day major league manager has to be a psychologist, a listener," says Marty Kuehnert, who was the first American-born general manager in Japanese baseball and is now an executive with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Sendai. "That's just not how the best Japanese players who've gone over to the States are wired."
It's unclear if any of them would even be interested. Few of the Japanese big leaguers approached by The Magazine wanted to discuss the topic, perhaps fearing that they'd appear to be publicly angling for a job—a big no-no in Japan. After reluctantly agreeing to an interview, Johjima was quick to dismiss his prospects, despite the fact that 15 of the 30 current major league managers are former catchers. "If I'm not a catcher, maybe I'm a fisherman," he says. "I'm a good fisherman, but I'd be a terrible manager."
As the migration of talent across the Pacific has accelerated—16 Japanese nationals are on big league rosters this season—there is heightened awareness of the danger this poses to the stability of Japanese baseball. No one wants to be perceived as advocating a brain drain. "We have a great tradition, and we don't want to lose that," says former Mariners reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who sells real estate in Irvine, Calif., and serves as an analyst for NHK TV, broadcasting MLB games back to Japan.
But if you look closely, candidates emerge. When Fighters pitching coach and former Mets pitcher Masato Yoshii told The New York Times in February that he hopes to coach or manage in the U.S., he spoke for an emerging class of Japanese baseball people. The products of a post-Hillman, post-Valentine generation of cross-pollination, these potential pioneers are thinking beyond the borders. "At some point we all have to think about one kind of baseball," Hasegawa says.
Players and coaches who've worked with Hillman and Valentine have seen their blend of techniques succeed. They've seen Valentine study hard to learn the language. They've seen players respond as Hillman softened the traditional Japanese manager-as-drill-sergeant routine. They've seen both men lead their clubs to Japan Series titles. And they know some new thing is possible. Hillman and Valentine are "double-culture men," says Toshimasa Shimada, the head of baseball operations for the Fighters and the man who hired Hillman in 2003. "They are flexible of mind."
So too is Tsuyoshi Yoda, another analyst on NHK broadcasts. He pitched for the Chunichi Dragons in the 1990s and had a brief stint in the Padres' farm system before arm injuries cut his career short. On an early-April evening, he sits in a hotel bar an hour outside Tokyo, telling stories about playing for Dragons manager Senichi Hoshino, who threw punches to get his points across. "I saw a lot of blood," Yoda says. He also talks about his trips each spring to the U.S., on his own dime, to pick the brains of American coaches and players, and he advocates a hybrid style—a mix of power and finesse and fundamentals. Yoda positions himself with a foot in each world and sees the strengths and limitations of both. He wants to coach here, there, anywhere. "I can't say I will be a coach or manager," he says. "But I want to be ready for whatever might happen. I want to be open to it."
In 1997, Valentine had current Marines fitness coach Ryuji Tachibana working for him with the Mets. This season, Hillman hired his Fighters bench coach, Kazuyuki Shirai, to be a scout and adviser with the Royals. Who will be next to reach out to one of these double-culture men? Maybe it'll be the Mariners; owned by Nintendo, they understand the benefits of a Pacific Rim identity. (Seattle execs insist—perhaps too adamantly, given their organizational turmoil—that they have nothing to add on this topic.) Maybe it'll be the Yankees or Red Sox, who are coming off the Dice-K sweepstakes and gearing up for a Darvish derby.
Or maybe it'll be an independent minor league club, like the stunt-loving St. Paul Saints. "I think it will happen for us in three to five years—or less," says team president Mike Veeck, who's taken his club to Japan for two postseason tours and has been studying ways to connect with the Japanese minors.
Major league baseball is traditionally inhospitable to creative thinking, but there are opportunities in places where the media heat isn't quite so intense. A place like Kansas City, last fall. "We were looking to change the culture," says GM Dayton Moore. "I knew Trey's experience could reinforce what we had to do here." The Royals haven't been to the playoffs since the Reagan administration, and most of the players are young. They could balk when Hillman extended spring training days, but they couldn't really buck. "The kids in our clubhouse are hungry to succeed," says veteran second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. "It would be different if you were bringing in some new program to the Yankees."
We're looking around a corner, wondering, imagining. When a sport goes global, minds open and barriers fall. A Venezuelan skipper won a World Series on the South Side of Chicago, after all. And it was once inconceivable to English soccer hooligans that a Portuguese man, José Mourinho, would spend three years coaching Chelsea. (He just got hired for another high-profile job, in Italy with Inter Milan.)
In Mexico, meanwhile, a Swede, Sven-Göran Eriksson, has taken over the beloved national team. In baseball, everything starts with individual relationships, like the ones Masato Yoshii is forming with Ryan Glynn and Brian Sweeney in Sapporo. Hillman's buddy Shirai says he's eager for a full-time coaching gig, and the Royals, not coincidentally, think hiring Japanese coaches is a concept worth discussing. "We're talking about it," Hillman says. "The idea is out there. And that might just be enough to make something happen."
There will come a time when this doesn't feel like a question at all. Ichiro or Hasegawa will surprise, or Shirai will stick, or Yoshii will get a shot. Maybe Yoda will make a connection that turns into an offer. It will happen because,as Japan proved with its victory in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, the distance between the Far East and North America continues to shrink. It will happen because the Japanese game—in its dedication to fundamentals and its rigorous pursuit of perfect execution—isn't really anything new at all. "The fundamentals, the attention to detail, these things don't become obsolete," says the Dodgers' Colletti. "So this isn't a radical thought."
Neither is this: The future is sooner than you think.
9hMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne
18hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
1dMarc Stein and Calvin Watkins