WE'VE HAD JAPANESE ACES, JAPANESE ALL-STARS AND JAPANESE WORLD CHAMPS. SO HOW FAR CAN WE BE FROM A JAPANESE SKIPPER IN THE BIG LEAGUES? [NOT VERY.]
ERIC NEEL [ARCHIVE]
July 10, 2012
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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, Jose 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-Goran 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.

EAST MEETS WEST

BASEBALL HAS LONG BEEN A PASSION ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PACIFIC, TOO.

1872

Horace Wilson, a professor of English at Tokyo U., introduces baseball to his students. Four years later, in the earliest recorded game in Japan, Wilson and a group of Americans defeat Imperial College of Tokyo,...
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