I Changed the Awful Tigers!

As most of you know, the Hanshin Tigers experienced a long drought between 1986 and 2002. The team had just one 2nd place finish during that spell against 10 last place seasons. They became known as ダメ虎 (Dame Tora = Awful Tigers) and looked to be perennial losers until the end of time. Not only were they poor performers on the field, but the front office had gotten rather complacent and stuck in its traditional old ways. But something happened during Katsuya Nomura’s tenure as manager (1999-2001) that changed the team’s direction forever. What was that change? Who was the driving force behind that change? This book has your answers.

Author Katsuyoshi Nozaki was working for Hanshin Electric Company’s travel agency in Tokyo until 1996, when suddenly he was given orders to move out to Osaka to work for the Hanshin Tigers. He was 54 at the time. Knowing absolutely nothing about baseball, he spent several years observing the way the team was run, while reading as many books about the sport as he could get his hands on. (I can relate to this, though I am not employed by Hanshin. I have read a pile of baseball books in the past 3 years.) Nozaki watched the team hire legend Taira Fujita as manager, only to have the deal completely backfire. He suggested the team bring in some outside blood, and even got approval to try to convince Sparky Anderson to take the helm in 1997. Unfortunately, Sparky had just ended his time with the Detroit Tigers, and wished to spend his silver years with his wife in America.

As such, the team went with Yoshio Yoshida for a third time. It did not go well at all, as he was unable to rile up the team. Nozaki continued to push his idea that the team needed to look outward for managerial direction, and the team ended up hiring Katsuya Nomura, who had just parted ways with the Yakult Swallows. Though he could not get the team out of the basement in his three seasons as manager, the team was hoping to bring him back for a fourth year. Unfortunately, his wife got caught in a tax evasion scandal, and the team had its hand forced. The next manager would be Senichi Hoshino, who only came to the club after lengthy negotiations and persuasions.

Nozaki held various positions with the club, eventually gaining respect from the old hard-headed men around him, and was able to introduce new ideas. He helped start the Hanshin Tigers Fan Club, ticket purchases by computer, and more. None of his ideas were warmly received at first, but his persistence led to their eventual implementation. And it’s a good thing they did! Where would the club be now without the smooth operations that are now in place? (It may seem like these changes were inevitable, and that time would have taken care of them. However, Nozaki helped keep Hanshin near the forefront in these areas. Even pushing them back a few more years would have meant delaying a lot of the changes that came about in their aftermaths.)

Ultimately, Hoshino had to retire due to health issues, which Nozaki goes into more than any other author I have read. For that matter, Nozaki’s book touches on issues that are seemingly taboo or swept under the Hanshin rug. One such problem is the player strike of 2004, which was prompted in part by the amalgamation of the Orix Blue Wave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Apparently, Yomiuri Giants‘ owner Tsuneo Watanabe was very strongly pushing a single 10-team league for the following season. Nozaki would have no part in it, and fought hard to persuade the other owners not to give in to Watanabe’s short-sighted vision. Good thing the league didn’t bow to “Nabetsune”!

Nozaki’s time with the team met an untimely demise when, while he was team chairman, the club was accused of providing some funds to a potential draft pick (a clear violation of league laws). Nozaki claims ignorance of any wrongdoing, but took responsibility for the team’s foul play by stepping down.

He did, however, touch on one last issue in the book, which I did not fully understand. Apparently someone named Yoshiaki Murakami, a self-proclaimed longtime Hanshin Tigers fan, bought a bunch of stock in Hanshin and eventually sold it to rival company Hankyu Electric Railway, thereby making them the de facto owners of the team. There was a bunch of hubbub in 2006 over whether or not the team would be renamed the Hankyu Tigers, but the new owners agreed to keep the present team name for a 10-year term. That agreement has since expired, but no clarity was given as to what has happened since. Fortunately for me, I have another book that I just started reading that touches on this same issue. Hopefully I will gain some clarity into the situation by reading more.

I was pleased with how much the author lauded one of the team’s first great legendary players, Tadashi Wakabayashi, whose visionary ideas changed NPB in several ways. His ideas included starting a fan club of sorts to get more kids interested in baseball and in the seats at Koshien, but he was also the man behind the splitting of Japanese Pro Baseball into two leagues back in 1950. This particular book borrowed several passages straight out of one that talks specifically of Wakabayashi’s vision. Yup. Another book added to my list of books to buy and read.

One more note about this book. As much of a fun read as it was, the level of vocabulary was much higher than what I am used to. I guess when you read books written (or ghost-written) by former ball players, it’s easy to understand what’s going on. But when it’s someone who has a legitimate college degree and years of experience in the real world, things get taken to a whole different level!

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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.