Former Hanshin Tigers manager Senichi Hoshino, who led the team to its first pennant in 18 years in 2003, passed away on January 4th of pancreatic cancer. He was 70 years old.
As a young man, Hoshino wanted nothing more than to take down the Yomiuri Giants. He was chosen by the Chunichi Dragons in the first round of the 1968 draft out of Meiji University, and was a big part in his team’s defeating the Giants in the 1974 pennant race. He took home the Sawamura Award as Japan’s top pitcher that year. After his 14-year career as a pitcher, Hoshino took over as Dragons manager in 1986, and led the team to two pennants: 1988 and 1999.
Hoshino continued to manage the Dragons through the end of the 2001 season, but resigned after the team finished in fifth place. He also clarified his reason for stepping down, saying, “My first stint as manager lasted five years. I’ve been at the helm for six years this time around. It is not good for the health of the franchise to have the same manager for much longer than that.”
His hiring that offseason by the Hanshin Tigers came in a flurry of surprise and controversy. Incumbent manager Katsuya Nomura was slated to return for a fourth season in 2002, but his wife’s arrest for tax evasion caused the team to cancel its contract extension offer. Earlier during his tenure with the team, Nomura had expressed feelings that he was a mismatch for the organization, and that if the team really wanted to succeed, they needed to bring in someone more fervent like Hoshino. However, Hoshino had already received a job offer from NHK to do color commentary. But when the Tigers met all of his demands (bringing in his fellow Dragons coach Ikuo Shimano, hiring Koichi Tabuchi as coach — essentially welcoming him back into the Hanshin fold after the team disposed of him on extremely bitter terms back in 1976), he stepped into the manager’s seat for the Tigers.
When he met with the team owner, Shunjiro Kuma, he told him directly that the club’s 17 years of futility were squarely the ownership’s fault. It was the owner, after all, who kept his purse strings rather tight, and did not display much desire to bring a championship to Osaka. Hoshino also said that he wanted to win… over and over, to whomever would listen.
About his decision to take on the challenge of rebuilding the Tigers in the first place, Hoshino said, “As someone whose very life is anti-Giants, it is my mission to make these Hanshin Tigers strong. It is for the good of baseball.”
The club started out strongly in the 2002 season, and it looked like Hoshino’s hiring was exactly what the team needed. However, injuries and normalization sent the team back down the standings, and it finished in fourth place – a marked improvement after four straight last-place finishes. That offseason, the team changed up more than a third of its playing personnel. You should know the results of those moves by now. For more details about the 2003 championship season, click here.
Unfortunately, Hoshino, who displayed more passion in the dugout than any manager in Japan, could not physically handle the emotional strain of managing any longer. Doctors warned him that if he continued to manage, his high blood pressure would result in heart failure. As his daughters had already lost their mother in recent years, they begged him to step down.
He was one of the strictest managers the team has ever known. Perhaps more known for this with the Dragons, Hoshino was not afraid to physically punish players for misdeeds or the wrong attitude. But he also showed them love like no other skipper. Said legendary outfielder Norihiro Akahoshi, “He always followed his punishments with praises when we did things right.”
Hoshino also saw beyond himself and the players he led. He was known to have told part-time workers at Koshien, “It’s because you all do your jobs that we are able to play baseball here. Thank you.”
When he took over as manager of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles during the 2010-11 offseason, he inadvertently stepped right into a disaster-laden land, literally. On March 11, 2011, a strong earthquake rocked the region, followed by a catastrophic tsunami and then a nuclear power plant meltdown. Thousands of residents were evacuated from their homes, and lived in school gymnasiums among other places. People’s lives were turned upside down, and the baseball season was delayed by a few weeks. During that time, Hoshino personally visited evacuees and victims’ families, giving them hope and encouragement. Then, when he led the team to its first Japan Series championship in 2013, he dedicated the win to the children of Tohoku, as well as all the victims of the tragic natural disaster.
In his induction speech into the Baseball Hall of Fame last November, Hoshino said, “I’m so glad I have been able to have this kind of relationship with baseball my whole life. I’m so glad we fell in love. I wish I’d fallen even more in love with baseball.” Truly, the man gave his whole life to the game, and loved every moment of it. His memory will be cherished for a long time.
Hoshino’s death has rocked the entire baseball world, but perhaps nowhere more so than the Hanshin Tigers organization. He had Akinobu Okada (manager from 2004-08) and Yutaka Wada (manager from 2012-15) on his coaching staff, as well as current managers Tomoaki Kanemoto (2016-present) and Akihiro Yano (farm manager) on his roster. All of these men were touched by Hoshino, and surely his style of baseball, particularly his tenacity and intensity when it came to winning games, will remain with the club for years. Kanemoto said, “It was because of Hoshino that I came to play for the Tigers, and it’s because of him that we won two pennants (including 2005). I want to remember him throughout the season and use what I learned from him about winning.”
Rest in Peace, Mr. Hoshino.