Date of Birth: December 6, 1968
Position: Catcher, Outfield
Height: 181 cm (5’11”)
Weight: 81 kg (178 lbs)
Wore #: 2 (1991-95); 38 (1996-97); 39 (1998-2010); 88 (2016)
Originally Drafted by: Chunichi Dragons (1990, Round 2)
Made Tigers Debut in: 1998
Retired as Player in: 2010
Coaching Career: Hanshin Tigers, Battery/Strategy Coach (2016 – present)
|Waki tatsu daichi ni||湧き立つ大地に||Swelling up from the land|
|Hikaru otoko Mo-ko no kaname||輝る男 猛虎の要||The shining man, fierce Tiger linchpin|
|Yano nerai uchi||矢野 狙い打ち||Yano, aim and fire!|
|Kattobase- Ya—no-!||かっとばせー やーのー||Slug it hard, Yano!|
Career Achievements/Awards: All-Central League Team (2003, 2005, 2006); Golden Glove Award (2003, 2005); Nippon Series Fighting Spirit Award (2005); Best Battery Award (2003 w/Kei Igawa, 2005 w/Kyuji Fujikawa); Central League All-Star (1999, 2002-06, 2008).
Akihiro Yano was born and raised in Osaka. His father was a hard-working man who was seldom at home and was mostly uninvolved in his son’s life. His mother was sick most of the time and was not always able to take care of her son. His two older siblings, a brother 7 years his senior and a sister six years older, took care of him and served as role models. Because of his older brother’s involvement in baseball as a junior high school student, Yano became interested in the sport.
He started playing on a community team in the second grade of elementary school as an infielder, but was soon asked to play catcher after the team’s catcher was unable to play due to injury. From that point, he played the position until he graduated from elementary school. Upon entering Uriwari Junior High School, Yano quit playing baseball for awhile, instead joining the team’s basketball club. He says he really enjoyed playing basketball, and considered continuing to play the sport through his school days.
However, after not getting into the high school of his choice, and then getting in to Sakuranomiya High School, he started playing baseball again, in part because his friends tried out, but also because his homeroom teacher, Yoshihiro Itoh, was also coach of the baseball club. Despite the large number of players in the club, Yano was chosen as the starting catcher in his first year. He excelled not only at catcher, but at every non-pitching position. He batted cleanup and was even the captain of his team in his third year.
After graduating from high school, Yano planned on giving up baseball. His older brother, who struggled to get decent employment after his own high school playing days were over, insisted that his younger brother go on to university, even offering to help with tuition. Because of this, Yano accepted the offer from his high school coach Itoh, who had moved on to Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai, Miyagi, to come to the school and play on the baseball team. Yano initially rejected the offer, saying he was much more interested in playing elsewhere. However, upon joining the then-unknown school’s baseball club, he and his mates experienced great success. Surrounded by future MLB/NPB stars Kazuhiro Sasaki, Tomoaki Kanemoto, and others, the team went on to the all-Japan university baseball tournament, even winning in his final season. Yano was also chosen to the all-university team as the third baseman in 1989.
Yano did not expect to be drafted by a team in the 1990 NPB draft, but when talks started to heat up, he was hoping to get signed either by the Yomiuri Giants or the Hanshin Tigers, both of whom had vacancies at the catcher position. When he was unexpectedly chosen by the Chunichi Dragons in the second round, Yano was shocked and distraught, as the Dragons already had a dependable catcher just two years older than him. He got some playing time in the outfield and a little at catcher, but never got enough playing time to prove his worth to the team.
Yano experienced a few career moments while with the Dragons, including being on the catching end of Shigeki Noguchi’s no-hitter on August 11, 1996. He was also the last player to hit a home run at the defunct Nagoya Baseball Stadium later that same year. His numbers tailed off in 1997 despite increased playing time, and in the offseason, he was traded to the Hanshin Tigers along with Yasuaki Taiho, for Koichi Sekikawa and Teruyoshi Kuji. Hanshin manager Yoshio Yoshida immediately made him starting catcher.
Yano’s first year with the Tigers was the first in which he topped 100 games, but also resulted in a low batting average of .211 on the year. Despite that, he caught his second ever no-hitter (Tetsuro Kawajiri on May 26) and handed super stopper (and former college teammate) Kazuhiro Sasaki his lone loss on the year, hitting a walk-off single on July 7. Still, the best years were yet to come for the man nicknamed “Teru” (based on an alternate reading of the first kanji of his first name).
Yano credits his success behind the plate to the three years he spent under the tutelage of legendary catcher Katsuya Nomura, who managed the Hanshin Tigers from 1999 until 2001. These were awful seasons for the team (it finished in last all 3 seasons) and were not even terribly great for Yano as a hitter, but his growth as a catcher is one big reason the team was able to win the Central League pennant in 2003 and 2005. In 1999, Yano broke the .300 mark for the first time in his career, the first Tigers catcher to do so in 20 seasons. Though his numbers dropped significantly in 2000 (and even further in 2001), he did record back-to-back seasons with enough plate appearances to qualify for hitting titles. This accomplishment was also the first for a Tigers catcher in twenty seasons. Yano thought so highly of Nomura that he lamented the manager’s untimely departure at the end of the 2001 season. He even said later that he feared that Nomura’s successor, Sen’ichi Hoshino, might dispose of him again, as he had four seasons earlier when he was manager of the Dragons.
The good news is that Hoshino had no intention of trading Yano away again. The bad news is that the 2002 season was a short one for Yano, as he separated his left shoulder during a home plate collision in April, and later broke a bone. Both cost him significant playing time but not the starting job, which he retained when he returned to the lineup, and even in the seasons to come.
It did not come without a scare, though, as the Tigers acquired another catcher in a trade with the Nippon Ham Fighters in the offseason. However, with former college teammate Tomoaki Kanemoto joining the team as a free agent that same offseason, Yano took his physique much more seriously and ended up playing the entire season. He and shortstop Atsushi Fukumoto made up the most fearsome bottom-third hitters in the league – Yano hit a personal best .328, earned his first all-CL nomination and also took the Golden Glove Award at age 34 – oldest ever at the catcher position. He fell just 4 votes shy of winning the CL MVP as well, but fell to teammate Kei Igawa.
Yano nearly became the second catcher in team history to catch in every game in 2004 (at age 35, no less) – but was used only as a pinch hitter in one game, therefore not accomplishing the rare feat. The following season, after changing his hitting form in an attempt to reduce strikeouts, Yano hit a career-best 19 home runs and once again was nominated to the all-CL team. His throw-out rate of base stealers was also a career high in 2005, and he won his second Golden Glove Award. The team reached the Nippon Series and he won the Fighting Spirit Award despite a lopsided 4-game sweep at the hands of the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Just when it looked like Yano was becoming a threat at the plate (he hit 17 home runs and had 78 RBIs in 2006), father time started to catch up with him. In 2007, he yielded time behind the plate to younger catchers, and became the main game caller for Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi, Yuya Andoh, Shinobu Fukuhara among others. He also entered many games as a pinch hitter and then caught the final inning for Kyuji Fujikawa as well. The same scenario played out in 2008, though Yano (along with Fujikawa and Takahiro Arai) missed part of the season to play for Team Japan at the Beijing Olympics.
Due to offseason surgery to his right elbow, Yano missed much of the first half of the 2009 season. When at last he made his season debut in July, he was limited to catching for Shimoyanagi and Andoh only. The next month, he (40) and Shimoyanagi (41) became the first 40+ battery combination in NPB history. Later in the season, he broke his right ankle and his season was over. He failed to reach 100 at bats for the first time as a Tiger, though his .307 average was solid.
The Hanshin Tigers acquired MLB returnee Kenji Johjima that offseason, and Yano was limited to just 8 games before he injured his right elbow again in June. He would not fully recover from the injury, and formally announced his retirement in September. He did play an inning of one final game for the farm team on September 25 – he and Shimoyanagi held opponent Chunichi Dragons scoreless – and a brief retirement ceremony was held after the game. He was called up to the parent club for the team’s final home game, and was slated to pinch hit late in the game, but because the team fell behind in the final inning, the club elected to go with a different pinch hitter instead, and he was unable to make an appearance on the game field. A retirement ceremony was held after the game.
Upon retiring after the 2010 season, Yano had hoped to take time to be with his family more often, but job offers to become a sports analyst poured in, and he succumbed to the requests. He immediately became a popular game analyst and commentator, often explaining the game from the catcher’s standpoint. (He would tell fans what pitch he would call in certain situations and why, shedding a lot of light into the complexity of calling a game.)
Always one to put his pitchers first, Yano got as excited for the pitchers as he did for himself when the team won. He never made hitting his priority, but rather spent his energy calling a great game for his pitchers. He knew which ones needed scolding, reprimanding, encouragement or distractions when things got tough. He knew which ones liked the ball scuffed up a little and which ones liked the feel of a brand new ball. (This came into play when a pitcher threw one in the dirt. If the pitcher liked a scuffed ball, which could get better spin, he would throw it immediately back to him before the ump could demand the ball be replaced with a new one. On the other hand, if the pitcher wanted a clean ball he would demand one any time the ball hit the ground before reaching his glove.)
During the 2015 offseason, after several coaching opportunities on national teams, Yano got a personal call from former university and Tigers teammate Kanemoto, who had just gotten the job as Tigers head skipper. He came on board as the battery and strategy coach, and took number 88 – a number he wore for his other coaching stints, and a tribute to his wife, whose birthday is August 8th. Ever the family man, Yano never failed to write a love letter to his Nagoya-born wife on her birthday. The Hanshin Tigers always play their Augusts on the road due to the national high school tournament occupying their home stadium, so he could never celebrate the day with his wife. After five seasons away from the Hanshin Tigers, it looks like he’ll have to get his pen out again in 2016 and beyond, in order to have that letter written for August 8.
Book Review – Hanshin’s Housewife (September 7, 2015)