Hometown: Osaka City, Osaka
Date of Birth: November 25, 1957
Position: Second Base, Third Base, First Base, Outfield
Height: 175 cm (5’9”)
Weight: 77 kg (170 lb)
Wore #: 16 (with Hanshin); 10 (with Orix)
Drafted by: Hanshin Tigers, 1979 Draft (Round 1)
Made Tigers Debut on: April 11, 1980
Played Last Game on: October 2, 1995
Coach/Manager Career: Orix Blue Wave (1996-97); Hanshin Tigers (1998-2008); Orix Buffaloes (2010-12)
Career Achievements/Awards: Rookie of the Year (1980); All Central Team (1985); Diamond Glove Award (1985); Player of the Month (August 1985, June 1989); All-Star Game MVP (1980 Game 1, 1988 Game 2); Outstanding Manager (CL – 2005); All-Star Game (1980-82, 85-86, 88-90)
Akinobu Okada was born on November 25, 1957 in east Osaka. As the only child of a small factory owner and influential Hanshin Tigers supporter, the young lad had connections with the team from a very early age. His father was close with Tigers ace pitcher Minoru Murayama among others, and little Akinobu had the opportunity to play catch with then-Tigers third baseman Hidefumi (later Nobukazu) Miyake, who wore number 16. This led Okada to start playing baseball in earnest at age 10. As a junior high student, he was chosen to play catch on the Koshien field with Murayama on the day of his final game as a professional. He also frequently attended Hanshin games at Koshien, but always wanted to sit on the third base side of the field (contrary to most people’s desire to sit on the home team side) so that he could heckle the other team, particularly Yomiuri Giants third baseman Shigeo Nagashima.
Okada entered Hokuyo High School, and in his freshman year, helped lead his team all the way to the national tournament at Koshien. In two games before his club was eliminated, he recorded three hits in six at bats. He would never make it back to Koshien as a high schooler, losing in the Osaka Prefectural tournament finals in his senior year.
As a university student at Waseda University, Okada showed all sorts of promise. Once again in his freshman year, he opened many eyes by collecting three hits in a single game off Hosei University’s ace, Suguru Egawa (who went on to star with the Giants). He found himself batting cleanup from his sophomore year onwards, even winning the league Triple Crown in his junior season. He led his team to the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League title two consecutive years, as team captain, and was chosen to bat 4th for the all-Japan team in his junior and senior seasons as well. His final career stat line as a university student: 88 games played, 309 at bats, 117 hits, 20 home runs, 81 RBIs and a .379 average. The latter two numbers remain league records to this date.
Rewriting the history books as a university student garnered him all sorts of attention from the professional leagues and their teams. He was an obvious first round choice in the 1979 draft, with six teams (including 4 teams in the Kansai region, where he hoped to play both at his mother’s request and his own love for Hanshin) entering the lottery. Okada himself said that he really wanted to play for Hanshin, but that any of the Kansai teams (Nankai Hawks, Kintetsu Buffaloes, Hankyu Braves), or a team that was serious about winning, would do. The Tigers drew the winning ballot, and he became team property that offseason.
His start with the Tigers was not without controversy, though. At his press conference, he reportedly introduced himself as “Tigers third baseman Akinobu Okada,” which could be interpreted that he believed he would be given the position right away. Naturally, with Masayuki Kakefu firmly entrenched at the hot corner (and the heart of the lineup), this would not happen. The media made careful note of his words, and there was speculation that Kakefu and Okada were on bad terms from day 1. Not only was his first press conference attention-drawing, but his rookie debut created plenty of waves as well. Incumbent manager Don “Blazer” Blasingame firmly believed that rookies should be slowly eased into action, but the media, fans, and Okada himself were intolerant of this approach. Blasingame brought in import Dave Hilton to play second base at the start of the 1980 season, and when he did not perform well, fans expressed their disapproval of Blazer’s managerial decisions and Hilton’s poor play. The two Americans were constantly heckled and harassed by fans. Taxis were kicked and rocked back and forth, things were thrown at them and even death threat letters were sent. Hilton’s wife, who was pregnant at the time, was also a victim of fan harassment. Ultimately, Blazer was laid off midseason, and Hilton was sent packing after just 18 games.
Okada got regular playing time under replacement manager Futoshi Nakanishi, and would be named to the all-star team. In Game 1, he set a record by becoming the youngest player (22 years, 7 months) to get a pinch hit home run in the midseason classic. The record would stand until 2015 when Tomoya Mori (Seibu) hit one at 19 years, 11 months. Okada finished the year strongly, earning Rookie of the Year honors for his 18 home runs, 54 RBIs and .290 average.
Okada appeared in all 130 games in 1981, notching 20 home runs, then finished a season above .300 for the first time in 1982, and was threatening to win the home run title in 1983 before a foot injury shut him down for the year after just 79 games. In 1984, he was shifted to the outfield, but returned to second base in 1985.
That season, Okada sparked the team to victory on several occasions. On April 16, he scored all the way from first base on a botched infield fly by the Giants, and the next day he hit the third of three consecutive home runs to center field against Giants ace Makihara. Says Okada, “After Bass and Kakefu hit home runs, I felt a lot of pressure. Normally I am happy to get hits, but nothing but a home run would do in that atmosphere. I bet on a slider and I got it.” Later in the year, tragedy struck as Hanshin team president died in a plane crash on August 12. Okada, who was an avid flyer himself, kicked his game into high gear. He hit .429 with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs that month, getting Player of the Month honors. He also hit walk-off home runs in consecutive games the following month. He finished the year second in batting average (.342) behind teammate Randy Bass, hit a career-best 35 home runs (4th in the league) and have 101 RBIs (5th). Along with teammates Akinobu Mayumi, Kakefu and Bass, Okada helped lead the team to its lone Nippon Series championship.
His career continued with the Tigers but took a downturn in 1987. He quickly recovered to hit 20 or more home runs in the next three years, and took over as third baseman after Kakefu retired. In June of the second of those years, he hit a dramatic bases-loaded home run against bitter rival Yomiuri. It came exactly 30 years after (arguably) the most dramatic home run in Japanese baseball history – Nagashima’s walk off home run against the Tigers in Tokyo with the Emperor present. That month, Okada hit 8 home runs, which was one fewer than new teammate Cecil Fielder, but enough to earn him Player of the Month for the second time in his career. He shifted back to second base for the 1990 season.
Okada’s decline started in 1992 when he was shifted to first base to make room for Yutaka Wada at second. His batting average dipped below .200 and he was pinch hit for on several occasions. After yet another move to the outfield in 1993, his plate appearances and performance continued to decline, and the team released him at season’s end, citing his declining physique and results as reason.
Instead of retiring, Okada moved on to another club in the Kansai area, the Orix Blue Wave. He put up adequate numbers with limited playing time in his first year, 1994, but played very little in 1995. He left the game in style, winning a pennant for the first time in a decade, but did not appear in any action in the Nippon Series. For two seasons following his retirement, Okada stayed with the Orix organization as second squad (farm) coach/manager.
In 1998, Okada returned to Hanshin as second squad manager. In his third season in 2000, he led the squad to its first of two consecutive pennants and Nippon Series (Second Squad) championships. One year later, he changed positions, becoming the base running and defensive positioning coach for the top squad in 2003 under manager Senichi Hoshino. Upon winning the Central League pennant but bowing out in the Nippon Series to the Daiei Hawks, Hoshino retired for health reasons, and Okada took over as first squad manager to start the 2004 season.
Taking over a defending champion was not as easy as it looked on paper. Players who feared Hoshino and practiced hard started to ease their intensity under Okada (according to team leader Tomoaki Kanemoto). Some players slumped, some had freak injuries, and two (Jeff Williams and Yuya Andoh) were lost for part of the season due to the Summer Olympics in Athens. The result was a disappointing 4th place finish, but a renewed fervor and desire to win.
In 2005, the team played perhaps its best regular season ever. Okada developed a “winning formula” whereby he would employ the reliever combination of Jeff Williams, Kyuji Fujikawa and Tomoyuki Kubota (JFK) to take some pressure off his starters and ensure the team would not be defeated late in games. The three played in more than half of the team’s games, and the pennant was back in Hanshin’s hands. One key turning point came on September 7th at Nagoya Dome against the Chunichi Dragons. The team took a controversial call on the chin, and Okada called his players off the field while he argued at length (unsuccessfully, obviously) with the umpires. A dropped ball by Norihiro Akahoshi resulted in the winning (walk off) run being in scoring position, and Okada went to the mound, where Kubota was waiting. “You just throw. If they hit, they hit and it’s not your fault. I will take full responsibility if we lose!” Kubota struck out the next two batters and the team won the game in extra innings.
The team clinched the pennant three weeks later at Koshien against the Giants. Unfortunately, it did not fare well in the Nippon Series, where the Chiba Lotte Marines beat them in four straight by a combined score of 33-4. Okada was criticized for sticking to his formula of using JFK only in winning situations, and the trio did not appear in any action.
Despite wonderful charity work off the field in 2006, including major donations to help protect endangered species of tigers in India, Okada’s success as manager ended with the 2005 pennant. His arguments with umpires increased, and his two ejections in the 2007 season made him the first Central League Japanese manager ever to get tossed twice in one year.
His career as Hanshin manager ended in 2008. The team started the year extremely well and built a seemingly insurmountable lead on the rest of the league – at one point they led Yomiuri by 13 games – but losing key players (Takahiro Arai, Akihiro Yano, Fujikawa) to Olympic action once again precipitated the team’s late season slump. The Giants would eventually overtake them to win the pennant. Okada took responsibility for the team’s failure by stepping down as manager.
After a season as a columnist for Daily Sports newspaper and regular appearances on baseball programs (including game commentary), Okada returned to the dugout – this time back with Orix (who had merged with the Kintetsu Buffaloes to become the Orix Buffaloes). In his three seasons as manager, the team failed to make the playoffs despite having a strong young core of talent. Before the 2012 season ended, the team requested that he and coach Takashiro take leave, and he was replaced before season’s end.
From 2013 to present, Okada has resumed working with Daily Sports and appears regularly on television as a baseball analyst and commentator. His Kansai personality comes through strongly as he seldom minces words.
Book Review – How Hanshin Started Winning Again (November 29, 2015)