SAPPORO ― Despite a slow start to the season, first-year manager Tsuyoshi Shinjo shows no signs of changing his unconventional ways as he attempts to rebuild the fledgling Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters.
Shinjo was brought in to shake things up after the team finished second to bottom in the Pacific League standings for three straight seasons.
Hiring a manager with no prior experience may seem like a risky proposition, but throughout his playing career, Shinjo has had an uncanny knack for proving his doubters wrong.
After a 4-11 start (through Tuesday, April 12), the naysayers in the notoriously staid world of Nippon Professional Baseball are already questioning his management skills. But that didn’t upset Shinjo one bit.
He knows he wasn’t hired to maintain the status quo. There will be growing pains with this young team and the guy who calls himself “Big Boss” is perfectly happy with that.
The 50-year-old Shinjo opened up about his philosophy ahead of a three-game set with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles at the Sapporo Dome recently.
Referring to his past managers in Major League Baseball, Shinjo said he could learn a lot from managerial legends Dusty Baker and Bobby Valentine.
“Baker’s style was to stick to a set lineup,” Shinjo said, looking back on his time with the San Francisco Giants in 2002. “That was good for a mature team like the one he had. But that approach doesn’t really suit a young team like this. My approach is more like Bobby’s now.”
Shinjo’s best season in the majors came in 2001 with the New York Mets under Bobby V, who wasn’t afraid to try different things. That seems to have made a lasting impression on the skipper in the first year.
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Take a different approach
Shinjo has used a dizzying number of punch commands this season. Some veteran baseball men have questioned the wisdom of this.
Former Chunichi Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai, a man known for doing things his way, continued TBS‘s sunday morning news program and said he had no idea what Nipponham was up to, but Shinjo was undeterred.
A case in point is promising young infielder Kotaro Kiyomiya.
The Fighters ditched slugging first baseman Sho Nakata last season after it was revealed he bullied a teammate.
Nakata went to the Yomiuri Giants and that opened the door for Kiyomiya, a player who hit a record 111 homers in three seasons in high school but has yet to reach his full potential in the NPB.
“I don’t worry that much about winning and losing,” Shinjo said. “The most important thing now is to gain experience for the players and to build for the future.”
Shinjo told the 22-year-old Tokyo native he needed to lose weight and Kiyomiya did just that, showing up for spring training this season at a respectable 98kg.
While it’s early days, Kiyomiya has gotten off to a decent start with two homers, six hits and five RBIs in 13 games.
Those numbers suggest he’s in for his most productive season yet.
The pitching staff is still a work in progress. Their top two starters – Naoyuki Uwasawa and Hiromi Ito – are yet to record wins. The team brought in former major league player John Gant, who won 11-1 in St. Louis in 2019 but has yet to conquer the mound. Whether that’s due to injury, the club won’t say, but having a pitcher of his caliber would certainly help.
Attract attention worldwide
Meanwhile, Shinjo has caused a stir both on and off the pitch with his unorthodox methods.
He flew in a hovercraft over the Sapporo Dome field on opening day, which looked like something it had come out of The Jetsons.
The move drew global attention from UK news outlets CBS morning news to a Fox TV subsidiary in Seattle posts the futuristic scene on Twitter accounts.
Before games, he sits in a 12-foot high chair behind home plate dubbed the “Big Boss Stage,” which comes with its own built-in ladder.
So far it’s perfectly clear that Shinjo is a player manager and his young squad seems to like the atmosphere around the team.
“He’s great, he’s trying to give you the confidence to play the game,” said Arismendy Alcantara, a infielder and former major league player for the Fighters, who is in his first season in Japan. “He’s always trying new things and I like that. We work hard every day but we also have fun and that is very important for a young team like ours.”
Shinjo seems like the right man to lead a new generation of Japanese players.
Gone are the days of drill sergeant managers like Senichi Hoshino and Tatsuro Hirooka with their practice-til-you-drop mantras.
Shinjo is more in tune with fellow coaches Tadahito Iguchi (Chiba Lotte Marines) and Shingo Takatsu (Tokyo Yakult Swallows), who have played in the big leagues and know a softer touch is needed now.
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Meanwhile, the Nipponham fanbase seems content to weather the storm. In the recent series with the Eagles, many seemed willing to take the long-term perspective.
“It’s a young team with a lot of potential, so we can’t expect too much from them this season,” said Sapporo-based taxi driver Masanori Kondo. “When they got rid of Nakata and brought in Shinjo, I started getting interested in the team. Shinjo’s current task is to build a team for the future. Nobody expects them to win the Japan Series this year.”
How long this patience will last is anyone’s guess. Fans seem amused by Shinjo’s off-field antics, but as Ochiai said, “Winning is the ultimate form of fan service.”
The Fighters first won the Japan Series in 2006 under American coach Trey Hillman. Atsunori Inaba, now the team’s GM, was the MVP that year.
Her next Japan Series win came in 2016 under Shinjo’s predecessor Hideki Kuriyama.
But the team has lost its way in recent years and Shinjo has been called in to shake things up.
A flair for showmanship
The team wanted a new bank boss and got the Big Boss instead.
This isn’t the first time Shinjo has been called out to revive the team.
Before moving to Hokkaido in 2004, the Fighters shared the Tokyo Dome with the ever-popular Yomiuri Giants. The fighters’ games were sparsely attended and the results on the field were mostly uninspiring.
When the team moved to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido in 2004, they turned to Shinjo.
At the time, Shinjo was famous in Japan for his playing days with the Hanshin Tigers. He had also spent time in MLB, becoming the first Japanese player to appear in a World Series with the San Francisco Giants in 2002.
Bringing Shinjo to the team was a stroke of genius at the time, as it gave the team much-needed star power just as they were trying to carve out a new fanbase in Hokkaido.
Aside from his flashy play during matches, Shinjo was known for several stunts such as: B. Entering the field for pre-game warm-up in a variety of costumes.
Along with the help of Yu Darvish and Inaba, the team became very popular in Hokkaido and rewarded their fans with a championship in 2006.
The escape from Tokyo and the burden of playing second fiddle to the Giants proved to be a tremendous boost for the team as they were able to establish their own identity in Sapporo.
The Shinjo effect is already setting in. The team enjoyed the second-highest opening-day TV rating of 26.5% since moving to Sapporo for their first game of the season on March 25 in Fukuoka. The highest was 31.6% on opening day 2012 when Yuki Saito, the handkerchief prince, made his first full game win.
Fighters move into New Ballpark
Besides the arrival of Shinjo, there are other exciting projects in the works for the Fighters.
The team will play in a new, state-of-the-art stadium in 2023. ES CON Field Hokkaido in Kitahiroshima will have a retractable roof and seat 35,000 spectators.
Over the years the team has had a reputation for thinking outside the box and that has served them well. Japanese baseball, particularly in the Yomiuri-dominated Central League, can be quite resistant to change.
For now, despite the preseason losses, everyone seems on board with the Shinjo methods.
As a player, Shinjo wasn’t gifted with stellar skills but managed to play 13 seasons in NPB and three in the majors.
Making the most of his abilities, he was a seven-time NPB All-Star and a 10-time Golden Glove Award winner.
His crowning moment came when he helped the Fighters win the Japan Series in 2006, his last season as a player.
Some might have underestimated him due to his flamboyant demeanor, but he was a smart player with a keen sense of what it takes to win.
Now as manager of the Fighters, he hopes those same baseball instincts will lead to greater success.
“He brings a lot of energy to the team,” added Alcantara. “So far everything I see is good. He is also having fun and cheering with us.”
There is no doubt about it. When a Nipponham player receives a key hit to drive in a run, Shinjo is the first person to high-five at the top of the dugout stairs.
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Author: Jim Armstrong
The author is a veteran journalist who has covered sports in Japan for more than 25 years. You can find his articles here.