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Managing change in Hokkaido

by Jim Allen (Mar 19, 2008)

Although Masataka Nashida has been down the road a few times, this particular path is strangely new to him. Nashida had spent his entire career as a player, coach and manager with the hard-hitting Kintetsu Buffaloes.

Out of baseball since the Buffaloes went belly-up in 2004, the 54-year-old is back managing in the Pacific League but at the helm of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

"Manager [Trey] Hillman won two straight titles here so there is some pressure coming in," Nashida told The Daily Yomiuri in February at his team's spring camp at Nago, Okinawa Prefecture. "This team has a lot of recognized strengths."

Yet, those strengths are not the ones Nashida was used to having at his disposal. Instead of power, the Fighters succeeded with just their pitching, speed and defense.

"This is completely the opposite [of the old Buffaloes], Nashida said. "When we won the league in 2001, our ERA was 4.98. They have such great pitchers here. You know our ERA will be in the low 3s. But the batting is a bit weak."

After saying he wanted to install his brand of baseball, one has to ask how the veteran skipper will manage that without sacrificing the Fighters' trademark fielding.

"Defense is the thing here...and one can make use of that speed [on offense]. I want the players to continue running the bases aggressively, trying to steal.

"When [PL MVP Yu] Darvish is pitching we want to score early and [thus] you want to bunt.

"If you can score early with Darvish on the mound, he can throw a complete game and hold the other side to a run or two. He can win with just one or two runs behind him.

"But the other pitchers need runs, so we won't be bunting with one out. In that case, I think we will steal a lot more. We want to aggressively push for a run."

The club cut its ties with slugging switch-hitter Fernando Seguignol, whose 21 homers were not many for him but still led a team that had just three players with double digits in dingers.

"They had only 73 home runs last year--just one every other game. I expect us to hit 100, at least. I believe that is doable," said Nashida, who is hoping for some production from second-year man Mitch Jones, new import Terrmel Sledge, and eventually teenage rookie Sho Nakata.

"Now we have a new guy, Sledge. He isn't a real power hitter. Probably he'll end up with 20-plus homers, with an average between .280 and .300. He can play the outfield but I have so many options in left. I think the best place for him is first.

"Nakata, he's got some kind of power. There's no mistake that he's been well trained. He's a right-handed hitter but drives the ball to center and to right. He has power to all fields."

The promise of power to come is just one of the things that has Nashida happy and humming--a far cry from the worn-out and weary man who herded his beloved Buffaloes to the slaughterhouse in the team's 2004 merger with the Orix BlueWave.

"That [poor health] was because of the merger," he said. "My team was being dissolved. My baseball roots were disappearing."

After three years as an analyst, as an outsider looking in, Nashida got the call from the Fighters when Hillman decided he needed to work in the States to be with his family more.

Nashida said he didn't learn much from his time as an analyst but it did give him a chance to catch his breath.

"Every day I kept score, noted the pitches, the locations, could see the plays coming ahead of time," he said. "But it was a good chance for me to regroup. I come at it now full of energy.

"I am very happy the Fighters called on me at this time."

Although the club lost its field manager and general manager--Shigeru Takada skipped back to his Central League roots to manage the Tokyo Yakult Swallows--the Nippon Ham organization still looks as efficient as any in Japan.

"[Before I came] I thought they had a lot of American ideas, a lot of major league thinking incorporated into the organization in the way each part functions," Nashida said. "The way the scouting was organized, pro scouting, amateur scouting, conditioning. People have responsibilities, roles. That makes it really easy for me.

"I have absolutely no worries about the rest of the organization, that the work is getting done.

"In that respect, I think we are ahead of a lot of Japanese teams, because we have been able to integrate some American ways of doing things."

Before leaving Japan, Hillman said he and Nashida agreed on a lot of things when it came to managing, how a manager should carry himself and what was essential to the job.

"For me, it [managing] means finding the qualities in the players," Nashida said.

"Even those players who've been dropped down to the farm team absolutely have some talent. My job is to find it, bring it out and show everyone."

"For example--when I was a child I loved eggs but I hated to break them--I still want to get that inside part [a player's talent] to the outside, realize that essence, but without breaking the shell."

Back in his element, Nashida goes about his Easter egg hunt for hidden strengths in Hokkaido looking much younger and healthier.

"I had a polyp from colon cancer [in 2004] but the doctors took it out and I'm fine," he said.

"My eyes are better, I had my teeth fixed. I'm like new. Right when I was feeling my best, Nippon Ham called on me. All I can think of is, 'What great timing.'"


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