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THE HOT CORNER: Just winning not enough for Orix

by Jim Allen (Mar 20, 2008)

For Orix it was business as usual in the offseason: Another unhappy player and accusations of misunderstanding. With that kind of lead up to the season, one is inclined to predict doom for Buffaloes on the field as well.

The off-field circus is a problem, not because the team missed out on a player it wanted, but because it sends a bad signal to the guys on the field.

Winning requires sacrifice: getting your work in when it is hard, making adjustments that allow you stay a step ahead, dealing positively with failure and letting the focus be on the team's success rather than your own.

But if the message from the front office is "We are not as organized or as efficient as we could be and covering our asses is more important than winning," then it's really hard to go out on a limb for the team.

When push comes to shove, you have to know your teammates and your organization are behind you doing their share.

While Orix does not appear to have the talent to finish first, this seems like a moot point. If the Buffaloes did have the talent, it would still be a tough slog to the top as long as doubts remain about top management's competence.

That being said, the Buffaloes will be better this season. Simply because it's easier for bad clubs to improve than good ones, manager Terry Collins' club could make a surprising leap in the standings.

Would he be happy with that? Absolutely. Satisfied? Not necessarily.

What Collins says counts is quality. Is this a club that will continue to improve or are the Buffaloes doomed to remain Pacific League prey for the foreseeable future?

"It's not only about winning," Collins told The Hot Corner last week. "It's about getting better."

Despite a winter that ended in distraction, this club could easily climb a few rungs in the PL ladder. But if they fall back the following year, what's the point?

At or near the top of Collins' long list of areas slated for improvement is developing a winning attitude--the thought that winning is not only possible but expected. The idea of adhering to a higher standard has not been a part of this club's culture since Orix purchased the team after the 1988 season.

"These guys don't expect to win, it's that simple," said Collins.

But that can change very quickly. The concept of winning spirit was once alien to the Nippon Ham Fighters. But look at them now.

One of the things former manager Trey Hillman did was push the idea that being a Fighter meant being something special.

This became an easier sell after winning it all in 2006. When Hillman knew he could push his guys to do more physically, he told them: "I want us to be better than everybody else. Give me a little bit more [heart], because that's what Fighters players do."

Often outgunned but rarely outplayed, the 2007 Fighters won everything but the Japan Series.

But one can't start that fire without a spark. Because the 2008 Buffaloes have a chance to be better, this could be the year they begin to believe they not only can win, but that they should win.

The Buffaloes were weak at seven spots in their batting order last year. That number was reduced to six with the acquisition of hard-hitting first baseman Alex Cabrera.

However, outfielder Osamu Hamanaka is a lottery ticket. The former Hanshin Tiger star has played 100-plus games just three times in his career.

If healthy, he gives the Buffaloes a four-man offensive core, with last year's starting first baseman, Hirotoshi Kitagawa, coming off the bench.

Collins said his pitching lacks depth, and impending surgery for right-handed starter Yoshihisa Hirano appears to have proven him out. His rotation will likely look like a tire with more patches than rubber.

The Buffaloes may be the smallest and physically weakest team in the country, but more promising youngsters will get playing time this season.

If some of them pan out and the Buffaloes win more consistently, attitudes could change. Should that happen, the bright future Collins envisions could be very close at hand.


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