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THE HOT CORNER: The Lions' favorite side of the game

by Jim Allen (Mar 27, 2008)

What separates sport from theater is the belief that success is measured by winning, rather than popularity. Pro wrestling is physically demanding, but it is theater. It is about creating a spectacle. Sports can be dramatic, but the drama occurs within a rigid context of competition.

We can look up to sports champions, because we know their achievement is not primarily the result of popularity and politics. Sport offers an oasis in a world where who one knows can be more important than what one knows, and promotion is sometimes determined by the color of one's nose.

Hometown umpiring calls not withstanding, baseball winners are not decided by popularity.

"There's no room for favoritism here," Saitama Seibu Lions batting coach Hiromoto "Dave" Okubo said Sunday. "Whether we like a player or dislike a player cannot enter into our evaluation."

At least that's the theory.

Coaches and managers try to be as objective as they can; winning demands that. But like the rest of us, they still make decisions that defy easy explanation. If the skipper is right, if he sees something in a player that others do not, then his team will win and he deserves credit for it.

In the case of the Lions, the inexplicable decision is why 22-year-old Kenta Matsusaka is playing in the Pacific League while Hisashi Takayama--a much better hitter--has been relegated to the minors.

Manager Hisanobu Watanabe, the man who ostensibly made this decision, told The Hot Corner that the 26-year-old Takayama is an important part of the team. But that doesn't jibe with the decision to ditch him.

This is not about Matsusaka going 0-for-9 in his first four games. It is about his credentials. He had his best minor league season in 2007, batting .291 in the hitter-friendly Eastern League with some walks but no power. Takayama hit .347 over his last two EL seasons, with good but not overwhelming power. He won't walk as much as Matsusaka, but he'll be on base more often and hit many more doubles and home runs.

What Matsusaka has is potential. Because of his speed and his age, he has a vastly better chance of developing into a star than Takayama. But while Matsusaka does not appear to be ready now, Takayama is good enough to play everyday or be part of a platoon combination.

Instead, he is back in the minors.

"I believe it will be a blow to his motivation," said Watanabe. "But I have my eye on him and am considering how to use him."

That may be, but it's obvious the skipper and his staff spent far more time thinking about how to use Matsusaka, who has credited Okubo with helping turn around his hitting.

One Seibu coach said Matsusaka's relationship with Okubo was the reason for Takayama's exile.

"It's simply a matter of who is liked more," the coach said. "It's a popularity contest.

"They [Matsusaka and Takayama] both worked hard, both did everything they were asked to do, but Takayama got sent down."

Okubo rationalized the decision based on the club's surplus of right-handed hitters--despite the fact that like Takayama, Matsusaka also bats right-handed.

"Of course he [Takayama] was stunned, so was I," he said. "He is a good hitter, but you know we don't have many left-handed hitters on our team.

"Takayama is the same kind of hitter as [left-handed-hitting outfielder Hiroyuki] Oshima. We need left-handed pinch-hitters to come off the bench against right-handed closers late in the game."

That sounds like it is part of the problem, too. Because Takayama went 4-for-11 as a PL pinch-hitter in 2007 with a pair of homers, the Lions might only see him in that role. Takayama hasn't had the opportunity to play regularly yet, although that may change if Matsusaka does not hit.

Because batting results are public knowledge, a manager can't play an unsuccessful hitter indefinitely. If Matsusaka doesn't seize this chance the way Watanabe expects him to, he won't have it for long.

Of course, even then there is no guarantee Watanabe will give the starting left-field job to anyone who is actually qualified.


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