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THE HOT CORNER: Some times are still not a-changin'

by Jim Allen (May 1, 2008)

It's one thing to talk about change and enjoy the positive vibes that engenders. It's another thing to make the necessarily hard choices and act on them.

When the Hiroshima Carp needed change in 2006, they were not going to mess around with another Japanese manager. What they needed was something drastic. Toward that end, they hired former Carp outfielder Marty Brown to spearhead the effort.

A year later, the Orix Buffaloes got in on the act by hiring former major league manager Terry Collins. This put half the Pacific League and a third of Nippon Professional Baseball under foreign management.

It made sense at the time.

Bobby Valentine skippered the Chiba Lotte Marines to a Japan Series pennant in 2005. The same year Brown was hired, Trey Hillman repeated Valentine's feat with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.

Valentine was given something close to carte blanche in remaking the Marines. The Fighters' move to Sapporo required the club reorganize, and Hillman, a man with excellent organizational and people skills, was in the right place at the right time to inform the process.

The Marines and Fighters are now light years from their struggles of the previous two decades.

In short, the formula for these success stories went as follows: 1) Hire a proven foreign manager and 2) Enlist his aid in reorganizing things.

Considering how things have gone since Hiroshima and Orix jumped on the bandwagon, one can imagine the decision-making process going something like this: Some clever guy presents the above strategy to the owner, who sees Part 1, says "Great idea! Let's get ourselves a foreign manager!" and abruptly calls an end to the meeting.

Meaningful discussion over, each organization embarked on a PR campaign about its desire for change. What the clubs didn't say was that they had no interest in making any of the necessary but uncomfortable changes.

Brown and Collins run the show in spring and autumn camps and they decide how to use first-team personnel. They can give individual players tough choices, as Collins did with catcher Takeshi Hidaka last year.

"I told him, 'Either adopt a new [batting] approach or don't play, it's your choice,'" Collins said Saturday. "He worked his ass off, and now he's batting .314 with four homers--he hit five homers all of last season."

But when it comes to things beyond what the manager can supervise on a daily basis, like the farm team? Forget about it.

Most teams continue to operate more or less as they did in the days before free agency drove up operating costs and the recession body-slammed budgets. To adapt to today's reality would require honest evaluation and creativity--unlikely if top executives are satisfied by the ubiquitous rationale "That's the way we've always done it in Japan."

On the field, the game continues to thrive on hitting logical foul pops.

Last Friday, Brown and Carp head coach Jeff Livesey watched as a Yokohama coach hit ground balls to BayStars catchers, one element in almost every club's identical pre-game practice fix.

"You think they benefit from that? If you want an individual to work on something, fine. Take him down to the bullpen and block balls in the dirt. How does this help them get ready for the game? But every team does it," said Brown, who has had mixed results even in reorganizing the way his own team practices.

He said he'll ask that one of his staff stop doing something and it stops, temporarily.

"They say, 'That's how we've always done it.' They'll stop, but a couple of weeks later they're doing it again--and I have to get in someone's face," Brown said.

"Every day, every park, every team, you see the same thing."

The words struck a chord as Carp players and coaches took the field and began going through their scripted maneuvers.

In the same spot where the BayStars coach had been hitting ground balls to his catchers, a Carp coach energetically went through identical motions with his guys.

As the skipper aptly put it: "It's Groundhog Day again."


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