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Robert Whiting

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Lost in Translation

by Robert Whiting (Jun 6, 2005)

A Japanese expansion team turned to an American G.M. to bring new blood to the game. He didn't last long.

Change does not come easily to the conservative world of Japanese baseball, but with attendance and TV ratings falling after the defections of top players to the U.S. , it has come. Last summer, for the first time, the normally docile Japanese players' association went on strike, for two days, in response to the merger of two lowly franchises, the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes. Two other landmark events followed: the creation of Japan 's first expansion team in a half century, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, and the appointment of Japanese baseball's first American general manager to run it, Los Angeles native Marty Kuehnert, 58, who had extensive experience in Japanese sports.

"If we have new blood in the league, with innovative ideas, we'll be able to turn the industry around," said the Golden Eagles' billionaire owner, Hiroshi Mikitani, a 39-year-old Harvard MBA who founded Rakuten, Japan 's most successful online shopping site. "One of the most important issues is to bring in someone who doesn't have a relationship with the old Japanese business community."

Kuehnert, a Moneyball enthusiast, qualified for the job. A former Stanford baseball player and student at Tokyo's Keio University, he had done various front- office stints, including two years as president of the Suntory-owned Birmingham Barons . He was also a successful commentator, fluent in Japanese and known for his caustic but informed criticisms of Japanese baseball, ruled as it was by aging corporate shoguns who had little baseball expertise and used their teams primarily to publicize their companies.

The new franchise, assembled from the leftovers of the Orix-Kintetsu merger, quickly became a feel-good story. Kuehnert introduced U.S. -style marketing techniques and hired a manager and coaches known for their disdain of Japan 's infamous "boot camp" training methods. He also made many preseason media appearances to promote the team and the great change in Japanese baseball it purportedly represented. Ticket requests poured in, and to Mikitani's delight, the price of Rakuten stock doubled.

Then reality set in. After an Opening Day victory, the Golden Eagles were lambasted 26--0 in their second game, setting the tone for the rest of the month. By late April the team was a humiliating 5--22, and Kuehnert's handpicked cleanup hitter, former Montreal Expo Luis Lopez, was batting .202 with two homers.

As attendance waned, the popular daily Sports Nippon summed up the Golden Eagles by saying, "They can't hit, they can't field." Well-known sportswriter Jun Ikushima compared Rakuten with the 1962 New York Mets , with one difference: "They don't have Casey Stengel ."

Mikitani then took action. After having his head shaved in a traditional Japanese act of self-purification, on April 30 he announced the demotion of Kuehnert to "adviser." Rakuten officials explained that Kuehnert "lacked the connections needed both in and outside of Japanese baseball to build for the future."

It was a sudden, very public rebuke, and some observers smelled discrimination. "When the blame game starts, the gaijin [foreigners] had better take cover," says Jack Gallagher, sports editor of The Japan Times. "Did anybody really expect an expansion team--with no proper acquisition of talent via a true expansion draft--to be respectable in its first season?"

It's a valid point, especially when it became publicly known that Kuehnert had been denied powers of most G.M.'s: He had not been made a company director, could not attend league or players' association meetings and had no say in the budget--which was a measly $22 million, the lowest in Japan . There were reports of friction, ego clashes and arguments with higher-ups. In the end, ironically, it seems that Rakuten was no different from many other organizations in Japan when faced with a reform-minded foreigner.

"All in all, it's a shame," Kuehnert said ruefully as the Eagles continued to flounder. "I believe I could have built a decent team. It was too good to believe when I got the job. And, as they say, if it's too good to be true, it usually is."

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