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THE HOT CORNER: Lions learn to love the bomb

by Jim Allen (Jun 12, 2008)

A colleague joked the other day if anyone had tested the water the Saitama Seibu Lions were drinking. Something, he reasoned, must be driving their home run surge other than G.G. Sato's late-night weight-lifting sessions.

While Sato, who is on course for a season with 48 doubles and 37 home runs, is part of the answer, the whole lineup is bursting with power. More than anyone, however, the Lions true sultan of swing is the former pitcher who took a round-about route to managing: Hisanobu Watanabe.

Watanabe, who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as the Lions starter in Game 1 of the 1994 Japan Series (featured because the majors were on strike that year), has come a long way since he was considered the pop idol of the otherwise-stodgy club.

After retiring from Japanese ball, Watanabe went to Taiwan, ostensibly as a coach.

"It was funny. My career was over and I was there as a coach. But I couldn't speak a word of Chinese so I had to demonstrate," Watanabe told The Hot Corner early this season. "And I could still throw hard--so I became a player-coach in camp."

Living in a rural town between Tainan and Taichung, Watanabe studied with a tutor and within a year his Chinese language skills were "fairly useful." He is still fond of the country and its game. Although Taiwan's baseball people have a lot of respect for Japan's skill level, Watanabe says the thinking there is somewhat different.

"They've had Japanese coaches going over there for the last 20 years, so they look to Japan," Watanabe said. "But they aspire to a more powerful game; the hitters take big swings.

"I liked that."

In Watanabe's early days as a pro, the Lions were the hardest hitting team in Japan. But that didn't prevent managers Tatsuro Hirooka and Masaaki Mori from steering the club toward a painfully predictable Japanese-style game, picking opponents apart with sacrifice bunts, pitching and defense.

One can't knock success, however, and under Hirooka and Mori the Lions won the Pacific League 11 times in 13 years. But the dogma of the sacrifice bunt could not save the Lions after front office wizard Rikuo Nemoto left the club for Fukuoka following the 1992 season. As soon as Nemoto's talent pipeline began flowing for the Daiei Hawks, the Lions quickly got old.

Young hitters who could have slowed the dynasty's decline were kept down on the farm too long, simply because their defensive reputations didn't mesh with Mori's vision of the game. Because of Mori's unswerving faith in pitching and defense, Ken Suzuki and Hiromoto "Dave" Okubo, a pair of sluggers with marginal defensive reputations, were left to rot in the Eastern League.

Okubo, who is still bitter about not getting a chance to play until a trade sent him to the Yomiuri Giants, is now Watanabe's batting coach, telling players they not only can, but should, take big swings in hitters' counts. Needless to say, the shoe is definitely on the other foot in Tokorozawa.

For shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima, it was reassuring that someone in charge appreciated his approach to hitting.

"If I'm behind in the count, I look to make contact more, but I really want to drive the ball," said the No. 3 hitter, who, with 13 home runs through Tuesday, is on course to surpass his career high of 27 bombs--hit in 2004, the last season in which Mizuno's livelier balls were in use.

"I think a lot of older former players may not like our [big-swinging] style, but we are not just swinging from the heels. We have to be smart about it."

Baseball requires players to be both disciplined and aggressive--and that is the secret to Seibu's success.

"I don't like guys being tentative, slapping at the ball," Watanabe said after one three-homer game.

With their speed and decent plate discipline, Watanabe's Lions have a multidimensional offense, not unlike those in the team's golden age. But because this skipper is less paranoid about the evil implications of big swings, these Lions are much less uptight and far more fun to watch.

It's been a long time coming, but thanks to Watanabe, the Lions have learned how to stop worrying and love the bomb.


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