First of two parts.
Sadaharu Oh's Hawks won a title for the first time since 2003 on Sunday, but an interleague championship alone will not likely be enough for the Fukuoka SoftBank skipper to stick around another season.
At the end off 2007, Oh said this campaign might be his last, with his Fukuoka future depending on two conditions: his health and the Hawks' success.
"No Japan Series berths in four years is not good enough, and in the end this job is about results," Oh told The Daily Yomiuri this spring.
"I never said I was finished. The media reported it that way and I figured if the players thought this year was my last, it would motivate them more, so I let the misperception slide."
Although the interleague title was one minor goal, repeated postseason failures have meant no new flags for the Hawks' collection since they last won the Japan Series in 2003.
"If I don't win, it will be over, whether I want to stay or not. Baseball's always that way," Oh said. "But every job is like is that: Do the work or get out."
If the Hawks are going to do the job, they will have to overcome the nerves that go along with what may be the legend's last year in uniform.
"Everybody is aware of it maybe being his last season, and the coaches are on everybody about it," lefty reliever C.J. Nitkowski said Saturday.
"It's now to the point where we have a meeting after every loss. Last year we'd have one after two or three losses. Everyone is just so afraid of losing."
One thing after another has gone wrong for the Hawks, beginning with the absence of ace Kazumi Saito, who will likely miss the entire year following offseason surgery. The club began the season without slugger Hiroki Kokubo, while center fielder Hitoshi Tamura's big bat was silenced due to injury on April 25. Closer Takahiro Mahara, who saved 89 games over the previous three seasons, has not pitched this year due to inflamation in his shoulder. He is not expected back until at least sometime in August.
After struggling through April, a May 1 loss left the Hawks in fifth place and four games under .500. It was unfamiliar territory for a team that had finished first in the regular season in three of the last five seasons.
"The first half of the season there were a lot of things that just didn't work," he said Sunday in Tokyo.
Perhaps there was a restored sense of urgency. Oh believes the team has learned from its brief brush with failure.
"Hopefuly, we are ready to turn the corner. We are playing well and ready to battle for the pennant," he said. "The first half of the season ended on a bright note, now we have to carry on, learn from our mistakes."
Even at their lowest point, the Hawks hardly hit bottom, but a come-from-behind pennant this season would mirror their skipper's career.
As a player, Oh was famous for his record-breaking batting feats, but his overwhelming success was sparked by utter failure when his career was in jeopardy after three seasons.
"We say in Japan that you need talent to overcome adversity, but I think that's misleading," Oh said.
"Because of it [anxiety] one automatically thinks, 'I'd better get on it, better practice.' That was good for me [as a player].
"In my case, I was at rock bottom."
Before he became a monster in 1962, the first of 13 straight seasons as the Central League home run leader, Oh was on a downward trajectory out of the game. He had been working long and hard with his personal batting guru, Hiroshi Arakawa, but the results had not been promising.
As Oh approached rock bottom, he gave in to Arakawa's wishes for a drastic change in his batting style and as a last resort adopted his famous one-legged stance.
"Basically, if a human being doesn't worry, doesn't suffer, that's no good," Oh said. "No one's life is like this: [draws a flat straight line in the air]. Instead, it is like this: [describes a wave pattern with his finger]. From the bottom, you strive. When you hit bottom again, you strive again.
"Without suffering, it doesn't work."
A highly touted side-arm pitcher and slugger out of Tokyo's Waseda Jitsugyo High School, Oh flailed to adjust as pitchers learned to exploit his weaknesses. His struggles were not helped by his fondness for the nightlife.
Asked how he himself would manage the rookie Oh of the 1959, Yomiuri Giants, the Hawks skipper said he would make sure the youngster learned that the price of success is practice.
"I'm strict, very strict," Oh said. "So I would tell him, 'Get on it and practice!'--because I used to enjoy myself a lot.
"If somebody is playing around a little, he might not understand that it is a problem at first. If the manager says, 'Quit it! That's no good! You can't do that!' it will only make things worse.
"But on the other hand, if the manager let's it slide a bit, the player will probably figure it out at some point, 'OK, this is no good.' Until one figures things out on his own, he won't realize what a problem he has."
With Arakawa's instruction, Oh figured things out as a hitter and began causing problems for pitchers.
But when he retired after the 1980 season with 868 home runs to his credit, he was completely unprepared for what came next.
Tomorrow: Lessons as a skipper