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Skipper Oh has learned to tone it down

by Jim Allen (Jun 26, 2008)

Second of two parts.

With his future as Hawks manager after this season in doubt, Sadaharu Oh made one more trip last weekend to Tokyo Dome.

The Fukuoka SoftBank skipper, who ended 31 years with the Yomiuri Giants in 1988, has announced this may be his final season in uniform. Times have certainly changed since Oh was an easily angered former slugger and novice manager. Returning to his home town no longer gives the more laid-back Oh the kick it once did.

"This means something because we're both in the hunt," said Oh before the series that clinched the Hawks' first interleague crown. "It doesn't matter to me that much [coming to Tokyo], but I think the players enjoy it, because they always have good crowds here and it makes playing that much more exciting."

Over 91,000 came to see the two-game series, and though most of didn't come to see Oh, the usual crowd of well wishers jammed the area around the Hawks bench before each game.

"It's nice to see my friends but it can be a little distracting," Oh said.

The big switch for Oh came in 1981, when he retired and fans stopped cheering him for his exploits as the game's most prolific home run hitter and had to learn to see the game through different eyes.

"That was difficult. As a player, one thinks of oneself. As a coach, it's not about you but about the whole. That whole is the hard part," Oh said in an interview early in the spring.

"In baseball, we wear the same uniform. In soccer, in basketball, they are wearing suits. Because it is different [from the players] it must be easier to change your mindset. Here we are all wearing the same uniform so changing your outlook is very hard."

Oh coached for three seasons before taking over as Giants manager in 1984. Although he had won 14 Central League pennants as a player and added 11 Japan Series titles, the same kind of success eluded him as Giants manager. Oh won the league once, in 1987, but his team fell in the Series. When the Giants finished second the next season, 12 games behind the Chunichi Dragons, Oh was finished as a Giant.

Oh knew all about the team's must-win philosophy as a player, but being a manager meant a major attitude adjustment.

"When I was young I was, 'Let's win them all, win them all!' But I would think 'Why aren't we winning?' and I would just get angry. That's the kind of person I was," Oh said. "As one gains experience, one learns that things do not work out like we think they will."

In 1995, the Daiei Hawks called to give Oh another shot and he moved to manage to the Pacific League's worst team. Needless to say, it took a while before things worked out remotely like he thought.

In his first season in Fukuoka, the club finished 26-1/2 games out in fifth. A sixth-place finish followed and fourth after that. It was during this stretch that angry Hawks fans in Osaka pelted the team bus with eggs.

The club, however, gradually improved as front office magician Rikuo Nemoto began acquiring talent on every front: young players through the draft and veterans through trades and free agency.

When the Hawks finished third in 1998 it meant an end to 20 years of wandering the wilderness of the PL's second division. Nemoto died before Daiei won its first Series title for Fukuoka in 1999, but his legacy lives on.

By 2003, the Hawks had won the league three times and the Series twice. In 2004 and 2005, they won the regular season only to lose in the playoffs. And though their 2008 interleague title is their first championship of any kind since 2003, the Hawks are the only team to make the PL playoffs every season since they started in 2004.

Oh, who had his stomach removed in 2006 because of cancer, said if he doesn't win the pennant this season, it will be his last--whether or not he his physically up to it.

Although he says he is far more patient than he was as a new manager, his desire to clean his opponents' clocks is just as strong.

"'I'm greedy," he said. "Of course. I always want more. If we can win 80 games or 90 games, I want to win 100. That's me.

"Within a game, too. I want to win by more. If we're winning 5-0, I want a bigger margin. I want to see our batters really hit, see our pitchers do even better.

"Our players are very serious, and give their best, so I want them to get good results, put up good numbers."

But putting up good numbers isn't the goal. Last season, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters won with pitching, defense and big--if infrequent hits.

"They played winning baseball, while we played good ball but didn't win," said Oh.

He diagnosed his club's failures as a desire to do too much and a willingness to play hurt.

"A player hates to be replaced by someone else," the skipper said. "When I was playing, I wanted to play always.

"Now, I see that you need to look at the season as a whole. If you don't do something stupid, you should be able to play the whole season. It is the same with children: Sometimes you have to make them rest for their own good."


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