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THE HOT CORNER: Japan's next World leader

by Jim Allen (Sep 4, 2008)

Six months tomorrow, the second edition of the World Baseball Classic will begin in earnest at Tokyo Dome, and Japan needs to decide on a manager.

New commissioner Ryozo Kato has taken charge of the selection process and is expected to make his decision soon.

Only two big-name managers have ruled themselves out of the running, Chunichi Dragons skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai and former WBC manager Sadaharu Oh. Ochiai would prefer to spend his spring with his club, while Oh is not in the best of health.

One suggestion, made by Chunichi, would be to have the Japan Series-winning manager get the job. Although there is no guarantee that the series winner will be the most capable manager, the WBC and Japan's postseason are similar tournaments. With the addition of playoffs in each league, managers who win the Japan Series may possess more of the skills needed to prosper in the WBC.

Unlike the postseason here, however, WBC opposition is a relative unknown.

"The major difference with international competition is that it's a lot less predictable," Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine told The Hot Corner on Wednesday.

Because the opposition is more unpredictable, the focus needs to be more about your own strengths.

Olympic skipper Senichi Hoshino made sure his players had hours of video on opposing teams, but Valentine relayed what Marines catcher Tomoya Satozaki told him: that half of it was of players who didn't get into the games.

Valentine, who has been suggested as a candidate for the Japan job, hesitated to speculate on the specific managing skills needed to succeed in the WBC.

"I've never managed internationally, so I don't really know," he said.

When pressed, he suggested the ability to eliminate or remove distractions would be valuable, as would adaptability.

"You have to be a lot more adaptable," he said. "It's very difficult for players to adapt to a manager in such a short time."

Valentine, perhaps baseball's biggest advocate of the power of team play, has been critical of the WBC because the hastily assembled teams have little chance to develop the chemistry that can elevate the game to its highest level.

That being said, Japan is committed to the WBC, and Valentine, who is committed to the Japanese game, would love to be a part of it. His motivational talents and in-game managing skills give Valentine some serious positives.

"It would be a tremendous honor," said Valentine. "Although I doubt I will be selected."

Japan is blessed with some great managers, but excelling in a short international tournament does not require all the same skills needed to develop a team over a period of years or to get the most out of your horses over a 144-game season.

Katsuya Nomura, gruff manager of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, was in character with his savage critique of Hoshino's handling of the Olympic team. As knowledgeable as Nomura is, one doubts he would be ideal for the WBC.

Nomura is exceptional in two areas: studying opponents' flaws and preparing strategies, and spotting new applications for veteran players' talents.

Much of Nomura's success comes from from veterans whom other clubs have given up on, something that would have no value in the WBC. On the other hand, Nomura's skill at spotting flaws and conceiving ways of exploiting them would make the 73-year-old the world's best bench coach--if he wanted the job.

Hoshino has a reputation for motivating players and outmanaged Oh in the 2003 Japan Series, when Hoshino's overmatched Tigers took Oh's Hawks to seven games. However, his Beijing job now clouds his candidacy.

Valentine suggested two other candidates: Hisanobu Watanabe of the Lions and Tatsunori Hara of the Giants.

"I think Watanabe is doing a hell of a job, and Hara has done very well in what must be a difficult job," Valentine said.

Watanabe has indeed done a great job. And if being cool under pressure is critical to managing success in the WBC, then Hara might be a good choice. After all, no one would know better than a Giants skipper what it feels like to manage in a pressure cooker.


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