It's time for the Hawks to take a new direction, and Sadaharu Oh knows it. It was a move that was probably years in coming, but poor health and poor results combined to make the choice obvious to everyone but Hawks management.
"It was bound to happen sooner or later," Oh told The Hot Corner on Saturday prior to his final game at Chiba Marine Stadium.
"Frankly, my body just isn't up to it."
When he announced a week ago he would quit at season's end, Oh said a manager had to be an aggressive, attacking leader, but he no longer had the physical stature to maintain that.
"When you put on a uniform, you have to be strong. People around you have to see that. But I'm simply not able to do it. I've reached my physical limit," he said.
"That I want to do the job is one thing, whether I am able to do it is the only thing that matters. One has to separate one's work from what one wants as a private individual."
Oh, who said it took him 20 days to convince the team that his mind was made up, had discussed his lack of results at a press conference. In the past, too, he had said the Hawks' postseason progress would be a critical factor in his decision. But on Saturday he spoke only of physical limitations.
Yet, throughout his managing career Oh has been criticized as an underachiever. He led a powerful Yomiuri Giants team to one Japan Series in five years and failed to win the big prize.
He took over the reins of a mediocre Fukuoka Daiei club in 1995. On May 9, 1996, en route to a last-place finish, the Hawks were bombarded by raw eggs after a pitiful loss at Osaka's Nissei Stadium.
The cries for Oh to quit while he was behind were heard everywhere but ignored by Isao Nakauchi, the man who founded the Daiei Supermarket chain, bought the Hawks in 1988 and moved them from Osaka.
For a club that lacked identity, the decision to stick with Oh proved a good one. The combination of the skipper's name value and the transformation of the Hawks talent base and front office by mastermind Rikuo Nemoto made Daiei a force to be reckoned with and a hot property.
Beginning more or less with a 1994 trade with the Seibu Lions that brought in slugging veteran outfielder Koji Akiyama, who may be Oh's SoftBank successor, Nemoto completely re-engineered the team.
In 1995, pitcher Kimiyasu Kudo, who won the Pacific League's 1993 MVP with the Lions, signed as a free agent. Later that year, the Hawks made high school pitcher Kazumi Saito its top draft pick. Despite finishing last in 1996, third baseman Hiroki Kokubo was in his third year and catcher Kenji Jojima in his second.
That autumn, the Hawks drafted Tadahito Iguchi, Nobuhiko Matsunaka and Hiroshi Shibahara. The pitching would be troublesome until Saito matured and Toshiya Sugiuchi (signed in 2001) was joined by Nagisa Arakaki and Tsuyoshi Wada the following autumn, but in 1999 the Hawks won the Japan Series--seven months after Nemoto's sudden death.
Oh credits Nemoto with turning the entire organization into a professional outfit. But Oh's team led the PL in regular season wins five times, and the skipper deserves some credit for that.
As a youngster, Oh overcame his fondness for the nightlife to become one of the game's greatest players. Managing, however, was different: a challenge that could not be solved by hard work alone. The skills needed to succeed on the bench took time to develop, but Oh grew into the job. Still, the failure of his powerful and diligent Hawks to reach the Japan Series for five straight seasons was a reminder of his limitations.
"The fans are upset about it," he said this spring. "It's the same for anyone. If you don't do a good job, it [the end] will come."
With his health declining and the results plain to see, the excellence Oh expected was no longer within his grasp.
"We may play the game," Oh said Saturday, "but it belongs to the fans.
"We have to make plays and play games that will take the fans' breath away and inspire them to come back again and again. As long as we do that, the game's future will be fine."