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John E. Gibson

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HARD DRIVES: Cloudy outlook for new skippers

by John E. Gibson (Dec 2, 2009)

The Tohoku Rakuten Eagles are coming off their best-ever finish in the Pacific League, an eye-popping second-place run that put the franchise on cloud nine.

The Yokohama BayStars have seen so many seasons go down the toilet the pipes are about to burst. Looking up from what seems like a reserved spot in the Central League--the cellar--their future looks cloudy.

The Eagles have turned to 46-year-old Marty Brown, who was canned by the Hiroshima Carp following his fourth consecutive losing season. In Yokohama, longtime pitching coach Takao Obana gets his first shot at managing.

Brown spent parts of three seasons with Hiroshima as a player and came back as skipper to pull the Carp up the CL stream. But they couldn't quite swim with the big boys.

For Brown, the old axiom "Win some, lose some" comes with a gloomy twist: He has won some but lost more with the Carp. Just four games over .500 as a player there during Hiroshima's days a powerhouse, Brown was 50 games under as manager, a .450 winning percentage.

He tried to improve structure throughout the Carp system, opening the lines of communication between the first team and the farm club about player development.

The organization wasn't always supportive and the best his effort got him was a one-game-under 69-70 finish in 2008. That season saved his job for a year, but he eventually got the boot--turning in his resignation to avoid the drama--after failing to make the postseason this past year. He walked away pride in hand, and got the call from the Eagles.

Brown now replaces the iconic Katsuya Nomura--a figure as loveable as Oscar the Grouch. Nomura's diabolical plots and scratchy-voiced rants brought some comedic light to the Eagles' dark days as well as the bright ones.

Brown is a good manager who understands Japanese baseball as well as any foreign skipper who has ever been on the bench here. But he is in a lose-lose situation. If he wins with the Eagles, he did it with Nomura's team. If he loses, he destroyed the great work Nomura did the past four years in getting the lowly Eagles off the ground.

Obana, on the other hand, finds himself in a vastly different, yet just-as-cloudy situation. He has experienced winning, but most of that has come the past four years with the Yomiuri Giants.

Obana pitched for the Swallows from 1978-91. He became the ace, but has a career losing record--112-135. The famed right-hander led the CL in losses three straight seasons, starting in 1986.

He has a lifetime ERA of 3.82, but as the Giants' pitching coach, the stern-faced and sometimes aloof Obana got Yomiuri's pitching staff to drop its league-worst-tying 4.80 ERA in '05 to a middle-of-the-CL-road 3.65 in just one season. Some of that had to do with personnel, but Obana was the strong-fisted force that drove Yomiuri's team ERA down by more than a run.

This past season, he transformed career loser and pickup from the scrapheap Dicky Gonzalez (18-20 entering the year), into a winner. He also mentored developmental roster hurler Wirfin Obispo, who became the team's second-most reliable late-season man on the mound.

Obviously he has proven what he can do with a pitching staff. But he takes over a team whose .423 winning percentage this decade is lower than his own career .453 mark.

The front office said it brought him for the purpose of lowering the staff's ERA, which was a league-worst 4.36 this year.

The BayStars expect victories to align themselves with improved pitching. But Obana has to run everything, not just control the arms. He needs success in his first managerial gig and must impact a team that has won as few as 45 games in '03.

Yokohama needs a change in culture, and it will be a challenge for an inexperienced manager to sit on the top perch and deal with everything from decisions on when to send runners to fielding questions from the relentless media.

Obana is climbing a slippery pole where even the slightest positive--whether it shows up in the win-loss column or not--could be considered an improvement in Yokohama yet still result in failure.

The fact is, clouds in the forecast for both cities.


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