When the Rakuten Eagles made the announcement last season that Katsuya Nomura would not be back in 2010 to manage the ballclub, it wasn't the first time a Japanese team would cut loose a popular manager who had just taken the club to new heights.
In 1995, something similar happened to Bobby Valentine, then skipper of the Chiba Lotte Marines. That year, fan-favorite Valentine was shown the door after piloting the Marines to a second-place finish in the Pacific League.
This time around, however, an American manager is not the victim, but rather the beneficiary, of a front office with an itchy trigger finger. After the Eagles posted their best finish in the club's brief history in 2009--second place, just like Bobby V's '95 Marines--crusty septuagen-arian Nomura was out and American skipper Marty Brown was brought in.
A tough act to follow? Not necessarily, says Brown.
"I was hired by a company that is very innovative," said Brown, a 47-year-old Oklahoma native who managed the Hiroshima Carp from 2006-09. "It was their choice to make the decision to bring me on and I've been hired to win a championship. I think Nomura-san did a great job to this point but now we're moving forward."
Brown wants to build on the success of last season, but he wants to do it his way.
"I went in to this with the thought that I'm trying to adapt to our talent," Brown continued over a yakiniku feast in Kumejima, Okinawa Prefecture, where the Eagles held their spring camp. "I want to make sure that we move forward in the proper direction. There are a lot of things that Jeff (Livesey), my bench coach, and I have to adapt to. We're trying to be patient and do things not just the Japanese way, but also the way we want to do things to prepare people. Last year, a lot of people were saying it was a lucky year for Rakuten. We'll see this year."
Brown, who also played for the Carp for three seasons in the 1990s, has got some talent to work with, for sure. The top end of his pitching rotation features a couple of right-handed studs in Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka.
Iwakuma was arguably Japan's best pitcher in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He won 13 games for Rakuten last season with 121 strikeouts and a 3.25 ERA, one year after winning the Sawamura Award, Japan's version of the Cy Young, after chalking up 21 wins in 2008. Brown has already tabbed Iwakuma as his Opening Day starter Saturday against the Orix Buffaloes in Osaka.
Tanaka, just 21 and apparently still growing--he reportedly told some members of the media that he grew 1.7 centimeters over the past year--was a 15-game winner in 2009 with 171 Ks and a 2.33 ERA.
An interesting addition to the staff this year is hard-throwing Dominican right-handed reliever Juan Morillo, whose fastball has been clocked at an eye-popping 167 kph. While velocity has never been an issue with Morillo, control has, and that can hurt a pitcher in Japan where hitters tend to have a more discerning eye.
Offensively, outfielder Teppei Tsuchiya is coming off a year in which he hit .327, tops in the PL, while veteran slugger Takeshi Yamasaki pounded out 39 home runs in 2009 and drove in 107.
Another veteran slugger, third-baseman Norihiro Nakamura, came into spring camp in top condition after injuries limited him to just 77 games in 2009. Infielder-outfielder Andy Phillips, a former New York Yankee, came over with Brown and Livesey from the Carp and outfielder Todd Linden is back after his infamous locker-room dustup with Nomura late last season. Linden hit a dozen homers in 284 at-bats with the club last year after joining the Eagles in June.
When asked what Brown likes most about his new ballclub, he doesn't hesitate.
"We have great depth," Brown said. "If somebody gets hurt or if somebody doesn't get it done, we've got somebody else that can get it done. That's a lot different than when we were at Hiroshima, because there we had no depth. There, if a guy was struggling you had to stay with him. We are fortunate that our scouting department has put together a group of 'tools' guys. They'll still make mistakes and we have to make sure that we allow them to develop, but overall (our scouts) went after people that can get it done."
While Brown says his job with the club is "to make sure that we have a plan as an organization to develop players and that we win," Rakuten fans can also expect to be entertained by their fiery manager. Brown has been thrown out of countless games for arguing with umpires on both sides of the Pacific and that's not likely to change in Sendai. Among his more memorable on-field antics were a base-throwing incident in 2007 and an episode last season where he took off his shoes and cap and left them on home plate, both as manager of the Carp.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to get the job done," said Brown, the 2004 Minor League Manager of the Year with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons. "If it takes passion, I'm all about passion. I think passion can get you over the top when it comes to players, especially in Japan. If you can develop 'passionate' players and let them know that it's about winning and losing--it's not about doing too much, but it's about that feeling of giving a high-five when you win a 5-4 game in the ninth inning. I'm all about that, and our players are about that, too."
It's when Brown gets carried away with all that passion that the fun really starts.
"I don't actually like to get thrown out of games," he said. "It means Jeff Livesey, my bench coach, has to take over, and he doesn't want to manage. But I know this--he's got a 7-1 record so if I do get tossed we're in good hands."