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THE HOT CORNER: 'Stars on wrong side of history

by Jim Allen (Jan 20, 2011)

By finishing last in the Central League in 2010, the Yokohama BayStars went where no one had gone before.

The franchise's seventh last-place finish in nine years was also its 20th time at the bottom. In the 61 years since Japan pro ball expanded and split into two leagues, no franchise has finished last as many times as the one that began as the Taiyo Whales in 1950.

The franchise entered 2010 tied in the cellar sweepstakes with the now-defunct Kintetsu Buffaloes. With an energetic new president and a cerebral new manager, hopes were high a year ago. Instead it was more of the same.

Plumbing the depths this club has descended makes one wonder about how other franchises stack up.

Which are the worst in modern history? Which are the best?

The latter question is easy to answer--at least for No. 1. With 33 first-place finishes in 61 seasons and nine consecutive Japan Series titles from 1965 to 1973, the Yomiuri Giants are the unchallenged rulers of the record book.

Mind you, 15 of those league titles came in the CL's first 20 seasons, when the disparity of talent among teams was extreme. The gap was greatest in 1950 when the number of teams increased from eight to 15 teams. But it has gradually shrunk, making it much more difficult for teams to dominate the way the Giants once did.

The second most successful modern franchise has been the Pacific League's Lions. Known as the Nishitetsu Clippers for their first season, the Fukuoka club was renamed the Lions in 1951. Under manager Osamu Mihara, the Lions became a PL powerhouse to rival the Nankai Hawks in the 1950s. Purchased by Seibu and bundled off to Saitama Prefecture in 1979, the Lions have won a Japan-high 16 pennants in the last 32 seasons.

Because competitive balance has increased since the '50s and '60s, the Lions' 13 pennants from 1980 to 1999 could be considered as difficult an achievement as the Giants' 15 from 1950 to 1969.

After the Lions, however, the rankings are hard to sort out. The Hawks have won 14 pennants since 1950. However, they have also finished last 10 times and went through a 16-year stretch (from 1978 to 1993) when they were the worst team in the country.

With the exception of the Giants, who have finished last just once, all teams go through prolonged slumps.

In the 1950s, when the gap between weak and strong teams was at its most extreme, some of those slumps took on epic proportions. That's when Taiyo and Kintetsu subjected their fans to historic amounts of pain and suffering.

Taiyo finished the decade a combined 300 games under .500, while Kintetsu, which in 1958 posted the second-worst winning percentage (.238) in Japan history, ended the PL's first decade at 297 under.

Yet, both clubs found salvation in the 1960s.

The Whales entered 1960 having finished last six straight times, but had a new manager with an impressive resume. Mihara, who had left the Lions in 1959, told his players they were a championship-caliber group. The Whales proved their new skipper right in spectacular fashion, winning the Japan Series that autumn.

By 1967, Mihara's Taiyo tenure had ended after three straight second-division finishes. He didn't wait long for a job offer.

After nine last-place finishes in 10 seasons, Kintetsu came calling. The Buffaloes had finished last in 1967 but just 16 games out of first, and once more Mihara got a team to believe.

"Even though the team had been so bad for so many years, Mihara said they would win the championship and they believed him," Isao Chiba, the PL's former director of records, told The Hot Corner. "They didn't win that year [1968], but the following season, they battled Hankyu for the pennant until the final days of the season. That might have been a bigger deal than what he did with Taiyo."

If there is a moral to the story, it is that one man can make a difference. Whether second-year BayStars skipper Takao Obana is that man is an open question.

Drained of talent by free agency and likely in its last season in Yokohama, the BayStars are good candidates to amass more of the wrong kind of history in 2011.


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