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Bowed But Never Bloodied

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Bowed But Never Bloodied

by Robert Whiting (May 17, 1976)

In Japan, where saving face is all-important, baseball managers are not fired, no matter how many games they lose. Instead, they are sent off on ritualistic retreats.

The Japanese reporters who had packed the tiny conference room at Osaka Stadium one May day in 1962 glanced at their watches in anticipation. General Manager Makoto Tachibana of the Nankai Hawks had alerted newsmen that there would be an important announcement concerning the Hawks at 6:40 that evening. The Hawks, defending Pacific League champions and perennial powerhouse in Japanese baseball, occupied an unfamiliar position-last place. In the first two months of the season they had managed to lose two out of every three games.

At exactly 6:40 General Manager Tachibana strode through the press-room door. With him was Kazuto Tsuruoka, the Hawks' field manager. Nicknamed "The Boss" by his players, Tsuruoka had piloted the Hawks for more than 20 years, winning nine pennants and two Japan Series. What, the reporters wondered, might his presence mean?

The general manager bowed and began to speak in measured tones: "As of today, Manager Tsuruoka has relinquished command of the Hawks as a means of taking responsibility for the team's poor showing in recent games. Hopefully the manager's action will stimulate the Hawk players to reflect on their performance on the field."

Tachibana added that he deeply regretted Tsuruoka's decision, but he said he had no choice other than acceding to the field manager's request to be relieved of his duties. Head Coach Kasuo Kageyama had been ordered to act as manager in Tsuruoka's absence. Tachibana went on to express hope that Tsuruoka's action would breathe new life into the team. Tsuruoka would retain the title of manager for the time being, the general manager said.

Reporters sat in stunned silence while Tachibana announced that Tsuruoka would now answer questions. The tall, courtly, 46-year-old manager lit a cigarette. He spoke deliberately, without emotion: "Team performance has been poor.... As manager I must assume responsibility.... If the commander cannot lead his troops, they will die.... For the moment I don't want to see any baseball, I just want to rest."

A shock wave passed through the Japanese baseball world. Kageyama said earnestly that he hoped "Manager Tsuruoka's brave action will move the Hawks to fight harder."

"What made The Boss quit? Who's responsible for this?" grumbled the Hawks' leading home-run hitter. The veteran shortstop said, "It's all my fault. The Boss was like a father to me. If I hadn't been injured, he might not have left the team. We will all have to do our best so he can return."

By mid-July the Hawks were in the pennant race, riding the crest of an II-game winning streak. Acting Manager Kageyama told the press, "Everyone knows The Boss is a more skillful manager than I am. Perhaps it is time for him to return to the team." Requests from the Hawk players and a petition signed by the team's fans added to the pressure for Tsuruoka's return, and on Aug. 9 he was reinstated. The Hawks went on to finish in second place in the Pacific League that year.

When an American major league team is mired in last place, it is often cause for the manager's head to roll. A change has to be made, and that is that. A new manager steps in, the players adjust and the old manager goes job hunting, usually taking the whole thing philosophically. After all, his job is to produce a winner.

In Japan nothing is ever quite so simple. The owner of a baseball team has to consider more than his responsibilities to the fans. He has to bow to the dictates of group dynamics and to take into account the relationships between the manager and the players. In addition, he must think of his own obligations toward the manager and the feelings of the manager himself. A club owner will try his best to smooth things, to retain the manager, even though this may result in a losing season and a drop in attendance.

As confusing as this may sound to Americans, it does make sense in the context of Japanese baseball. American teams are run like corporations, their members united by their common ability to play and desire to win and make money. Not so in Japan , where a baseball team is more like a cohesive, extended family unit, held together by a complex web of interlocking personal obligations. The kind of intrasquad bickering that characterizes some U.S. teams is virtually unheard of.

There is also an off-field camaraderie seldom seen on U.S. teams. Most bachelors on a Japanese club live in the team dormitory. They are together nearly 24 hours a day. Even married players socialize with unmarried teammates in their free time (drinking beer and playing Mah-Jongg are favorite activities), and during the off-season it is not uncommon for a team to get together to play golf.

The club ownership sponsors social functions and group rituals to help foster solidarity and a feeling of belonging. At the start of each season, a team will visit a Shinto shrine to pray for good luck. In December, everyone connected with the team, from the owner down to the bat boy, gathers for the annual nokai (year-end party).

In spite of its high level of industrialization, Japan remains a paternalistic society with values deeply rooted in Confucianism and agrarian tradition. The older, established members of a group have clearly defined responsibilities toward the younger, and vice versa. In the business world this is reflected in a lifetime employment system that gives workers maximum job security in return for allegiance to the company. Job hopping, layoffs and lengthy labor-management disputes are relatively rare.

The same tradition adheres in baseball. Trades do occur and players are released outright, but, far more than his American counterpart, the Japanese ballplayer can look forward to a lasting association with his team-even after his playing days are ended. A retired player for the Nippon Ham Fighters, for example, might even find himself selling ham for a living. A Chunichi Dragon taking off his uniform for the last time might wind up shuffling copy at Chunichi Sports.

Ideally, a team functions as a happy family with the manager presiding in the role of surrogate father-a stern disciplinarian, somewhat aloof, yet never failing to show concern for the welfare of his players.

The manager sometimes gets involved in the players' private lives. For example, he may act as a go-between to arrange brides for single players. One manager traveled the breadth of Honshu-from Tokyo to the Japan Alps-just to persuade an unrelenting father that a reserve outfielder was worthy of his daughter's hand.

The manager makes laudatory speeches at players' weddings. He consoles bereaved players at the funerals of relatives. He presents gifts and good wishes to players with newborn children, along with advice on the responsibilities of fatherhood. In addition, he is always ready to admonish players who stray too far from the flock:

"Toshiro, I'd like to have a minute with you. You will be 29 years old next month, and I think it is time you settled down and got married like everyone else. A man cannot play at his best without a sense of responsibility. You need a wife, children and a home."

"Hideyuki, you have been married for a year and a half now. Don't you think it is about time you had a child-a son? A man has to carry on the family name, you know. No arguments now. You are a Japanese, aren't you? Well, act like one."

"Koichi, the batting coach tells me that you lost 150,000 yen [$500] at the racetrack the other night. And he said you lost another 100,000 yen playing hana-fuda [a card game]. If the press ever finds out how much money you are losing, it will seriously damage our image. So I am ordering you to give up gambling and concentrate on baseball."

"Katsu, congratulations on your new child. I hear you are taking him to the shrine tomorrow. Here is a little something from me. And let me give you some advice on how to raise him: always try to make him proud of his family name. Understand?"

"Tatsuo, I have been hearing too many stories about you. First it is this Ginza nightclub hostess. Then it is a bar girl in Shinjuku. Now you are spending all your time at the Turkish Baths in Asakusa. You smoke one and a half packs of cigarettes a day, and I think you are hitting the Suntory whiskey a little too much. I don't have any complaints about your play on the field, but I do about your loose' behavior. I think it's time you began to mend your ways."

Such fatherly concern is bound to result in an emotional bond between players and managers. And it is hoped that this collective responsibility will inspire success on the playing field.

When a team goes into a slide, the owner is likely to view the problem in emotional terms. He may talk to the players, reminding them of their obligations, or he may appeal to their sense of pride in being Hawks or Ham Fighters. If nothing else works, he can resort to a kyuyo, a drastic but highly effective stratagem introduced into professional baseball by the face-conscious Japanese. Kyuyo means a rest or recuperation. In baseball, it consists of the owner of a sagging team ordering his manager to take a rest for a month or so. The head coach is usually appointed acting manager, while the manager goes off by himself to meditate on the situation. The stated purpose of a kyuyo is to "refresh the mood of the team," and the wise owner knows that it can be a very useful device. He realizes that if the players really respect their manager, they will feel they have let him down. His departure may be just the spark needed to ignite their flagging spirits-to shame them into playing better baseball. Their shame-and the trauma of separation from their surrogate father-will end when play improves. (One wonders whether a similar ploy would work in the U.S. For example, if Walter O'Malley deprived a losing Dodger team of Walter Alston , how hard would the Dodgers play to get him back?)

Besides giving a needed boost to the team, the owner realizes that a kyuyo would probably be a good thing for the manager as well. With his team losing, the manager may need to reflect at length on his performance and on the problems of the team. A kyuyo affords him the opportunity to escape to the mountains, the seashore or some other quiet spot where he can better focus his mental powers. (The Japanese place great importance on self-reflection to correct wrong thinking and to rectify past errors.) On the other hand, a manager might simply want to rest and not think about baseball at all until he has gathered sufficient strength to return.

Illness, real or imagined, is often given as the reason for a kyuyo. (Mental fatigue is the diagnosis most commonly associated with losing streaks.) Whatever the excuse, it is usually not clear how the kyuyo is initiated. The announcement to the press almost always reads the same: "So-and-so-san requested a leave of absence and permission was granted." As often as not, the request originates in the front office. Inevitably, the kyuyo is accompanied by a flurry of statements from the owner, the front office, the coaches and the top players to the effect that the responsibility for the slump lies with everyone, not just the manager.

The kyuyo can sometimes work miracles. In 1967 Osamu Mihara, one of Japan's most esteemed managers, was having his troubles with the Taiyo Whales. Mihara "requested" and received permission to take a 12-game leave of absence. Stories appearing in the Japanese press hinted that the manager's leave might be prolonged, depending on how the team performed.

Head Coach Kaoru Betto stepped in as acting manager, and after a slow start the Whales responded by winning seven games in a row. Following the seventh win, Betto paid a visit to the club owner, Kenkichi Nakabe. Betto argued that he was only a coach, not a manager, and that the job should revert to the true manager. Nakabe agreed, and Mihara was reinstated, ending one of the shortest kyuyos in baseball history.

Another kyuyo that worked out well involved Michio Nishizawa, manager of the Chunichi Dragons from Nagoya. In May 1967 Nishizawa left the team because of illness to stage what must surely be one of the most remarkable recoveries in medical history. His departure was particularly dramatic because Nishizawa had vowed to bring the team a league championship.

At the start of the season, Nishizawa had been bothered by stomach pains. When the Dragons went into a tailspin around the first of May, the pains grew more intense. Unable to conceal his condition, Nishizawa began bringing his medicine to games. Soon Pitching Coach Sadao Kondo was asked to take over.

"It's detrimental to morale to have the manager leading the team while he's rubbing his stomach," explained the general manager. Nishizawa protested to the press that he would return in a few days, but the general manager was not so sure. He cautioned that Nishizawa's recovery might take "quite some time."

Predictably, Acting Manager Kondo warmed up for his new role with a declaration of collective responsibility: "I think it's a regrettable thing we have done to our manager. The present problems of the team are the responsibility of the coaches and players. The trouble is mental more than anything else. I'm going to put forth my best effort to pull the team out of its slump and get it on the right track for the manager's return."

Kondo proceeded to lead the team to eight wins in 10 games while the ailing manager convalesced at home in front of his TV set. He returned to the Dragons in Hiroshima after a mere two weeks' absence and was greeted like Odysseus back from years of wandering. The Dragons' star leftfielder blasted a three-run homer to highlight an 8-0 shutout and then summed up the mood of the team when he told the press, "I am delighted that I could celebrate the manager's return with a home run."

In the visitors' clubhouse after the game, a beaming Nishizawa could not believe the change that had come over his team. "The batters are swinging better than before I left.... Even the mood on the bench is improved.... I have never been so happy." He added that his stomach now felt "unbelievably well."

A kyuyo usually works out as well as Nishizawa's did only when the manager is an established name-when his age, seniority and achievements have solidified his image as a paterfamilias. The departure of such a beloved figure inevitably triggers shame in the players.

Nankai Hawks Manager Kazuto Tsurouka was far and away the most established manager in Japanese baseball. He had led the Hawks through 23 seasons when he took his kyuyo. Even though he declared that he would not return to the team, no one dared take him seriously. It would have meant a tremendous loss of face for everyone concerned.

Sure enough, the prospect of a shameful rupture in team relations had the desired effect. Playing his role to the hilt, Tsuruoka stubbornly held out for two months until an 11-game winning streak, a climb into contention, a plea from the players and coaches and a petition signed by fans had mellowed him enough to agree to manage once again.

Sometimes it is obvious that a kyuyo will not accomplish anything. There have been cases in which there was no longer doubt that the manager must go if the team was to get out of last place. At this point, it is usually the manager himself who makes the first move. In the grand Japanese tradition of accepting responsibility, he will step forward and ask to take a kyuyo. This kind of kyuyo is different, because everyone knows that the manager will not be back. His kyuyo is, in fact, a resignation.

Verbal camouflage like this is used for several reasons. For a manager to resign or be fired precipitously would involve a loss of face all around. It almost never happens; instead, official announcements are postponed until after the season.

Another reason is that no Japanese likes to admit failure, which is what a manager would be doing if he quit a losing team in midseason. Furthermore, the Japanese way of thinking holds that the owner who has to fire his manager is just as great a failure. He has not chosen carefully; he has not lived up to his responsibilities to the fans.

This is where a kyuyo saves the day by letting owners and managers part company without an agonizing public admission of defeat. The manager who takes a sick leave and does not come back has not really been fired and he has not really resigned. He just isn't there anymore.

Perhaps the most unusual example of a kyuyo was the one involving Minoru Murayama and the 1972 Hanshin Tigers . The Murayama affair shows what happens when the Japanese confront conflicting obligations. It is a classic case of Japanese-style intergroup diplomacy.

The Tigers' leading pitcher for more than a decade, Murayama had a glorious career that included three Best Pitcher awards, one MVP and the lowest lifetime ERA in Japanese baseball history. His appointment as player-manager at the age of 32 was a rare tribute in Japan .

Murayama got off to an excellent start as manager, narrowly missing the 1970 league championship. Rebounding from three years of sub-par pitching because of injuries, he was his old self, achieving a 14-3 mark and setting a Japanese record with a 0.98 ERA.

The next year Murayama's luck began to turn sour. Plagued by a sore arm and a bad knee, he hardly pitched at all and won only seven games. The rumor spread that Murayama's pitching days were over, and it was becoming painfully evident that he was not a first-rate manager, either.

As a pitcher, Murayama had inspired his team, often providing the extra spark that led it to victory. But when he donned his manager's cap, his temper was a liability. He expected other players to match his own fiery intensity. He played favorites, openly criticizing players he did not like. It was not long before the dissension he caused was reflected in the team's performance. The Tigers slipped from contention early in the year and struggled through a dismal season.

By the beginning of Murayama's third season as manager, it was evident that the situation was not going to improve. He was not pitching at all. He explained that he wanted to devote more time to developing young pitchers and managing the team.

With the 1972 season two weeks old and the Tigers once more in the second division, Murayama called a press conference. He told reporters that he would turn the team over to Head Coach Masayasu Kaneda in order to devote himself completely to pitching. Murayama accepted complete responsibility for the team's predicament. He vowed to do his best to regain his old form, to take his regular turn on the mound and to help the younger pitchers.

At a press conference the next day, the team owner confirmed what Murayama had said. Murayama would concentrate on pitching while Kaneda filled in as acting manager. "Can this be considered a kyuyo?" asked one reporter. "Yes, it can," the owner replied.

In response to another question, the owner verified that Murayama himself had asked for the kyuyo in order to jolt the team out of its rut. When it came to the question of Murayama's return, the owner equivocated. "Murayama will come back when the team reaches .500-or perhaps even higher," he said. "When we reach the point where we feel it is all right for Murayama to handle two responsibilities, we will evaluate the situation and make a determination at that time. Perhaps the team will ask Murayama to come back and we'll make a determination then." Murayama kept the title of manager.

Nothing quite like this had ever happened before. Pretending not to notice that the Tigers now had two managers, the front office praised Murayama's courageous decision. The acting manager promised to do his best to win more games so the manager could return to his rightful place. The pitchers wailed that the team's miserable showing was their fault. They solemnly promised to pitch better and move the club up so Murayama could end his self-imposed exile.

Privately, no one had any illusions about Murayama's comeback. He had vowed to start and to pitch in relief as often as possible, but he was not the Murayama of old. His arm was gone, he was out of condition and the old knee injury forced him to work with his leg wrapped from ankle to thigh. He had to take painkillers to ease his suffering.

In the weeks that followed, Murayama's appearances on the mound were rare. When he did pitch, the results were unimpressive. However, the Tigers began to jell under the acting manager, and moved steadily up in the standings. After each victory, Kaneda would join the owner and the players in alluding to the day, near at hand, when the manager would manage again.

Unfortunately for Murayama, it was all a show, written and performed to save the manager's face. With each passing day of the season, it became more obvious that the Tigers had no intention of giving the manager's job back to Murayama. Seven times Acting Manager Kaneda submitted his resignation, and seven times the front office refused to accept it.

By August the Tigers were in second place, only two games behind the league-leading Giants. Everyone on the team still called Murayama kantoku (manager) and the head coach kantoku dairi (acting manager). Murayama was included in all the strategy meetings, and Kaneda mentioned to the press at every opportunity that he was directing the club with the help and guidance of Murayama.

The season drew to a finish with Kaneda still technically in command. The Hanshin Tigers finished second. They had kept the outcome of the pennant race in doubt until the last few days of the season. Tiger fans were delighted. So were the young Tiger players who had warmed the bench under Murayama; Kaneda had given them a chance to play and develop. The future looked bright for the team.

The problem of Manager Murayama still remained, however. The team had done so well under the acting manager that the logical thing to do would be to promote him to manager. After all, the club had an obligation to its fans. But what about the great pitcher who had contributed so much to the team over the years? The team owed a tremendous debt to this proud, easily misunderstood man and could not casually discard him. If he were replaced as manager, it would be a devastating loss of face for him. The fans would not tolerate such callous disregard for such a great player.

The Hanshin front office did what many Japanese will do when faced with a difficult decision. Nothing. It stalled for time. The general manager of the team claimed the decision rested with the owner of the Tigers. The owner said the responsibility belonged to the president of the parent company, Hanshin Railways, who had originally lobbied for Murayama as manager three years before. Spokesmen for the president said that the president was ill-too ill to consider the problem-and insisted that the decision was up to the Tiger owner.

Weeks passed with no announcement from the front office on the fate of the "Two-Headed Tiger," as the Hanshin club came to be known.

Finally, the expected happened. Murayama came in, stoically submitted his resignation as manager, then notified the club of his retirement as a player. After "realizing" that Murayama could not be persuaded to change his mind, the owner quickly offered the post to Kaneda. Kaneda said he needed some time to think about the job; then he accepted it a few days later. Murayama refused a position in the Tiger organization, ignored overtures from other teams and dropped quietly out of baseball.

This whole chain of events may seem bizarre to Americans, who are used to seeing managers fired with total disregard for feelings. But in Japan , where the human values of duty and personal honor are all-important, any change in the status quo is a serious undertaking. A kyuyo saves the day in those cases where the firing of a losing manager would subject him to national disgrace.

It sounds wacky, but then there must be some reason why Japanese baseball continues to improve by leaps and bounds. Perhaps it has to do with the mentality that invented the managerial kyuyo. Who knows, maybe kyuyos will even catch on in the States. More than one major league manager would jump at the chance to take a month off in midsummer to go fishing-and, of course, to reflect on his team's problems.

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