Departing Fighters manager helped Shohei Ohtani find his footing

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Shohei Ohtani did not want to be selected in the October 2012 NPB draft. He even said so beforehand — warning teams to stay away because he was headed straight from Hanamaki Higashi High School to MLB.

It wasn’t an empty threat. No one was blind to Ohtani’s talent as a pitcher even then, and the teen had already met with at least three MLB clubs. Also, unlike in MLB, there is no recompense for NPB teams who can’t sign the players they draft. That made Ohtani a risk 11 clubs decided wasn’t worth it.

When the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters took him anyway, Ohtani told the club thanks, but no thanks.

Then he met with manager Hideki Kuriyama.

The Fighters brass presented Ohtani with all the practical reasons he should start his career in Japan and offered him Yu Darvish’s No. 11 as a cherry on top. Kuriyama presented Ohtani with a challenge — to set the baseball world on its ear like no player had before.

That piqued Ohtani’s interest — and just like that, his two-way experiment was born.

“I’d been thinking about it since May (2012), assuming we were able to get Shohei,” Kuriyama said years later when asked about the genesis of his two-way plan during a news conference at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in November 2016.

You can give credit to the Los Angeles Angels and manager Joe Maddon for aiding Ohtani during his historic two-way campaign in 2021, but make sure to give Kuriyama his flowers as well.

Kuriyama is stepping down as the Fighters manager at the end of the season, but his impact on the game remains through Ohtani and any who follow in the Angels star’s footsteps.

The news of Kuriyama’s impending departure had already leaked last week, but he and the team made it official once the Fighters were eliminated from playoff contention after Friday’s results. The team released a statement Saturday morning and then posted a tweet thanking Kuriyama for his service.

The 60-year-old will remain at the helm for the nine games the Fighters have left this year.

“We still have games left, so I’m going to give all I have for the players’ sake,” Kuriyama was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon after a tie with the Orix Buffaloes on Saturday in Sapporo. “After that, I’ll be able to speak properly. However, I feel responsible for the current situation. I’m just really grateful I was able to wear the Fighters’ uniform.”

Kuriyama was more than Ohtani’s first manager.

He thought outside the box in a way that many of his NPB contemporaries did not. Kuriyama was the first Japanese skipper to use defensive shifts and was also the first to use openers — starting a reliever or another pitcher not expected to get the bulk of the innings.

While the opener strategy was mostly a flop, Kuriyama was at least willing to try something different to give his team an edge.

He didn’t usher in a paradigm shift, but he at least showed it was possible for NPB managers to innovate or even — gasp — look and sound like they were having fun sometimes.

He had an easy, personable way with the fans and the appreciation he showed them seemed to be reciprocated for the most part. During the 2012 Japan Series, they chanted his name at Sapporo Dome during a lengthy — but calm — argument he had with the umpiring crew.

Earlier this season, he deftly worked around the distractions Sho Nakata created with his behavior and kept him away from the team after Nakata punched a teammate.

Kuriyama will leave the Fighters after 11 seasons and with the most managerial wins in franchise history — he had 678 through Saturday.

Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama addresses the team before their game against the Buffaloes at Sapporo Dome on Saturday. | KYODO

He won a Pacific League pennant in his first season in 2012, then did it again in 2016 after helping the Fighters chase down the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who they trailed by 11½ games at one point. That rally was aided by a record 15-game win streak. The Fighters then defeated the Hiroshima Carp in the Japan Series.

Kuriyama helped engineer his fifth and final top-three finish in 2018, the year after sending Ohtani to the majors.

His work with Ohtani, of course, will be what many remember him for.

There probably weren’t many modern pro managers — in or outside Japan — who would even dream of deploying a two-way player full time, and especially not one who held the value Ohtani had as a pitcher.

Ohtani, though, had the leverage of simply moving to MLB, meaning it was going to take something radical to make him stay in Japan.

Still, whereas the other 11 teams were seemingly content to let Ohtani leave and then complain about it afterward, the Fighters took a gamble and Kuriyama helped make it pay off.

“He had so much talent pitching and hitting, so I didn’t really have an answer (on how to use him),” Kuriyama said at the FCCJ in 2016. “So I just let the baseball gods decide what’s best and my answer was to let him try both and see which works out better.”

He brought Ohtani up as a right fielder on opening day in 2013 and had him pitch on the farm early in the season before his mound debut in May.

From there, Kuriyama, his staff and the Fighters worked to get the most out of Ohtani’s many talents. They let him pitch and hit and used off days to help keep him healthy.

It all came together in 2016. Ohtani made 21 appearances as a pitcher, going 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA in 140 innings, and hit .322 with 22 home runs in 323 at-bats. When blisters kept Ohtani from pitching, Kuriyama shifted gears and used him as a hitter.

Kuriyama laid out the blueprint the Angels would mostly follow early in Ohtani’s MLB career, building the foundation upon which Ohtani would produce a 2021 that was perhaps the greatest all-around season in MLB history.

What Kuriyama helped Ohtani accomplish over five seasons in Japan gave the player the leverage to convince the teams competing for his services during the 2017 offseason to give him a chance to do it in the majors.

Ohtani would probably just be a great pitcher had he gone to MLB directly or stayed in Japan with another team. Ohtani has said in the past he didn’t think any team would give him the chance to be a two-way player.

Kuriyama, though, is wired a little differently. He crossed paths with a unique talent and together they made the impossible a reality.

Then again, he already did that by convincing a generational talent who didn’t want to be drafted to stick around and shake things up for a few seasons.

If more players and teams follow the trail Kuriyama helped lay down, his influence may linger long after he leaves the dugout.

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