SI Vault
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
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May 17, 1976

Bowed But Never Bloodied

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

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"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.

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