Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Lions Of San Jose

In the winter of 1982-83, Harry Steve, the general manager of Class A California League team in San Jose, had a problem.  The Expos, his team's major league affiliate in 1982, had ended their affiliation and the team would be without a Player Development Contract for 1983.

At the same time, the Seibu Lions were interested in getting involved in the American player development process.  Marty Kuehnert was working for the Lions at the time doing color commentary on their radio and TV broadcasts.  Kuehnert had been involved with the Lions' previous attempt to send players to the US minors with Lodi in 1973 and was the logical choice by the Lions to help out again.  Kuehnert contacted the Baltimore Orioles, who had been the Lions' partner with Lodi.  The Orioles had just made a deal with San Jose to provide a couple players so they suggested that Kuehnert contact Steve.

The San Jose Bees ultimately ended up with six players from the Lions for the 1983 season - Osamu Abe, Koji Akiyama, Yukiichi Komazaki, Katsuhiro Shirahata, Katsuya Soma and Sadahito Ueda.  The Lions also sent a coach, Hiromi Wada, to spend the season with the team.  Akiyama hit seven home runs to lead the team despite only playing in 88 games that season.

1984 would see eight new Lions players in San Jose - Michio Aoyama, Akemi Goto, Takeshi Ishii, Kazuaki Kawamura, Kimiyasu Kudoh, Yasuo Kushihara, Yukihara Narita and Ikuo Takayama - plus the returning Katsuhiro Shirahata.  As you'd probably expect, Kudoh had a pretty good year, with an ERA of 1.91 and 41 strikeouts in 38 innings despite a 3-4 record (the team went 53-87 for the year, the worst record in the California League).  As far as I can tell, Takayama was not officially a Lion in 1984 - he was a member of the Prince Hotel industrial league team (which I believe was also owned by Seibu).  He wouldn't become a Lion until the draft in the fall of 1984.

The Lions would send seven players to San Jose in 1985.  Four were players who had spent time there previously - Goto, Kushihara, Soma and Ueda.  The other three were Tadayuki Hanyuda, Kazuo Murai and Seiji Tomoshino.  The team also featured future Chunichi Dragon star Alonzo Powell who was on loan from the San Francisco Giants organization at the time.

The 1986 San Jose Bees would become a bit of a baseball legend.  Steve signed a bunch of players who had basically been banished from the major leagues for any number of reasons - although a lot of them had had drug issues.  Former major leaguers Steve Howe, Ken Reitz, Mike Norris, Steve McCatty, Jerry White, Daryl Sconiers and Terry Whitfield (who had played for Seibu from 1981-83) spent time on the roster that season, along with five players from the Lions -  Yoshihiro Nakashima, Hiromoto Okubo, Norio Tanabe, Kazuaki Yamano and Hisanori Yokota.  The team was immortalized in an article in the July 17th/July 31st 1986 issue of Rolling Stone entitled "The Bad Nose Bears".  Tanabe's 9 home runs led the team as did his .312 batting average (which was tied for sixth best in the California League).

The 1987 Bees aren't as storied as the 1986 team but they also had their share of former major leaguers.  McCatty, Reitz and Sconiers all returned (along with Yamano from the Lions) and were joined by the likes of Charlie Moore, Elias Sosa, Roger Erickson and Warren Brusstar.  Seibu sent seven additional players to the team as well - Kosaku Akimoto, Tetsuya Haraguchi, Taketo Kamei, Hiroyuki Mori, Tsutomu Nabekawa, Hideo Nakamura and Teruki Osaka.  The Lions also sent a new coach - Osamu Hirose - to replace Wada who had apparently felt that four years in San Jose were enough.  The team was absolutely horrendous, going 33-109 for the season.  The one bright spot for the team was Kamei, who was third in the league with a 2.42 ERA and lead the league with 16 complete games although he also led the league with 14 losses.

Big changes were in the air in 1988 - changes that ultimately would lead to the end of the Seibu-San Jose partnership.  The Giants decided to end their affiliation with the Fresno Cal League franchise after 30 years due to ballpark issues and signed a Player Development Contract with San Jose.  The team would have a new name - the San Jose Giants - and would be provided players by San Francisco.  Five Seibu Lions players were part of the team that year, however - the returning Tadayuki Hanyuda, Daijiro Johdo, Koji Maeda, Ken Suzuki and Masanori Yamamoto.  Maeda was one of the bright spots in a very good pitching staff - he went 10-4 with a 2.36 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 99 innings.  (Maeda was unusual in that he had originally been signed by the Hanshin Tigers and was picked up by the Lions a few years later.)  After finishing pretty much dead last in the California League each of the previous five seasons, San Jose made the playoffs in 1988, although they lost in the first round to the Stockton Ports.

I'm not sure why the Lions stopped sending players to San Jose after 1988.  My guess is that the Giants wanted their players to get playing time instead of the Lions players - frankly I'm surprised the agreement stayed in place for 1988.  Harry Steve stayed on as GM of the team at least through 1989 - he would later run the Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent Northern League (and go back to his given name - Harry Stavrenos).

The Lions sent 33 players to San Jose over the six years they were working with the Bees/Giants.  Here's a summary of all the players (and the two coaches):

Player Draft Years In San Jose NPB Career Nickname Notes
Osamu Abe 4th round, 1980 1983 Lions (1981-96), Buffaloes (1997-99) Sam
Kosaku Akimoto outside of 1986 draft 1987 Lions (1987-89), Whales/Baystars (1990-2000) Rattoo
Koji Akiyama outside of 1980 draft 1983 Lions (1981-93), Hawks (1994-2002) HOF, managed Hawks from 2009-2014
Michio Aoyama 3rd round, 1983 1984 Lions (1984-89), Whales (1990-92) Mich
Akemi Goto 6th round, 1982 1984-85 Lions (1983-90) Aki Never played for ichi-gun team
Tadayuki Hanyuda outside of 1982 draft 1985, 1988 Lions (1983-97) Tad Played in Japan under the name Tadakatsu Hanyuda
Tetsuya Haraguchi 5th round, 1985 1987 Lions (1985-93), Hawks (1994) Ted
Takeshi Ishii 3rd round, 1982 1984 Lions (1983-88)
Daijiro Johdo 3rd round, 1987 1988 Lions (1988-92) Joe Never played for ichi-gun team. Last name is getting translated as "Shirotsuchi" from Kanji
Taketo Kamei 5th round, 1986 1987 Lions (1987-93) Kat
Kazuaki Kawamura 4th round, 1983 1984 Lions (1984-90), Swallows (1990-91) Boose
Yukiichi Komazaki outside of 1980 draft 1983 Lions (1981-89), Whales (1990-91) Yuki
Kimiyasu Kudoh 6th round, 1981 1984 Lions (1982-94), Hawks (1995-99), Giants (2000-06), Baystars (2007-09), Lions (2010) Kim HOF, Hawks manager 2015 to present
Yasuo Kushihara 4th round, 1981 1984-85 Lions (1982-88) Yasu
Koji Maeda 2nd round, 1982 (Tigers) 1988 Tigers (1983-86), Lions (1987-92), Carp (1993-94), Blue Wave (1995)
Hiroyuki Mori 4th round, 1985 1987 Lions (1987-97) Dan
Kazuo Murai 4th round, 1982 1985 Lions (1983-87), Dragons (1987) Never played for ichi-gun team
Tsutomu Nabekawa outside of 1986 draft 1987 Lions (1987-91) Tom Never played for ichi-gun team
Hideo Nakamura 2nd round, 1986 1987 Lions (1987-92), Baystars (1993-95) Hector
Yoshihiro Nakashima ? 1986 Lions (1983-86) Yoshi Real last name is Nakajima. No bio on Japanese Wikipedia
Yukihiro Narita 5th round, 1982 1984 Lions (1983-89), Whales (1990-91) Yuki
Hiromoto Okubo 1st round, 1984 1986 Lions (1985-92), Giants (1992-95) Dave Managed Eagles in 2015
Teruki Osaka ? 1987 Lions (1987-92) Rocky No biographical info on Japanese Wikipedia
Katsuhiro Shirahata outside of 1980 draft 1983-84 Lions (1981-88), Giants (1989-90), Whales (1991-92) Hiro Played in Japan under the name Takahiro Shirahata
Katsuya Soma outside of 1980 draft 1983, 1985 Lions (1982-93) Bunny
Ken Suzuki 1st round, 1987 1988 Lions (1988-2002), Swallows (2003-07)
Ikuo Takayama 3rd round, 1984 1984 Lions (1985-90), Carp (1991-94), Hawks (1995-96) Ike Appears to have played with San Jose before being drafted by Seibu. Was playing for Prince Hotel industrial league team
Norio Tanabe 2nd round, 1984 1986 Lions (1985-99), Giants (2000) Nori Lions manager 2014 to present
Seiji Tomoshino 2nd round, 1982 1985 Lions (1983-97)
Sadahito Ueda ? 1983, 1985 Lions (1982-86) No biographical info on Japanese Wikipedia
Masanori Yamamoto 4th round, 1986 1988 Lions (1987-94) Masa Played in Japan under the name Katsunori Yamamoto
Kazuaki Yamano 2nd round, 1985 1986-87 Lions (1986-95), Dragons (1996-97) Mickey
Hisanori Yokota 6th round, 1985 1986 Lions (1986-2000), Marines (2001), Tigers (2002) George Currently the Lions ni-gun manager (H/T Graveyard Baseball)
Osamu Hirose 1987-88 Sam
Hiromi Wada 1983-86 Hank

It's a pretty interesting list.  You've got two Hall Of Famers (Akiyama and Kudoh), several managers (Akiyama, Kudoh, Okubo and Tanabe) along with a couple guys who were major contributors to the Lions for a number of years (Abe and Suzuki).  And then on the other end of the spectrum, you've got a handful of guys who pretty much were never heard from again.

It's kind of wild to think that last season, a quarter of the managers in NPB had played in San Jose (Kudoh, Okubo and Tanabe).

So the next question is - how many of the Lions players had baseball cards in the San Jose team sets?  There were team sets available for four of the years that the Lions had players in San Jose - 1983, 1986, 1987 and 1988.  Everyone who played on those teams has a card EXCEPT Koji Akiyama.  So unfortunately, neither of the Hall Of Famers who played in San Jose has a card.

I've pretty much tracked down an image of every card for every Lions player.  I have the 1988 set and Jason Presley has a bunch of the cards in one of his Picasa albums. The others I found on Ebay.

1983 Barry Colla San Jose Bees

Osamu Abe

Yukiichi Komazaki

Katsuhiro Shirahata

Katsuya Soma

Sadahito Ueda

Hiromi Wada

Back Of Wada's card

1986 Procards San Jose Bees

1987 Procards San Jose Bees

1988 Procards San Jose Giants


I found this to be a really interesting story but that might be because I have a special place in my heart for San Jose - I went to me first ever minor league baseball game there - a double header between the Bees (then an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians) and the Fresno Giants in 1976.

Beyond Baseball-Reference, one of my main resources for this post was the article "From Seibu To San Jose" by Chuck Hildebrand which appeared in the August 15, 1984 issue of Baseball America (I picked up this issue with a bunch of documents I bought from Paul Margiott a few years ago).  The cover of the issue has a photo of most of the Lions players posing in front of the outfield sign that the team bought at San Jose's ballpark:

Front row (left to right) - Akemi Goto, HiCi Ohi (trainer?), Katsuhiro Shirahata, Takeshi Ishii
Back row kneeling (left to right) - Yasuo Kushihara, Al Gallagher (manager), Kimiyasu Kudoh, Hiromi Wada (coach), Michio Aoyama, Ikuo Takayama
Back row standing (left to right) - Harry Steve (GM), Rick Tracy (Assistant GM)


Fuji said...

Great post. I grew up going to SJ Bees and SJ Giants games and never knew the connection with the Seibu Lions. Looks like I need to track down one of those 1986 SJ Bees set.

Nick Vossbrink said...

Oh fun. This is a post from long before I was following you. I should look through my San Jose programs and see when they stopped mentioning this connection.

Nick Vossbrink said...

Had a chance to look at my programs. Is pretty cool. From 1989-1995 they have a section about former players in Japan which functions as a snapshot into what's going on over there. Lots of bragging about the Seibu dynasty in the late 80s and early 90s. and there are headshots of all the active players (steadily decreasing until there are only a couple in 1995).