Saturday, June 17, 2017

Study Abroad Program - Lodi

The first book on Japanese baseball published in the US was Robert Obojski's "The Rise Of Japanese Baseball Power".  Published in 1975, it's an interesting book dealing with many aspects of the game in Japan - history, Hall Of Fame, contemporary stars, gaijin, the ballparks, the game experience, etc.  I'd picked up a copy from a used book dealer on Amazon on few years back and greatly enjoyed reading it.

One chapter in the book was devoted to something I had never known had happened:  in 1972 Nagayoshi Nakamura, the owner of the Lotte Orions, bought the Lodi franchise in the Class A California League with the intent to send some players there to play in the US.  The team name was changed to the Lodi Orions and would officially be affiliated with the Orioles (they were a San Diego farm team in 1971 and called the Lodi Padres).  The team would be managed by Jimmie Schaefer but the team's GM was Ichizo Aoki, who was a longtime scout for the Orions (Obojski describes Aoki as having played the infield for the Hanshin Tigers after being a college star - actually Aoki moved directly into scouting for the then-Osaka Tigers after graduating from Kansai University in 1952 - he was a farm team coach for the Tigers from 1950-52 while still attending college).  Lotte sent four players there that season - infielder Yukihiro Ikeda, catcher Masaji Ishizuka and pitchers Junji Nakamura and Masao Sato.

Masao Sato was the only one of the four players to have a long career.  He was taken by Lotte in the fifth round of the 1969 draft and debuted with the Orions in 1971.  He spent the entire 1972 season in Lodi going 3-2 with a 3.23 ERA in 29 games.  He pitched again for Lotte in 1973 before being traded to the Chunichi Dragons midway through the season.  He moved to the Yokohama Taiyo Whales in 1981, returned to Lotte for the 1985 season and retired after 1987.

Yukihiro Ikeda was signed by Lotte outside the draft in 1971.  He only played in 19 games with Lodi in 1972 but he hit .317.  He appeared in 3 games with the Orions in 1973 and 1974 before retiring.

Masaji Ishizuka had an interesting background - after playing at Nihon University and then Mitsubishi in the industrial leagues, he (like Hidehiko Koga) was a member of the Tokyo Dragons of the ill-fated Global League in 1969.  He signed outside the draft with the Yakult Atoms in 1970 (I think he was an ikusei player if they had them at the time) and was released by them at the end of the season.  He signed with Lotte before the 1971 season and appeared in 2 games with them that season.  He appeared in 24 games with Lodi in 1972 and hit .161.  He spent 1973 with Lotte's farm team and retired after that.

Junji Nakamura was a third round pick of the Orions in the 1970 draft.  He spent all of 1971 with the Orions farm team and all of 1972 in Lodi, going 5-4 with a 4.75 ERA in 28 games.  He retired after the 1972 season without ever having played for the ichi-gun Orions.

The 1972-73 off season was an interesting one for Nakamura.  He apparently bought into the Nishitetsu Lions and had to sell his interest in the Orions.  The Lodi team must have been owned by him personally because the team was renamed the Lodi Lions for 1973 and stocked with six players from the Nishitetsu Lions (who would be renamed the Taiheiyo Club Lions that season) - infielders Haruki Ihara and Akinobu Mayumi, outfielder Fumio Takahashi, catcher Yoshiharu Wakana and pitchers Akira Kawahara and Keisuke Nakajima.

Akinobu Mayumi is easily the most famous of this group of players.  He was the third round pick of the Lions in the fall 1972 draft and debuted with the ichi-gun team in May of 1973.  He was sent to Lodi in July and got into 25 games, hitting only .183.  By 1978, however, he had established himself as the Lions' star shortstop and was named to the All Star team and the post season Best 9 team for the first time.  After the season, however, he was traded to the Hanshin Tigers in a five-player trade that brought Koichi Tabuchi to the Lions (which had just been bought by Seibu).  He continued as a star for the Tigers, making the All Star team eight more times and the Best 9 team two more times and winning a batting crown in 1983.  He retired following the 1995 season.  Mayumi went on to manage the Tigers for three seasons from 2009 to 2011.  His best showing was a second place finish in 2010 but the Tigers were swept by the third place Giants in the First Stage of the Climax Series.

2007 BBM Draft Story #015
Haruki Ihara was the second round pick of the Lions in the fall 1970 draft.  He became the starting third baseman for Nishitetsu in 1972 but lost his job to Shojiro Kikukawa the next season.  Like Mayumi he spent only part of 1973 with Lodi - he played 77 games in California and hit .225.  He remained a Lion for two more seasons before he was traded to Yomiuri along with Hajime Kato for Mitsuhiro Sekimoto and Nobuhiro Tamai before the 1976 season.  He returned to the Lions in 1978 and retired as a player following the 1980 season.  He then coached for the team for the next 21 years (with the exception of one season he spent coaching with the Hanshin Tigers in 2000) before becoming manager of the Lions in 2002.  He took the team to the Nippon Series that year but got swept by the Giants.  He was let go by Seibu following the 2003 season and became the manager of the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes for what turned out to be their final season in 2004.  He's been mostly a TV commentator since then although he coached for the Giants from 2007-10 and managed the Lions for half a season in 2014 before he abruptly resigned.

2014 BBM Lions Legends #11
Yoshiharu Wakana was taken by the Lions in the fourth round of the fall 1971 draft.  I don't know for sure but I think he also only spent part of the 1973 season in Lodi - he appeared in 49 games and hit .278.  He also appears to have made one appearance on the mound - he pitched three innings with one strikeout, one walk, one hit-by-pitch and gave up three hits including a solo home run.  He made his ichi-gun debut with the Lions in 1974 and became the Lions' starting catcher in 1977 and made his first All Star team that season.  After the 1978 season he was sent to the Tigers in the five player trade that Mayumi was involved in - it was Wakana, Mayumi and Masafumi Takeda (plus 20 million yen) for Tabuchi and Kenji Furusawa.  Wakana was the starting catcher for Hanshin for the next four seasons, making the All Star team each year.  He abruptly quit baseball halfway through the 1982 season, however, when the affair he was having with actress Kazuko Shirakawa became public.  He began the 1983 season back in the US, coaching for the Tidewater Tides, the Mets AAA team in Norfolk, Virginia.  He returned to Japan later that season and signed with the Yokohama Taiyo Whales.  He spent six seasons with the Whales, making the All Star team again in 1985.  He spent the last three years of his career with the Nippon Ham Fighters, retiring at the end of the 1991 season.  He was the last former Nishitetsu Lion still active in NPB.  He coached for the Hawks from 1997 to 2001 - he was let go after the 2001 season after he admitted to ordering pitchers to pitch around Tuffy Rhodes because he didn't want a foreigner to break Sadaharu Oh's single season home run record.

2008 BBM Back To The 70's #058
Fumio Takahashi was the only one of the Japanese players to spend most if not all his 1973 season in Lodi.  He appeared in 124 of the team's 140 games and hit .289.  At age 25 he was the oldest of the Japanese at Lodi that season.  "Mickey" (as he was nicknamed according to Obojski) was originally drafted by the Lions in the first round of the fall 1970 draft.  He was the regular leadoff hitter for the Lions as a rookie in 1971 but started to lose some playing time in 1972.  He was again a regular in 1974 but he fell out of favor with player/manager Shinichi Etoh in 1975 and spent most of the season with the farm team.  He was let go at the end of the season and signed with Lotte.  He retired following the 1978 season.

Akira Kawahara had already had five seasons with the Lions under his belt before being sent to Lodi.  He was Nishitetsu's first round pick in the fall 1967 draft and was worked pretty hard in those five seasons, appearing in more than 40 games in four of them.  He lead the Pacific League in several categories in the early 70's, all of them bad for a pitcher.  He lead the league in losses and hit by pitches in both 1970 and 1971 and walks in 1970.  He split 1973 between Lodi and the ichi-gun Lions, going 4-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 games in California and 0-1 with a 4.66 ERA in six games back in Japan.  After a 5-10 season in 1974 he was traded to the Taiyo Whales for the mentioned Shinichi Etoh.  He retired after an injury-marred single season with the Whales in 1975.

2010 BBM Lions 60th Anniversary #65
Hiromi Nakajima was the first round pick of the Lions in the fall 1972 draft.  He made 13 starts with Lodi and went 6-3 with a 4.11 ERA.  He also pitched in three games with the ichi-gun Lions that season, going 1-0 with a 5.62 ERA.  That would be his only appearances with the top team.  He'd remain in the Lions organization until 1978 when he retired.  He changed his registered name to Keisuke Nakajima for his last two seasons and that's the name that his NPB stats are listed under on Baseball-Reference.

In addition to these six players, veteran catcher Hiromi "Hank" Wada joined the team as first base coach.  Wada had just retired following the 1972 season after an 18 year career with the Lions.  Obojski credits him with becoming the "first full-time Japanese coach in U. S. pro baseball".  He would later return to the California League to coach with the San Jose Bees from 1983 to 1986 when they were being supplied players by the Lions.

2008 BBM Lions Legend #11
Nakamura ended his experiment with the Lodi franchise after the 1973 season, selling the team to local businessmen.  Obojski says that Nakamura had wanted to move the team to Sacramento, which had been without a team since 1961 but was "thwarted in his efforts".  The franchise would remain in Lodi through the 1984 season.  After a hiatus of one season (in which the California League operated with only nine teams) the team relocated to Ventura and became the Ventura County Gulls in 1986.  After one season, the team moved to San Bernardino and was renamed the Spirit.  They moved again before the 1993 season and became the team they are still know as today - the Rancho Cucamunga Quakes.

One of the more interesting tidbits of trivia of all this is that the man who Nakamura hired to be the business manager for the Lodi team was Marty Kuehnert.  Kuehnert would move to Japan to become the Lions director of sales and promotions and would go onto do a great many things over the next few decades - he opened the first sports bar in Japan; had a consulting firm called International Sports Management and Consulting (ISMAC); hosted a TV sports talk show; wrote columns for the Daily Yomiuri and Japan Times; co-owned the Birmingham Barons of the Class AA Southern League with Suntory in the early 1990's and was the first GM of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2005).  He would also play a major role in the creation of the modern Japanese baseball card hobby.

2005 BBM Eagles Box Set #E02
Since the bulk of minor league cards in the US date from 1975 and later, there aren't any minor league cards available for any of these Japanese players  (although Wakana had a card in the 1983 TCMA Tidewater Tides set).  Sato is the only one of the four Orions players who had any cards in Japan - he appeared in a number of Takara team sets between 1979 and 1986.  There were a large number of Calbee, Takara and BBM cards issued for Mayumi and Wakana during their careers (although it doesn't look like there were any from when they were Lions) but there doesn't appear to be any contemporary cards of the other players.  Ihara has several cards from when he managed the Lions and Buffaloes and there are OB cards of both him and Kawahara.

1 comment:

SumoMenkoMan said...

A great blog post and it was really interesting reading about Larry and his influences in modern card collecting on the link to this post. Thanks for posting!