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Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Hoshino still getting skewered over Olympic failure


The Beijing Olympics is history, but the debate continues over Japan's showing. Last week, Fuji TV's Sunday night newsmagazine, "Sakiyomi," held a discussion on whether or not the government should increase its budget for Olympic athletes. Three of the four celebrity guests in the studio thought that it should, and used the smaller-than-expected medal count to bolster their argument, but when the producers carried out a live survey they found that 75 percent of the viewers objected to any increase in government support. The guests were shocked. What happened to national pride?

What the survey results said to me is that the media commotion about the Olympics is mostly self-serving. People watched the games and reacted to the results in their own ways, but they didn't invest as much emotional capital in the Olympics as the media did. The return on that investment has been disappointment, and since the games ended, Senichi Hoshino, the manager of the ill-fated Japanese baseball team, has borne the brunt of it. The media were convinced that "Hoshino Japan" would bring home the gold medal — owing to the fact that Japan won the World Baseball Classic two years ago and that it would be the cream of the nation's professional players who would "wear the Rising Sun on their backs."

Hoshino is a convenient whipping boy. During his long career in baseball, he's developed a close relationship with the media while at the same time cultivating an image of being tough on his charges and himself. He is willing to take the blame because that's his job, and he seems to have a lot to answer for. According to an article in last week's Aera, among the skipper's failures in Beijing were an inability to instill in his team the proper "fighting spirit" and misreadings of the "data" he and his coaching staff had collected on their opponents. Mostly, he was criticized for lack of flexibility. His use of players, particularly pitchers, showed he didn't have alternatives to his original strategy, which prooved to be ineffective.

But Hoshino wasn't chosen to lead the Olympic baseball team because of his managerial skills. He was chosen because of his notoriety. Last week, the big shots of Japanese professional baseball started discussing who would manage Team Japan for the next WBC, which takes place in March. Legendary slugger and current Softbank Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh is too frail to take the reins again. Tsuneo Watanabe, Yomiuri Giants chairman and the most powerful man in Japanese baseball, told reporters, "Who else but Hoshino?" He wasn't saying that no one was more talented than Hoshino; only that no one was more famous.

As the manager of the Chunichi Dragons (1987-91, 1996-01), Hoshino won two league championships, but no Japan Series titles. His main claim to national attention was his temper. When his troops were doing badly, he'd throw tantrums in the dugout, kicking the bench and swearing at the nearest warm body. The media found this behavior "charismatic." His apotheosis came in late 2001, when, having already left Chunichi, he accepted the manager position with the hapless Hanshin Tigers for the 2002 season. The infamously critical Hanshin fans accepted him, since his tough-love methodology was seen to be just the thing for the Tigers, who hadn't won a league championship in 18 years. In 2003, Hoshino and the Tigers came out on top in the Central League (though, again, he lost the Japan Series). Hoshino quit after that season because of his high blood pressure, but he left as a hero.

According to Aera, Hoshino was chosen to lead the Olympic team because he is the only "post-O/N manager" with the requisite star power. "O/N" stands for "Oh/Nagashima," meaning Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima, the two most famous baseball players in Japan. Whatever their tactical talents, both are loved by fans, media and players alike, and that's all that matters, especially when it comes to the Olympic team. Hoshino's involvement guarantees that people will pay attention. Except for pitcher Yu Darvish, none of the players command nationwide interest. Most of Japan's baseball superstars are playing in the U.S.

At the same time, it's impossible to imagine the media berating Oh or Nagashima (who suffered a stroke in 2004 only months before he was to take Japan's baseball team to Athens) as virulently if it had been either of them who'd lost in Beijing. Hoshino's prickly attitude and brash manner leave him open to attack. Both TBS and NHK ran special programs two weeks ago about what went wrong in Beijing. Though they covered the same ground, the two specials were markedly different in tone. TBS's was dramatic, opening with Hoshino's much-publicized statement that nothing except a gold medal would satisfy him. The subsequent narration and choice of music combined to create a mood of impending doom manifested by an unprepared coaching staff and a team whose morale was easily shaken. NHK's special was more sober, focusing on whether or not the "data" his staff collected was properly utilized.

What both NHK and TBS ignored was the opposition. The programs were premised on the belief that the gold medal was Japan's to lose. It didn't matter how good the Korean, Cuban or American teams were, or that all three played one another in practice games shortly before the tournament. One of the reasons initially given for Hoshino Japan's perceived superiority turned out to be its downfall, namely, the players' professional status. They took only a few weeks off from league play to compete in Beijing and never cohered as a team. Moreover, they didn't have a goal as concrete as the one set for the eventual gold medalists. The Korean players were told by their government that if they won they'd be exempt from mandatory military service. As far as motivation goes, that beats national pride by a mile.



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