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Friday, March 23, 2001

Mori planning major overhaul for BayStars


Staff writer

It's been said that life is all about truth and time. Well, truth be told, new Yokohama BayStars manager Masaaki Mori would prefer to spend as much of the time he has left on Earth doing what he loves most -- working in baseball.

Masaaki Mori returns to managing this year with the BayStars.

The legendary former skipper of the Seibu Lions, whose record with the longtime Pacific League powerhouse is one of the best in the history of Japanese baseball, returns to managing this season after six years in the broadcast booth with NHK.

How successful was Mori filling out the lineup card everyday for the Lions for nine years from 1986-94? Take a look at these numbers: 8 Pacific League pennants, 6 Japan Series titles and a lifetime winning percentage of .606 (673-438-59).

Despite his first-ballot Hall of Fame credentials, success obviously hasn't gone to Mori's head. The 64-year-old native of Gifu Prefecture comes across as a very honest and intelligent man with a refreshing attitude. His vision and organizational strategy sound like that of somebody with an MBA from Harvard.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times this week at Yokohama Stadium, Mori talked at length about his reasons for coming back to the dugout, his philosophy on building a winning team, and why baseball players should be more than celebrities who spend all of their time off the field on television.

"I came back to manage because I want to spend as much of the limited time I have left doing what I love," said Mori, who is fit, tanned and has the appearance of a man 10 years younger.

"I have my own dream of how ideal baseball should be played and I want to pursue it now. I like to create, not just focus on results."

Mori explains his dream for baseball.

Mori said that when he agreed to accept the job with the BayStars last October, it wasn't the first time the team had approached him.

"Two or three years ago the BayStars asked me to be the manager," says Mori. "I was moved this time by the enthusiastic invitation from our team president (Takashi Ohori). I admire the teams that always have new ideas. For example, the BayStars were the first to separate their farm team from their parent team. The finances of each are managed independently."

Mori says that Ohori gave him a free hand to do whatever he felt necessary to return the team to the championship level it reached in 1998, when it won the Central League pennant and Japan Series for the first time in 38 years.

After the glory of 1998, the BayStars finished third in 1999 and then third again in 2000 under former manager Hiroshi Gondo.

"You can tear apart the team to make it stronger and compete at the highest level," Mori said Ohori told him while recruiting him for the post.

When asked if the team needed a major overhaul or a minor tuneup to get it to the level he wants, Mori smiled and said, "I think a major overhaul is in order.

"I don't mind taking some criticism while molding the team my way," states Mori. "So I have decided to build the team from the ground up. People tend to judge the progress of the team by the results. However, I would like to leave my mark on this team."

Mori, who was MVP of the Japan Series in 1967, is very frank in his assessment of where the BayStars are as a team now and what they need.

"The team has not been trained well, both their physical conditioning and strength training need improvement. Furthermore, their mental preparation isn't what it should be. They don't evaluate their opponent and use the proper strategy necessary to win.

"The team is really starting at ground zero now. The players are hungering for ways to win and I feel that I am the right man for this type of team. That's why I believe it is worth the effort. This is a completely different situation from when I took over at Seibu."

Known as an outstanding defensive player during his days as the starting catcher on the V-9 Yomiuri Giants, who won the Central League pennant and Japan Series titles nine years in a row (1965-73), Mori joined the Giants straight out of Gifu High School in 1955.

A contemporary of Yomiuri superstars Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh, Mori played his first game for the Giants' big club in 1959 (Oh's rookie season) and retired in 1974 (along with Nagashima).

Playing his entire career in the shadow of these two icons, Mori's skills behind the plate were given due credit, but the majority of the headlines went to Oh at first base and Nagashima at third.

Mori earned Best Nine honors eight times during his career, and, despite a lifetime batting average of just .236, left the field with the reputation of being a cerebral player equipped with the knowledge of what it took to be a winner and a formula for how he would build one if given the chance to become a manager.

After an apprenticeship under former V-9 teammate Tatsuro Hirooka, who played shortstop for the Giants, as a coach with both the Yakult Swallows (1978-79) and Lions (1982-84), Mori took over the Seibu helm in 1986, having spent the vast majority of his career as both player and coach as part of winning organizations.

That doesn't always translate into winning as the boss, though.

Many star players and successful coaches have been dismal failures as managers. Oh and Nagashima both struggled through their first tenures as pilots with the Giants, and ended up resigning after not being able to produce the kind of results they did as players.

Though they have both enjoyed success their second time around as managers, Oh and Nagashima still have a long way to go to measure up to Mori's incredible record as a field boss.

Despite his magnificent record, Mori is candid about the prospects for the BayStars in 2001. "I clearly don't think we can push the level up to the championship this season. Of course, it is a game, so we do whatever we can to win the game. But more than that, this year we will put more emphasis on building up the team.

"If we are in the pennant race we will go for it. But after losing our fourth and fifth batters (Bobby Rose -- who retired -- and Norihiro Komada -- who was released, then retired), compared to the other teams, we really need to concentrate on rebuilding."

Mori, who despite fielding a lineup this year that will include stars like Takanori Suzuki, Takuro Ishii and Motonobu Tanishige, is already thinking ahead to the 2002 season and will be looking to the front office for help on the field.

"I hope that every effort the team makes this season will be building a foundation for next year. Clearly our style of play will be different than it has been in the past. A big issue will be after this season, and if the front office will be able to provide the team with the kind of personnel it needs. If it does, we would like to make a run at the pennant next year."

Mori makes no secret of the fact that pitching is a key weakness on the BayStars. "I don't think we have a true power pitcher right now. To be honest, some of the pitchers are really good, but they have not been trained enough. Because there was no hard training, they were actually getting worse. We need to restore their stamina.

"At this point, I am trying to restore their level to where it was a couple of years ago."

Mori, who has won the Matsutaro Shoriki award twice (1986, '90) for his overall contributions to the game, subscribes to the theory that good pitching beats good hitting.

"Because we have to go through a long pennant race, we definitely need a good pitching staff to win. Otherwise, we simply can't survive. Good batting depends on the pitcher. If you have a good pitching staff, even a team with a strong lineup can't hit."

Despite growing up in a much different time, Mori thinks baseball is still a good character builder for youngsters today and believes that the current pro players must set the example for future generations by doing more than just being "celebrities."

"All of Japanese baseball needs to make the sport one which provides dreams for the younger generation. The players must learn common sense in society. I don't mean it is good just to become a ballplayer.

"I think the ballplayers today should visit many places in Japan to do baseball clinics, not just go on TV and appear on variety shows and singing contests in their spare time. They should think about true volunteer work.

"In Japan, only a few players do true volunteer work. Most of the time, they just do it to promote themselves and sell their name. They should learn and absorb how the players in the States do volunteer work.

"The media here tends to report on just the players who promote themselves. Which means the players who do the truly good deeds are not recognized enough."

The pragmatic Mori believes that baseball can't rest on its laurels if it wants to remain No. 1 in Japan. "Of course, baseball is the most popular sport in Japan. However, like sumo, which sold out for many years without making much effort but is now struggling, baseball could become like that if we don't face the reality that we could lose popularity.

"We now have a lot of professional sports. When pro soccer and the J. League first started, baseball had the fear it might lose popularity. However, now it appears that fear has been forgotten. I believe we need to remain aware of the level of interest in the game, no matter what. If not, people may drift away.

"We have to meet the expectations of the fans who are baseball lovers. The commissioner and the league staffs must consider the future of the game in a more serious manner."



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