When the Hanshin Tigers returned to the top of the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Central League for the first time in 18 years on Thursday, the man who stole the spotlight was manager Akinobu Okada (岡田彰布-66). It was Okada who was at the helm when they won the previous Central League title in 2005.
Hanshin’s 4-3 home win over the Yomiuri Giants on April 14 gave them a record of 80 wins, 44 losses, and four ties, clinching first place in the league regardless of the outcome of their remaining 15 games. It was Hanshin’s sixth league title, after winning in 1962, 1964, 1985, 2003, and 2005.
Okada has a special connection to Hanshin. He was born in Osaka, where Hanshin is based, and spent most of his professional career with Hanshin (1980-1993).
Okada, who returned to the Hanshin organization 15 years after the end of last season, previously served as Hanshin manager from 2004 to 2008. He was highly touted for the 2005 Japan Series, but was swept in four games by the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Pacific League, a team that included Lee Seung-yup (now Doosan). The combined score of the four games was a disastrous 44-33. Lee won the Most Valuable Player award for his performance, which included three home runs (1-2-4 in Game 1) and five RBIs, and rode that momentum to the Yomiuri Giants the following year.
Okada stepped down as Hanshin’s manager in 2008. He was responsible for leading Yomiuri to a 13-game lead in the first half of that year before falling back in the second half to finish second and miss the postseason. He returned to manage the Pacific League Oryx in 2010, and in 2012, his third year, showed promise with the signing of South Korean Dae-ho Lee, but he was fired in September after the team finished at the bottom of the league.
He then worked as a TV commentator and baseball critic before returning to his family in September last year, 10 years after leaving the field. “I’m going to try to win the championship next year (2023),” he said, showing off his motivation. He stimulated the players’ will by referring to the championship as “it” (アレ-are). This is the Japanese pronunciation of the Hanshin motto, “A.R.E. It means to have a clear goal (Aim), to respect baseball and seniors (Respect), and to empower each other (Empower). Empower usually means that a leader distributes authority and responsibility to members of an organization. 스포츠토토
Hanshin had a shaky start to the 2023 season, losing a 4-7 scrimmage to South Korea’s World Baseball Classic (WBC) team in March. But once the regular season began, they competed at the top of the standings and have been winning since August. They recently won 11 straight games to clinch first place in the league. After his appointment, Okada asked the club to “recognize walks and hits as equal contributions when evaluating players,” which they did. It’s an element of American statistical analysis.
Last year, the Hanshin lineup drew 358 walks in 143 games (third in the league); this year, they’ve drawn 452 walks in 128 games (first). The team’s ERA (2.61) is the lowest among the 12 teams in both leagues.
“It’s been one of the most fun years of my baseball career,” Okada said. “When we won the championship in 2005, we knew what we had and fought as a complete team, but this year everything was up in the air. But we worked hard to strengthen our defense and made a team.” Okada was the captain of the 1985 team, the last time Hanshin won the Japan Series. The challenge now is to win the title for the first time in 38 years.