According to the Chinese zodiac, this is the Year of the Dragon. But can the Chunichi Dragons make it their year as well?
Coming off a season in which Chunichi came a game away from winning the Japan Series under skipper Hiromitsu Ochiai--who was, nonetheless, let go after the season—the ballclub will enter the 2012 campaign under the direction of 70-year-old manager Morimichi Takagi, who also held the job in the 1990s.
We asked Takagi his thoughts and aspirations for the upcoming season as the club takes aim at its third straight Central League pennant.
Question: It's been more than three months since the surprising announcement of your comeback. This will be your second time to manage the Dragons.
Takagi: People have been saying I've got a tough act to follow after a great manager like (Hiromitsu) Ochiai, and if we don't win then we may very well disappoint our fans. But the players who helped win two straight championships are skilled, so if I don’t make any mistakes then we'll post good results. In this aging society, I hope to do my best for fans of my generation who'll watch us play.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Dragons’ strong pitching staff?
A: The pillar of our starting rotation is (Kazuki) Yoshimi. Then there are (Maximo) Nelson and (Enyelbert) Soto. Our pitching coach, (Hiroshi) Gondo, is in charge of putting the rotation together, but I'd certainly like to have one or two new faces in there, like (Junki) Ito, (Ryuya) Ogawa or (Yudai) Ono. (Set-up man supreme Takuya) Asao and (closer Hitoki) Iwase will keep their current spots. Iwase's stuff has dropped off some, but he kept it together throughout last year, and Asao said, "My current position's good."
Q: How about the slumping batting lineup?
A: Last season, there were a lot of games where they failed to score runs and stressed out our fans. But our veterans are still playing well for their age and I think they'll want to do the best they can this season, so I think we can expect better results than last year.
Q: Tell us how the batting lineup looks right now.
A: No big changes from last season. The No. 1 (Masahiro Araki) and No. 2 (Hirokazu Ibata) spots will be the same, then (Masahiko) Morino will probably hit next. Having (Tony) Blanco hitting homers in the cleanup spot is nice, but we can expect a lot from (Takeshi) Yamasaki coming back to his old haunts, so I'll use either one, depending on their condition and the opposing pitcher. And we can't do without (veteran Kazuhiro) Wada. Then there's (Ryosuke) Hirata, a good clutch hitter, combined with (Yohei) Oshima, who runs well and plays good defense.
Q: Are there any young position players with potential?
A: I'd like Hirata to demonstrate year-long consistency. I also want (Daiki) Yoshikawa and (Shuhei) Takahashi, who joined the team as top draft picks, to rise up to a level where they can appear in some games. I'll have them compete at training camp to make the roster.
Q: Are you wary of the Yomiuri Giants?
A: When you look at how they've shored up their strength, the departure of (Alex) Ramirez hasn't left any holes. Chunichi is asking former players (Ken) Macha and (Alonso) Powell to help acquire players from overseas. I'd like to get as many pitchers as possible, and as far as fielders, an outfielder who can hit home runs. But my job is to do something with the players we've got right now.
Q: What are your goals for camp?
A: I want to make improvements on all levels, but I especially want to capitalize on opposing teams' mistakes with our baserunning. That's how I played, and when you're young is the time to improve on that skill in real games. We'll start having practice games early on. It'll be a tough season since every team will be wanting to take us down, but my goal is to win a third straight Central League pennant and be No. 1 in Japan.
Q: You've mentioned your focus on the local community and the fans, and at the end of last year you were busy traveling a lot.
A: When I saw how united the fans were at the Yahoo Dome (in Fukuoka) during the Japan Series, I felt that I wanted to play games in that sort of atmosphere. With attendance declining, I've been telling people, "Come to Nagoya Dome." I'll casually interact with all the fans even more than I have until now by giving autographs, shaking hands and stuff like that.
Q: Do you feel there was some distance between the players and fans?
A: The heckling used to be really bad at Nagoya Stadium. When I played, I even got into arguments with people in the stands. I guess the spectators' manners improved after the team moved to the nice domed stadium. But I still feel I want us to play games that will leave them impressed and make the fans think, "I'm glad I came to watch today."
Q: The team created the Fan Services department on Jan. 1. When will it really get active?
A: Every year, even after the team won a championship, spring training was quiet. I want to invite lots of people to Okinawa and have a great time. I intend to hit practice balls to fielders in foul territory on the first- and third-base sides so that everyone can get a close-up look at the players. I might not be able to swing like (Shigeo) Nagashima, but I do pick up the bat.
Q: What's going to appeal to spectators?
A: Although popularity is part of the business, overall the Dragons' players are mild-mannered. This may sound extreme, but it's boring doing pre-game fielding practice the regular way. I want the players to show off their professional skills while focusing on winning. You have to appreciate that the pros are different. You have to adopt this attitude, starting with your regular practice, to become a star on the national stage.
Q: What do you want from the fans?
A: They pay money to come to games, so I'm not worried about what they do. I've changed my autograph from "Morimichi Takagi" to simply "Morimichi" to get the young fans to be casual and call me "Morimichi."
Baseball is a sport that suits Japanese sensibilities, but I want to give more thought to fan-oriented services. The time is gone when fans would come out even if you didn’t try to communicate with them. I want enthusiastic fan support so we can get that third straight league pennant.
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