11 October 2006

NPB Notes -- Nippon Ham Fighters

Founded: 1945 as the Tokyo Senators. In 1947 they became the Tokyu Flyers, then the Kyuei Flyers for '48, then went back to the Tokyu Flyers from '49 to '53. From 1954-72 they changed to the Toei Flyers then were the Nittaku Home Flyers in 1973 before becoming the Nippon Ham Fighters in 1974. In 2004 the name officially changed to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters with a move to Sapporo from Tokyo. The team mascot is "Fighters," not "Ham Fighters."
Owner: Nippon Meat Packers Inc., better known as "Nippon Ham"
Home base: Sapporo Dome, 1 1/2 hours north of Tokyo by air on Hokkaido Island.
Titles: 2 Pac League titles, 1 Japan Series title (1962)

The Fighters are one of the big stories of the 2006 season in NPB, as they turned around from a fifth-place season in 2005 to finish atop the Pacific League by a game over Seibu. Seibu was eliminated in the PL playoffs by the Softbank Hawks and, since the Fighters took the regular season league title, they were given a 1-game advantage entering the PL Championship Series vs. the Hawks. By taking the first game of the series Wednesday, the Fighters need only win or tie in 1 of 3 of the remaining games to advance to their 3rd Japan Series to face the Chunichi Dragons. The Fighters' 82-54 regular season record marks only the second 80-win season in team history with 1961 being the only other.

The Fighters' history includes dashes of similarity to Bill Veeck's St. Louis Browns. Like the Browns in the old-time AL, for the most part the Fighters have been bottom-feeders in the Pacific League with 10 losing seasons since 1991, but the hiring of American manager Trey Hillman in 2003 and the
move to Sapporo in 2004, along with a new set of unis, has given the team a fresh start that has shown to pay dividends in 2006. The days of the '80s with gaudy yellow-and-orange unis (bringing to mind the Astros and Padres in MLB back in the early '80s) are apparently gone, although the team's pink bird-like mascot, "Fighty," and the tradition of playing the Village People's "YMCA" with the help of dancing cheerleaders and groundskeepers while the infield is swept in the middle of the 5th continue.

The Fighters have been anything but prolific in terms of the number of standout statistical players that have donned the Flyers/Fighters uni. The team's first winning season was in its 14th season in 1959 and the most notable Flyer up to that point was OF Hiroshi Oshita, who took the PL batting titles with marks of .339 and .383 in '50 and '51 and also took the PL homer crown in '51 with 26 longballs. The .383 BA was the league record until later Flyer Isao Harimoto broke it in 1970. By 1959, though, Oshita was gone from the Flyers and had led the Nishitetsu Lions to several Japan Series in the '50s. Starting that year,
the Korean OF Harimoto emerged to take Rookie of the Year honors. In 1961 the franchise posted its best regular-season mark at 83-52-5 but came up short in the PL to the Nankai Hawks by 2 1/2 games. The season also marked Harimoto's first PL batting title as he hit .336 for Toei. Harimoto, who had survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, played 17 years for Toei/Nittaku before wrapping up his career with Yomiuri and Lotte. His lifetime OPS of .933 (including a .399 OBP) was accentuated by 504 career HR, 319 SB, 7 batting titles, 9 OBP titles, an MVP award and 16 appearances on the Best Nine. The MVP came in 1962 as he hit .333/.440/.597 (second in the batting race) and P Osamu Kubota led the league with a 2.21 ERA as Toei went 78-52-3 and took the Japan Series by a 4-2-1 count over Hanshin. As Harimoto racked up batting titles, 1961 marked the beginning of six straight winning seasons and seven straight non-losing seasons as the team finished .500 in 1967. Other than Kubota's ERA title, the only big pitching news for Toei was 27 wins from Yukio Ozaki in 1965. Despite the winning ways, the team couldn't get back to the Japan Series for many years after '62.

The drop back to a losing record in 1968 marked the start of 10 of 11 losing seasons for Toei/Nippon Ham despite the fact Harimoto kept hammering away and IF/OF Katsuo Osugi took HR titles in 1970 and '71 (plus RBI titles in '70 and '72). On the pitching front, Fumio Narita and Tomohiro Kaneda took victory titles in '70 and '72 but a barely winning season in '72 was the team's last until '79. In the late '70s Nippon Ham began making its mark for importing foreign sluggers as American 1B/OF Bobby Mitchell hit 113 dingers between '76-79 -- taking the HR title in '78 and the K title all 4 years with 523 combined whiffs. Next up was Samoan 1B/OF Tony Solaita, who cranked 155 homers over 4 seasons with the Fighters and took the HR and RBI titles in '81 before being named to the Best Nine in '82. The team's winning ways returned in '79 under the guidance of manager Keiji Ozawa and the year was the first of 5 straight winning seasons under Ozawa's watch. The biggest year in the stretch was Solaita's huge season of '81 as the team's 68-54-8 record was good enough for its most recent PL title (entering '06) but not enough for a Japan Series win as Yomiuri won, 4-2. P Isamu Kida took the PL MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1980 for the Fighters after a 22-8, 2.28 ERA, 225 K season and veteran P Yutaka Enatsu followed that with an MVP in '81 as he pitched in 45 games and posted 25 saves with a 2.82 ERA. P Noriaki Okabe followed up Kida's ERA title in '80 with one of his own in '81 at 2.70 (he also had a 13-2 record). Two more winning seasons were notable for a wins title by P Mikio Kudo with 20 wins in '82 and, one-upping Kudo's 2.10 ERA that year, veteran P Satoshi Takahashi notched the team's third straight ERA title at 1.82.

The team plummeted to 44 wins in 1984 and didn't move back to .500 at season's end until 1987. In the meantime, Harimoto's BA record was erased by Randy Bass in 1986. A sub-.500 1988 season saw pitchers Yukihiro Nishizaki and Hiroaki Matsuura tie for the wins lead with 15 and P Hirofumi Kono take the ERA title at 2.38. Ups and downs have marked the team's history since '88. IF Michihiro Ogasawara, one of the team's biggest current stars, took the first batting titles for Nippon Ham since Harimoto by hitting .340 and .360 in 2002 and 2003. The team's biggest sluggers have remained imports as Nigel Wilson won HR titles in '97 and '98 for the Fighters and former Expos prospect Fernando Seguignol tied for the 2004 HR title with 44. IF Yukio Tanaka tied for the RBI title in '95 and Wilson took the RBI title in '98 as the Fighters finished 67-65-3. On the pitching side, American Kip Gross took win titles in '95 and '96 and Satoru Kanemura notched the team's last ERA title at 2.73 in '98.

With the coming of Hillman in 2003, the Fighters returned to the playoffs in '04 but were bounced by Seibu before making this season's run. Hillman is supposedly in the running for stateside managerial jobs this off-season. The most notable current Fighter is likely OF Tsuyoshi Shinjo, who left Hanshin in 2000 and saw time with the Mets and Giants stateside before returning to Japan and joining the Fighters. Shinjo announced he will retire after the '06 season so if the Fighters can pull off a Japan Series title he'd go out on top. He hit .258/.298/.416 with 16 HR and 62 RBI in this, his final campaign. Ogasawara is still with the Fighters and going strong as he hit .313/.397/.573 this season with 32 HR and 100 RBI, leading the team in all 3 triple crown categories. OF Atsunori Inaba (26 HR) and IF Kensuke Tanaka (21 SB) also hit over .300 this season for Nippon Ham and Seguignol is still hitting at .295/.356/.532 with 26 HR and 77 RBI in 2006. On the mound, two young players have led the charge as 20-year-old Yu Darvish went 12-5 with a 2.89 ERA with 115 Ks and a .237 OBA in 149 2/3 IP. Rookie Tomoya Yagi has been arguably better at 12-8 with a 2.48 ERA, 108 Ks and a .221 OBA in 170 2/3 IP. RP Micheal Nakamura, who was once a Blue Jays prospect, has posted 39 saves along with a 5-1 record, 2.19 ERA and .226 OBA in 65 2/3 IP. Pitchers Masaru and Hisashi Takeda put up sub-2.10 ERAs in '06 and P Hideki Okajima chipped in a 2.14 ERA in his mound time. Along with the move to the Sapporo Dome, another recent notable move for Nippon Ham has been a partnership with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Bob Bavasi's JapanBall Fighters page
Borisov's NPB page

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