06 December 2006

NPB Notes -- Hanshin Tigers

Founded: 1936 as the Osaka Tigers, stayed that way until changing the name to Hanshin in 1940, changing back to Osaka in 1946 and then back to Hanshin Tigers in 1960
Owner: Hanshin Railway Co. in Osaka
Home base: Koshien Stadium, kind of like Fenway, Wrigley and Tiger Stadium rolled into one
Titles: 5 Central League titles, 1 Japan Series title (1985)

Perhaps the second or third most-storied franchise in NPB, the Tigers have been portrayed mostly as the Red Sox to the Yomiuri Giants' Yankees. Hanshin has won five league titles in its history but only in 1985 was the team able to get it done in the postseason with a 4-2 win over Seibu in the Japan Series. Twice in the last four years the team has reached the Series only to fall in 7 games to Fukuoka in 2003 and 4 straight to Chiba Lotte in 2005. The Tigers play in one of the more unique stadiums in Japan -- Koshien Stadium, which also plays host to the national high school championship tournament each year. Here's Bob Bavasi's take on Koshien from his Hanshin Tigers page.

Built in 1924, the aging concrete and steel ballpark features natural grass, an all-dirt infield and visible bullpens. Though a must-see for its history as much as its ivy-covered exterior, Koshien's large foul territory, high chain-link fences and scores of posts hamper visibility."

Like the Red Sox and Cubs in the U.S., the Tigers are also said to be hampered by a curse. This one also is unique. It's the "Curse of the Colonel" -- yes, that Colonel -- Colonel Sanders. After the team's Japan Series win in '85, their fans went nuts in the home city of Osaka. Part of the celebration apparently was to have people dressed like the team's players jump into a canal. None were dressed like Series MVP Randy Bass (pictured above), so the fans grabbed a statue of Colonel Sanders (like Bass, a bearded American) and threw it into the canal, where it was never recovered. Like Babe Ruth's piano with the Red Sox, the failure to recover the statue is said to haunt the franchise to this day. That seems even more of a reach to me than either the Babe or billy goat curses over here.

Despite a franchise record second only to Yomiuri in the CL, the Tigers haven't had a treasure trove of superstar players over their history. The team was a perennial winner through 1960 and only endured seven losing seasons through the '60s and '70s. Other than the championship run in '85, the team stayed mediocre until putting together a Series run in 2003. The last two seasons have been winning ones for the Tigers.

Only three Tigers have had their numbers retired by the team. One of the earliest Hanshin stars was IF Fumio "Mr. Tigers" Fujimura, who won the first CL batting title at .362 in 1950 and HR and RBI titles in 1953. He played for the Tigers from '36 through '58 and was the first player in Japan to hit for the cycle in 1948. He was the Cal Ripken of Hanshin as he had a games-played streak of more than 1,000 is fifth all-time in Japan. He was the league MVP in 1949 and was named to six straight Best Nines from 1947 to '52. IF Yoshio Yoshida played with the Tigers from 1953 to '69 and, while never posting overwhelming numbers, was a top leadoff man in the league and was named to nine Best Nines over his career before having his number retired. He later spent three stints managing the Tigers with the overall result of a losing record. The franchise's best pitcher was likely Minoru Murayama, who led the league in wins in '65 and '66 with 49 wins combined in those two seasons and racked up 222 wins and a lifetime 2.09 ERA (best in CL history) and 0.95 WHIP for the Tigers from '59 to '72. He took 3 ERA titles in his career, including a 0.98 mark in 156 IP in 1970. Three times he also took the Sawamura Award as top pitcher and took home the '62 MVP with a 1.20 ERA and 25 wins over 366 IP. He is the third Tiger to have his number retired.

Two more Tigers of the past are especially notable. IF Masayuki Kakefu was reportedly Hideki Matsui's favorite player growing up and was also known as "Mr. Tiger". Over his career from '74 to '88, Kakefu hit 349 HR and posted a lifetime OPS of .912. In the championship year of '85 he hit .300/.415/.603 with 40 HR and 108 RBI in 579 PA. He finished his career with 3 HR titles, an RBI title in '82, seven Best Nines and six Gold Gloves. The Tigers also may have had the finest American import in NPB history in the form of the aforementioned 1B/OF Randy Bass, who lit up Japanese pitchers for triple crowns in '85 and '86. The Oklahoma native is the stuff of legend in Japan, where he played for Hanshin from '83 to '88 and posted 3 Best Nines. Over those six seasons (actually 5 and a very short '88) he clubbed 202 HR and hit .337/.418/.660. He set the team hitting streak record at 25 in 1983, hit a ball in 1986 that sailed out of Korakuen Stadium and landed in a fishing supplies store (an estimated 520-feet-plus bomb), was named the MVP in the storied franchise's only title season with numbers of .350/.428/.718(!!!) and hit .392 with runners in scoring position that year while smoking 54 home runs. Think that was hard to top? In 1986 he set a league record with a .389 batting average with an OBP of .481 and record slugging percentage of .777. He threw in 47 homers that year. His .337 lifetime average is second all-time in league history. According to the Japan Baseball Daily web site, Bass' son came down with a brain problem in 1988 and Bass returned to the U.S. Instead of paying for Bass' son's medical care as stipulated in his contract, the club released him to end his reign of terror at the plate in Japan. He was later elected to the Oklahoma state legislature in 2004.

In recent seasons, the Tigers have pinned their hopes on IF Makoto Imaoka, OF Tomoaki Kanemoto and Ps Kei Igawa and Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi. Igawa was recently posted and the Yankees bid the right price to negotiate with him to enter MLB. Imaoka won the batting title at .340 in the Japan Series season of 2003 and hit 29 homers and drove home a league-leading 147 runs in the Japan Series season of 2005. Unfortunately he followed it up by hitting .223 in 57 games in 2006. Kanemoto won an RBI title in 2004 and followed that up by hitting .325 with 40 HR and 125 RBI for an MVP in 2005. He kept up the solid hitting in 2006 with averages of .305/.396/.506, 25 HR and 96 RBI. Igawa led the league in wins and ERA in 2003 in an MVP season and enjoyed a good final year for Hanshin in 2006 with a 3.11 ERA and .236 OAV in 200 IP. Shimoyanagi had a great 2005 for Hanshin with a 15-3 record and 2.99 ERA at the age of 38. This season he had a 3.17 ERA in 150 1/3 IP. Hanshin has also been the most recent team of Americans Shane Spencer and Andy Sheets. Spencer had a dismal '06 while Sheets led the team with a .310 BA in 142 games. The Tigers' 84-58-4 record this season was good for second place in the CL behind Chunichi but well ahead of archrival Yomiuri.

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