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Hiromitsu Ochiai

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Hiromitsu Ochiai (My Way)

[edit] Biographical information

The youngest of seven children, Hiromitsu Ochiai is known as the exception to the Japanese baseball culture's way of conformity and structure. He wouldn't take batting practice or infield practice if he didn't want to. He refused to change his bucketfoot swing despite many coaching efforts to do so (who knows how many hitters batting coaches have screwed up by tinkering with what works). He quit college due to arguments with his coaches over their rigorous training methods. After considering going into bowling, he signed on with Toshiba Fuchu in the industrial leagues. He was Japan's starting first baseman in the 1978 Amateur World Series, hitting .265/.413/.519 in the event with 9 walks in 10 games. He drove home a team-high 13 runs, tying Ben Richardson for third in the Series, trailing only Antonio Muñoz and Tim Wallach. He was drafted by the Lotte Orions in 1978. Two years later, in the minors, he set an Eastern League record by homering in five straight games.

Ochiai didn't become an everyday player in Nippon Pro Baseball till 1981, at age 28 - but he did more after his 28th birthday than basically anybody did in a whole career. In '81, he hit .326/.423/.629; he led the Pacific League in batting average and made the Best Nine team at 2B. He also made the first of 15 All-Star appearances. 1982 was even better as Ochiai batted .325/.431/.606 - he led the league in average and also in hits (150), doubles (32), homers (33), RBI (99), total bases (280), OBP and slugging. He became the fourth player in NPB history to win a Triple Crown; his other honors were an All-Star spot, an MVP award and another Best Nine.

In 1983 Ochiai kept it up - .332/.419/.563 and won his third straight batting championship (the fourth player to do so). Moving to first base, he again made the Best Nine and All-Star team. 1984 was a .314/.436/.581 season - he led the league with 98 walks, starting a strong run on that front. Now at third base, he made the Best Nine at a third different position. That season Boomer Wells was making a bid at the Triple Crown; Ochiai said that a foreigner should not win it and tried to catch Wells in homers. Wells says that teammate Yutaro Imai grooved pitches to Ochiai to try to help him out. Ochiai fell 4 homers shy of Boomer, 37 to 33.

Ochiai was just getting going - the next two seasons would be his greatest. In 1985, he won his second Triple Crown - .367/.481/.763. He set new Pacific League records for RBI (146), total bases (351), runs (118) and slugging and tied the HR record (52). He won his fourth batting title, led the league in walks (101) and OBP, was an All-Star and Best Nine (at 3B). He also won his second MVP.

1986 also saw Ochiai dominate the league - .360/.487/.746. He led the league in batting, homers (50, the first player to reach 50 two years in a row), runs (98), RBI (116), walks (101), OBP and slugging. He again was an All-Star and Best Nine but failed to repeat as MVP (Hiromichi Ishige won it). He suffered horrible back pain that year which seemingly had no impact on his fine performance at the plate. He became the only player in NPB history to win three Triple Crowns. Amazingly, he had predicted all three; he would predict one in 1987 but failed to follow through.

Amazingly, Lotte let Ochiai go after the '86 season. Michiyo Arito took over as Orions manager and didn't like people who couldn't conform to Japanese baseball culture; previous manager Kazuhisa Inao had been known for having a more relaxed and open approach. So he refused to play (or misused) Leron Lee and had Ochiai traded to the Chunichi Dragons.

Now in the Central League for the first time, facing new pitchers, having an injured wrist much of the year and in a pitchers' park for his home games, Ochiai saw his power numbers drop drastically (to 28 HR) but he still hit .331/.435/.602. He led the league in doubles (33), runs (83) and walks (81) and missed his only Best Nine in an 11-year span. After that season Ochiai did not have a light winter as usual, but instead worked hard in the Chunichi fall camp to try to bounce back. 1988 was somewhat of a rebound season - Ochiai returned to the Best Nine (now at 1B again) - he fell under .300 for the first time (.293/.413/.580) but led the league in OBP, slugging, runs (82) and walks (98). He played in his first Japan Series but Chunichi lost 4 games to 1.

1989 witnessed Ochiai become the first player in NPB history to win RBI titles in both leagues. The 35-year old slugger hit .321/.410/.626. He led the league in total bases (298) and walks (75) in addition to RBI (116). He returned to third base and again was an All-Star and Best Nine. For the only time in a 6-year period, he failed to lead his league in runs scored. Larry Parrish edged the fading Ochiai in the home run pace, 42 to 40 and Cecil Fielder edged him by two points in the slugging race.

In 1990, Ochiai hit .290/.416/.559. He led the league in runs (93, the 5th and final time he would lead the circuit in that stat), OBP, RBI (102, the 5th and final time he would lead the league there), homers (34) and bases on balls (100). He was back as Best Nine at 1B and as an All-Star. 1991 was even better for the 37-year old - .340/.473/.682 - a league-best 37 home runs (his 5th and final HR title), 95 walks (his 9th straight time leading the league), his 5th and last OBP and slugging leads and his 10th and last time as a Best Nine representative (at 1B). That year he drew 6 walks in a game, setting an NPB record. That year he became the first player ever to ask for arbitrarion during contract talks; after he lost he quit the players' union, arguing it had no power (it has grown stronger in the decade since, thanks in part to Atsuya Furuta's leadership)

In 1992 Ochiai was fading - .292/.422/.526, his lowest slugging since he had limited time as a rookie. He missed the All-Star team after 11 straight appearances (he hit .365 in his career in All-Star games). For the first time as a regular he failed to lead the league in any offensive statistic. '93 was Ochiai's last year playing for the Dragons - he batted .285/.423/.462 and hit 17 homers, his first time under 20 as a regular. He coaxed 96 walks, his 10th and final lead in that category. After a year off, he appeared as an All-Star for the 12th time.

In 1994, Ochiai left Chunichi via free agency, signing with the Yomiuri Giants. The 40-year old still could have a strong role though his OBP fell under .400 and his SLG under .450 for the first time as a starter - he batted .280/.393/.423. He was third in the Central with 81 walks. More importantly, he was part of a Japan Series champion for the first time.

'95 saw a rebound - .311/.414/.481. He was third with 73 walks and second to MVP Tom O'Malley in OBP. He made his 13th All-Star team and was named MVP of the first All-Star game that year. He also had his 2,000th hit - just like his 500th, 1,000th and 1,500th, it was a home run, the first player to accomplish that.

1996 was Ochiai's last "very good" season as he hit .301/.408/.516. He was third in the Central in OBP and he became the 7th player in NPB history to hit 500 home runs though he had barely played before age 28. He went to his third Japan Series but Yomiuri lost that year.

In 1997 the Giants signed Kazuhiro Kiyohara and Ochiai became expendable. He joined the Nippon Ham Fighters but his skills were fading at age 43. He hit .262/.361/.320 - he was still drawing walks but his power was gone (just 3 HR). '98 was his final year as a player - he hit only .235/.344/.309 and split time at 1B with two other players for Nippon Ham.

Alonzo Powell describes Ochiai as "an American in a Japanese body" and thanks Ochiai for convincing him not to listen to batting coaches. Leron Lee said that Ochiai had trouble with the media "because he told people exactly what he thought, and Japanese aren't supposed to do that."

After retiring, Ochiai became a baseball commentator. In 2004 Ochiai was hired to manage the Dragons. He scaled back Japan's intensive practices and was very successful (just like Bobby Valentine, another opponent of Japan's training who was having success with Chiba Lotte). The Dragons went to the Japan Series in Ochiai's first year at the helm and came their closest to winning since 1954; they went to 7 games before falling. Ochiai piloted Chunichi to the 2006 Japan Series but they again lost. He failed to lead them to the Central League's best record in 2007, but that year the league began a playoff system and Chunichi defeated the favored Yomiuri Giants to advance to the 2007 Japan Series. In the Series, they won 4 games to 1. The final game was not without controversy when Ochiai yanked starter Daisuke Yamai one inning away from the first no-hitter and perfect game ever in the Series. Closer Hitoki Iwase completed the historic perfecto, the first combined perfect game in NPB's 71-year history. Ochiai won the Matsutaro Shoriki Award for his efforts that year. He led the team to four CL titles in 8 years, before stepping down; he was succeeded by Morimichi Takagi.

The first player to earn 100 million yen, 200 million yen, 300 million yen and 400 million yen in a season, Ochiai was the greatest hitter in the Pacific League since Katsuya Nomura, perhaps the best ever. His career line was .311/.422/.564. Despite his late start, he is 6th all-time in HR (510), in the top 20 in doubles (371), 9th in hits (2,371), tied for 6th in average, 5th in RBI (1,564), 7th in runs (1,335), 8th in total bases (4,302), 2nd in walks (1,475, trailing only Sadaharu Oh) and 13th in games (2,236). Presumably he is in the top 5 in OBP and slugging as well. Ochiai refused entry in the Meikyukai due to their arbitrary statistical requirements.

The big question is how impressive Ochiai's career totals would have been if Japanese baseball culture had been more tolerant of individualism and he wouldn't have had to wait till age 28 to become a starter as a result.

Ochiai missed the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame's 75% vote cutoff by one vote in both 2009 and 2010 (getting 227 votes when 228 were needed). He finally made it in 2011.

Sources include Gary Garland's www.japanbaseballdaily.com, "Remembering Japanese Baseball" by Rob Fitts, "You Gotta Have Wa" by Robert Whiting

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