Japan Skipper Kuriyama Considers Effects of WBC Off the Field

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama stands prior to a game at Tokyo Dome on Thursday.

After Hideki Kuriyama was appointed as manager of the Japan national baseball team in late 2021, he set about on a mission to put together the best team possible.

But the 61-year-old skipper’s quest has gone beyond regaining the World Baseball Classic title that Japan last won in 2009. It extends to his long-term goal of encouraging and inspiring today’s youth to dream big through baseball.

“It will mean a lot to Japanese baseball if people can feel the energy, courage and dreams shown by the Japanese players,” Kuriyama said.

The Japanese team, known as Samurai Japan, will face Mexico in the semifinals on Monday (Tuesday morning Japan time) in Miami, having swept all four of its group stage games before overwhelming Italy in the quarterfinals last Thursday.

The foundation for the team’s success was formed through Kuriyama’s efforts to persuade several of Japan’s major league stars to buy into his philosophy that the tournament can have a positive influence on the next generation and want to join the endeavor.

Last summer, he traveled to the United States and secured commitments from Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani and veteran San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish, a member of the Japan team that last won the WBC 14 years ago. Also coming on board were outfielders Masataka Yoshida of the Boston Red Sox and Japan-American Lars Nootbaar of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Field of dreams

After retiring in 1990 from the Tokyo Yakult Swallows as a player, Kuriyama worked as a sportscaster and university lecturer, and was particularly passionate about covering high school baseball and Major League Baseball.

It was a time when baseball was seeing a decline in the number of people playing the game, but Kuriyama was not dissuaded from his desire to “inspire children to dream big through baseball.” One of the reasons he was chosen as the Samurai Japan manager is because of his efforts to get more kids playing baseball and help them learn the game.

Inspired by the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kuriyama built a baseball field in 2002 in a small town in Hokkaido coincidentally named Kuriyama.

Like the baseball field created in a cornfield in the Kevin Costner movie, Kuriyama built his diamond by clearing out a field at his own expense with the help of the townspeople. The field, which he dubbed “Kurinoki Farm,” is open to the public and hosts youth baseball tournaments.

“He is sociable and says ‘Hi’ whenever he sees me,” said the 70-year-old owner of a local coffee shop that Kuriyama frequents. “Thanks to Kuri-san, the town has become known. [The field] is a great asset of the town.”

Out of the box

As manager of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, a position he held for 10 years from 2012, it was Kuriyama who thought out of the box and facilitated Ohtani’s development as a two-way player.

Kuriyama also broke new ground by offering the 25-year-old Nootbaar a place on the WBC roster, making him the first-ever Japanese-American member of a national baseball team.

“Sports is supposed to transcend nationalities,” Kuriyama said of inviting Nootbaar. “No one would think about fighting people from a country with whom he was playing.”

Soon after the victory over Italy, the Japan team headed to the United States for the final stage.

“To promote Japanese baseball, the only way forward is to go to the United States and defeat the players who play baseball there,” Kuriyama said.