Toshiaki Imae of Team Japan hits a two-RBI single against Team Cuba during the first inning of the Final game of the World Baseball Classic at Petco Park on March 20, 2006 in San Diego, California. Imae was named manager of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last week. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
By Julian Guilarte
World Baseball Network
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of Nippon Professional Baseball didn’t extend manager Kazuhisa Ishii, 50, after three seasons and hired Toshiaki Imae, 40, on October 17.
“Each player has something great, but it is meaningless if they do not show it in games,” Imae said at a press conference announcing the move. His comments were reported by Ed Odeven of Japan Forward’s SportsLook. “So I would like to develop individual abilities and prepare to compete with the other team during this fall’s practices and camps.”
Imae has served in various coaching roles in the Golden Eagles organization since the 2020 season, and took over as their hitting coach last May. This season, the Golden Eagles went 70-71-2 and finished in fourth place in the six-team Pacific League. This left them out of the NPB playoff picture for the second straight year under Ishii, who led the Golden Eagles to the playoffs in his first season in 2021. In 2021, they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Chiba Lotte Mariners. His record was 205-204-2 in three seasons.
Ishii was a left-handed pitcher who pitched in the NPB and Major League Baseball. He made his NPB debut in 1992 with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and pitched for them until 2001. He was the strikeout champion in 1998 and repeated the feat again in 2000, along with winning an ERA title. He was posted to MLB in the 2001 offseason and made his debut in 2002 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched in Los Angeles for three seasons and went to the New York Mets in 2005 for his final season in the U.S. He pitched 564 innings with 435 strikeouts and an ERA of 4.44 in his MLB career.
Ishii went back to the Yakult Swallows in 2006 for two seasons and finished his NPB career pitching six seasons for the Saitama Seibu Lions. He pitched 18 seasons in the NPB and threw 2,153 innings with 2,115 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.63.
In 2018 Ishii was named the general manager of the Golden Eagles and became the manager in 2021, but was fired after missing the playoffs the last two season.
Imae felt that the team wasn’t playing with enough urgency and decisiveness in critical situations.
Imae also played four seasons with the Golden Eagles as an infielder from 2016-2019. Imae was an all-star with the Golden Eagles in 2018 and was named to more all-star games during his career. Imae played with the Lotte Mariners from 2002-2015, and won two Japan Series MVPs in 2010 and 2015. In 2005 and 2010 he won the Japan Series. He also helped Japan win the 2006 WBC. He hit 111 home runs and had a lifetime batting average of .283, in his 18-year NPB career.
Golden Eagles president Masayuki Morii explained why Imae was the right fit to manage their club in the press conference.
“I asked him to join the Rakuten Eagles [as the manager]because of his leadership as a well-liked big brother, and I thought he would be the best person for the job when we need to compete with all players, including those under our control and those in training,” Morii said.
The Golden Eagles were established in 2005. They won one Japan Series in 2013 and have made the playoffs five times.
“Since professional baseball is all about the fans, I would like to make the team a team that can please the fans in any way possible. Of course, our first priority is to produce results. But we also want to deepen our interaction with the fans and make them come to the stadium again even if we lose,” Imae said.
Imae was able to learn from former MLB manager Bobby Valentine, who managed Imae in the NPB with the Chiba Lotte Marines from 2004-09. Valentine managed the New York Mets to the World Series in 2000 and spent seven seasons in Queens. He also managed the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox. Valentine first managed the Chiba Lotte Marines for one season in 1995.
“I have played under many managers, but my mentor, Bobby Valentine, told me that a team is a family,” Imae said before the assembled group of reporters and team officials in Sendai. “And I want to make the team a team that can trust each other, just as he truly trusted us as a family, sometimes strictly and sometimes gently.”