Rakuten and the Japanese baseball community mourned the passing of one of the sport’s most prominent figures in January. After a glittering career as a player with the Chunichi Dragons, Senichi Hoshino became a team manager and eventually led the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to glory in the Japan Series in 2013. He later served as the team’s senior adviser and vice chairman, laying the foundations for its future.
The story of the Rakuten Eagles’ triumph five seasons ago − just nine years after the young team was established and two years after its hometown of Sendai was devastated by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami – is one of the most inspiring tales in Rakuten’s history. In October 2016, Hoshino told that story in his own words.
In celebration of his life and achievements, we share those words here:
That heartbreaking day
March 11, 2011 is a day that will forever remain etched in my mind. Having just taken the helm of the Rakuten Eagles, I had resolved to lay the groundwork for leading the team to glory in two or three years. Then the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.
We were away that day for a preseason game, but the team’s concern for their hometown consumed them both physically and mentally, visibly draining them of all their spirit. Even as the clock ticked toward the regular season, our preseason games were one disaster after another.
Finally, we were allowed to return to Sendai for one day. Our hearts were torn as we saw with our own eyes the havoc caused by the earthquake: towns ravaged by the tsunami, grandmothers desperately searching for their grandchildren — sights too terrible for the television broadcasts. Our home stadium was severely damaged as well. I was truly overwhelmed and, quite frankly, felt like running away from it all at first.
Every night, I would gaze up at the sky and mull over how I could bring our devastated players back to baseball. Then, one night, I thought, Wait a minute. Life’s hardships are given only to those who can overcome them. If I give in now, the team will only go down harder. With that thought, I vowed to pull through the crisis no matter what.
I vividly remember the impassioned speech that our catcher, Motohiro Shima, gave to his teammates: “Let’s show ‘em the true strength of baseball.” Well said, Shima, I thought, as tears filled my eyes. I know that his message touched the hearts of the people of Tohoku as well.
“Winning is our only option!”
The 2011 baseball season began two weeks later than scheduled. Between games, the team members returned to Sendai and dedicated themselves to volunteer work. With less time to practice, winning was out of the question. As the manager, I wanted the players to get plenty of rest and practice so that we could win some games. But at the same time, we all wanted to keep up our support for the local community through volunteer work. I struggled with that dilemma — nobody likes to lose, after all.
During our visits to local disaster shelters, children’s faces would light up with joy at meeting their baseball heroes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they had been hit by a catastrophe. Watching them, an inexpressible feeling came over me — it was so touching and sad. To the older kids in middle school and high school, I gave pep talks — “You guys just have to hang in there!”
I knew that only those who had lived through the disaster could truly understand their pain and grief. I asked myself: what could we possibly do for them? The answer was clear: we could win. I told myself that we had to win at all costs for the sake of these children, and with that in mind, I was able to overcome my sense of powerlessness and muster the energy to move forward.
Relief in victory, joy in reaching the top
Fast forward to the start of the third season following the disaster. “The local community has a deep understanding of your devotion to them,” I told the players. “Now it’s time to show them strength through baseball. Kids look up to strong heroes, and that strength gives them courage too. Let’s give them the gift of victory!”
Every day was a struggle. As we were not a strong team to begin with, I was hard on both the players and the coaches. At times, I snapped harshly at them, wanting them to stay sharp. I was so fired up I often could not sleep at night. We focused on winning each game in front of us, and before we knew it, we had racked up enough wins to take the lead.
At one point in the latter half of the season, we were only 2.5 games ahead of the second-placed team. “Don’t look down, just play your game,” I told the players. “Keep your eyes forward and do your best.” Soon our lead began to widen again, until we had won the league title.
What I felt then was not joy; it was a huge and pure sense of relief. Only when we had won the Japan Series as well, and the team was tossing me in the air, was I finally able to celebrate from the bottom of my heart. In that moment, I could see in my mind’s eye the delighted looks of the children we had met at the shelters.
A local commitment
I don’t follow any religion or believe in God. Nor am I superstitious. But, as far as the 2013 season goes, I can only say that the team was driven by the spirit of the Tohoku people. It felt as if we were being pushed forward by them — propelled by an unseen force.
We won because all of us fought with all of our strength — for the Tohoku region, for the children who had been through so much, and for the team. When something like that is at stake, it is much harder to give up on a game. During our victory parade, many of the fans lining the streets didn’t congratulate us, but rather thanked us. Those expressions of gratitude really moved me. I knew that, as simple as they were, they expressed all of the different emotions that the people of Tohoku were feeling that day.
As a professional baseball team, committing yourself to a local community is the only way to go. When I accepted the position of manager at the Rakuten Eagles, before heading to Sendai I read up on Date Masamune, one of the region’s most famous leaders during the feudal period. I felt it was important to get to know the local culture, history and customs, so that I could put down roots in the region with a sensitivity to the character of its people. Even when we lose a game, Tohoku fans applaud our efforts — I don’t know how many times I’ve yelled toward the stands in frustration: “If we lose, get angry at us!” That is what we need to become a truly strong team. The Rakuten Eagles can no longer be satisfied with being the “new team,” and I know we have much more room to grow.
A breath of fresh air
The world of Japanese baseball is still quite conservative in some ways, but for the sake of the sport’s future we must work to further broaden its base. Through the Rakuten Eagles, I hope to both energize the Tohoku region and continue to breathe fresh air into the world of Japanese professional baseball.
Born in 1947 in Okayama Prefecture. Joined the Chunichi Dragons in 1969 as the top draft pick. Played as a pitcher, receiving the Sawamura Award in 1974. After retiring as a player, worked as a baseball commentator before becoming manager of the Chunichi Dragons, leading them to two league championships. Taking the helm of the Hanshin Tigers in the 2002 season, he led the team to its first league title in 18 years in 2003. Served as the manager of the Japanese national baseball team at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Took over as manager of the Rakuten Eagles in 2011, overseeing their 2013 Japan Series victory. Retired as manager to become a senior adviser in 2014 and has been Vice-Chairman of Rakuten Baseball, Inc. since 2015. Inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017. Died January 4, 2018.