Ohtani's mentor is perhaps the most interesting manager in the world

March 20th, 2023

MIAMI -- There aren't many managers like Hideki Kuriyama. He played professionally in the NPB, but to hear him tell it, he barely escaped high school ball.

"I wasn't good at baseball," Kuriyama told MLB.com through interpreter Luke Shinoda. "So, I continued playing baseball in college and then I didn't get drafted, obviously."

Kuriyama actually thought he was going to be a teacher and had passed his tests at Tokyo Gakugei University to get his teaching degree, but he hadn't given up on baseball. In love with the sport and willing to do whatever it took, he was finally able to convince the Yakult Swallows to sign him. He would play there for seven years and even win a Gold Glove.

Given that background, it's probably not surprising that Kuriyama's news conferences sometimes feel more like intimate classroom settings. He is thoughtful, kind and when the mood strikes he's quick to let a wide, joyful smile overtake his features. He seems to understand the importance of his role as the leader of the nation's most important ballclub, while still relishing in the fact that this is baseball.

When his career ended with an injury, Kuriyama had only one path before him: Wanting to stay connected to the game he loved, he did what many ex-players do and got involved with sports media. It was while working in media that he first met , the player he would end up mentoring. He later managed Ohtani with the Nippon-Ham Fighters and now is working with him again with Team Japan. If there is anyone who has seen Ohtani grow from precocious youth to uber-prospect to an MLB MVP, it's Ohtani's parents first and Kuriyama second.

"This is such a special moment for me, even to me, representing Team Japan -- with Kuriyama coaching me as the national team manager," Ohtani said recently. "My first impression with Kuriyama-san was from high school. He was a reporter and I had an interview with him and we've had a relationship since."

Kuriyama is known as someone who doesn't follow the sporting orthodoxy. He has embraced defensive shifts and advanced analytics with the national team, and he was instrumental in accepting Lars Nootbaar as the first non-Japanese-born player to play for Samurai Japan.

"Even those nurtured in different countries' baseball can connect on a person-to-person level," Kuriyama said when Nootbaar was announced on the roster in January. "They can be companions."

It was largely due to the skipper's influence that Ohtani became the two-way superstar that he is today. A different manager may not have given Ohtani the opportunity.

"I learned a lot through Kuriyama-san when I played for him on the Fighters," Ohtani said. "He is someone who taught me how to play well."

That affection is returned by the skipper.

"Every time he comes back to Japan, we always talk for a long time at least once," Kuriyama said. "And then you know he has [become a star] in the game and he's growing as a human as well. I just have the utmost respect for him as a player and as a human being."

Hideki Kuriyama and Shohei Ohtani (AP)

While Kuriyama may have started out as a sports reporter, the 61-year-old skipper also covered serious news, including some of the most impactful events in the country. That includes the 3/11/11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that affected people far more than any baseball game.

"Back in 2011, I was a reporter, so after the disaster, I traveled all over Japan. I saw a lot of the devastation and I felt there was nothing I could do," Kuriyama said before facing the Czech Republic on the 12th anniversary of the disaster last week. "Talking about baseball, if there was something to get rid of the sadness -- it's always difficult to get rid of that sadness -- but if we could make it better through our baseball, that's something I'd wish to do."

It's a perspective that comes with experience.

"The most important part of having a larger perspective is trying to be a better human," Kuriyama said of his work outside of baseball. "It teaches you to become a better player overall, too."

While Kuriyama's focus is on winning the country's third World Baseball Classic title -- which would be two more than any other nation -- he has two other goals for the nation in mind. Simply lifting a trophy isn't enough.

"The popularity of the sport of baseball itself is declining in Japan," Kuriyama said. "So No. 1, I want that popularity to rise again. And then the second one is there are a bunch of young players that definitely could compete on the international level. I definitely want them to excel in this tournament and become the world-class stars that I believe that they should be."