'Swimmy' Minami is just getting started in new role with Yanks

April 20th, 2023
Soichiro “Swimmy” Minami poses on the field at Yankee Stadium (Courtesy of Minami)

NEW YORK – Soichiro “Swimmy” Minami always loved baseball, learning the game during his formative years in Toronto.

A native of Japan who moved to Canada at the age of six, Minami knew he would never play Major League Baseball. As much as he adored the Blue Jays, he found himself fascinated by a figure roughly 500 miles to the south: George Steinbrenner.

Minami would read about the Yankees owner in the local Toronto newspapers, reveling in the tales of Steinbrenner’s bombastic reign in the Bronx, and a dream was quickly hatched during his elementary school years.

“He was a very colorful guy,” Minami said. “I always knew I wouldn't be a Major League Baseball player, so my dream was always to be like the Boss and to be a Major League Baseball owner.”

Soichiro Minami poses with the George Steinbrenner plaque at Yankee Stadium (courtesy of Minami)

That dream moved one step closer to reality last week, when Minami completed a deal to become a limited partner of the Yankees.

Minami’s path to the Majors is a long, fascinating one. He is known to most as “Swimmy,” a nickname he gave himself in first grade after it was suggested that he choose an English name to make it easier for him to adjust to life in Toronto.

“Swimmy” was the title character in a children’s book based on a black fish living within a family of red fish, a story that Minami took to heart. As a Japanese child who spoke no English upon his arrival in Toronto, Minami felt a connection with the character, who ultimately becomes a leader among another school of fish.

Even as he learned English, he found another language that connected him with his new classmates: sports.

“Sports was a universal language,” Minami said. “That became a foundation to build friends around me and to get to understand and [accustomed] to a new culture.”

Minami and his family returned to Japan seven years later, by which time he had forgotten most of his Japanese. Once again, he found himself as a fish out of water, but sports helped him find a foundation as he reacclimated to life in his home country.

Minami returned to North America to attend Tufts University, forcing him to re-learn English yet again. He walked on to Tufts’ soccer team, ran for a senatorial position in student government and graduated with a double degree in economics and international relations, joining the investment banking department of Morgan Stanley in the Tokyo office after graduation.

Japan hosted the World Cup three years later, an event that proved to be a turning point for Minami, who attended the country’s first-ever win in the tournament.

Not the World Cup, but Minami (center) and his youth soccer team (Courtesy of Minami)

“I saw 60,000 people in tears,” Minami said. “I knew I was doing well in finance, but this was my love. It was not even about ownership; it was about sports. If I had one chance in my career to do something in sports, it was then.”

Still enamored with MLB, Minami wrote letters to all 30 clubs with the hope of landing a job.

“I wanted to be a GM; I was a big Billy Beane fan even before Moneyball,” Minami said. “I was a sports geek.”

Two GMs wrote back to Minami: Steve Phillips of the Mets and Oakland’s Beane. Phillips was impressed with Minami’s letter and told him to call him if he was ever in New York.

“I flew to New York three days later and called him,” Minami said.

The two met at Shea Stadium for about an hour, and while no job emerged from his sit-down with Phillips, Minami couldn’t believe he had been able to land the meeting in the first place. He did the same with Beane, flying to the Bay Area in an effort to meet with him. Beane was out of town, but Minami had an opportunity to sit down with David Forst, who is still with the A’s as president of baseball operations, but then was an assistant GM.

Eighteen months later, players in Nippon Professional Baseball went on strike when the league tried to contract two teams. The end result was the merger of Orix and Kintetsu, opening the door for an expansion team to be awarded.

When e-commerce giant Rakuten was awarded the team in late-2004, Minami saw an opportunity to finally get into the sport he loved. He cold-called Rakuten CEO Hiroshi “Mickey” Mikitani, pitching him with his knowledge of sabermetrics, the importance of the club running its own stadium business and, of course, his passion for the game.

“He hired me on the spot,” Minami said. Mikitani referred to Minami as his “wild card,” as his duties included being an assistant GM, running the stadium and the team’s marketing. Two years later, Mikitani told Minami he would someday be the team’s CEO – but that time was not now.

Minami decided to go out on his own, and in 2009, he founded a company called BizReach, a career networking platform considered to be the LinkedIn of Japan. The company grew considerably during the next decade, eventually transforming into a holding company called Visional, which went public on the Tokyo Stock Exchange in April 2021.

Minami was a wealthy, successful entrepreneur, but the idea of realizing that childhood dream was still in the back of his head.

“It's not even the financial part; it's probably more about giving myself motivation to keep moving forward,” Minami said. “It’s been in the media for 10 or 12 years ever since we started. I guess it's my identity; ‘Swimmy is all about one day being an owner of a Major League Baseball team.’”

Having met a number of people in baseball throughout the years, Minami began to make calls to figure out how to become a minority owner of an MLB team, which he thought was a logical first step. He inquired about purchasing a piece of the Blue Jays, but Rogers Communications was not interested.

Another call went out to Taka Shirai, an old friend who once worked for the Staten Island Yankees and now runs a sports marketing company in New York. Shirai introduced Minami to Bob Stanley, the managing partner of Evolution Media Capital, the financial investment banking arm of CAA.

Minami met with Stanley in April 2022, explaining his background and desire to buy into a Major League club.

“Bob smiled at me and said, ‘Today may be your lucky day. There’s a piece of the Yankees that just went on sale and I got a call from the seller this morning. Are you interested?’” Minami said. “Of course I was interested. It's not rocket science that probably a lot of people would love to be a limited partner for the Yankees. Bob and I talked about it, how I would be able to contribute to the Yankees so that I don't choose them, but they choose me.

“The Japan-Yankees relationship has been great over the years and we're going to have more players come, so that would be a bonus to have the first Japanese limited partner of the Yankees. Secondly, I have the experience of running a club, which not many limited partners have, so the appreciation and the respect for the people that are running the organization, that was something Bob and I talked about when we started with the process.”

Minami went to Tampa to meet with Hal Steinbrenner, also spending time with team president Randy Levine and COO Lonn Trost.

“They have been so generous and the communications have been smooth,” Minami said. “It took about a year, but it eventually fell into place.”

“Swimmy is a good guy and is very successful in his own right, as are many of our limited partners,” Levine said. “I just think it shows the reach of the Yankees that people from all over want to be part of the organization.”

Minami hopes to lend his resources to the Yankees to whatever extent the club wants, including assisting with sponsorship opportunities in Japan. He sees this opportunity as “a good learning experience to see how a Major League Baseball team is run,” as he hopes this isn’t the final chapter in his baseball story.

“There are a lot of principal owners that start off as limited partners,” Minami said. “This will be a good way to understand how baseball works in America. Hopefully this opportunity that was granted to me by the Steinbrenner family and the limited partners will be a springboard for me to learn more about business here in the U.S.”

Minami is in New York this week for the Yankees-Angels series, as Shohei Ohtani makes his only visit to the Bronx this season. Minami hosted a number of friends from Japan for the series, sharing his new venture with some of the friends and colleagues who helped him get here along the way. Minami knows what it means to be a passionate baseball fan, saying he would be an “all-out” majority owner if that opportunity ever presented itself.

“That feeling, the parade … one day,” Minami said. “One day I will be principal owner of a team. The dream is always going to be there. It doesn't hurt to dream, it doesn't cost anything to dream and it doesn't cause anyone harm to dream. My 10-year-old dream will always be with me, which is why this is not a dream come true. It's a start to the dream.”