A couple of suits welcome Tsuyoshi Shinjo back to Japanese pro baseball at a news conference in Sapporo where his appointment as manager of Hokkaido's Nippon Ham Fighters is announced. Photo: Newsfounded.com

I have seen a lot of strange appointments to the post of baseball club manager in my long career as a journalist, but perhaps none so strange as the recent Nippon Ham Fighters front office decision to hire Tsuyoshi Shinjo as field manager for the 2022 season.

Shinjo was announced as the team’s 2022 pilot in a press conference in which he appeared in a gaudy suit with an extremely high collar, his hair dyed, and declared himself to be “the Big Boss.” He looked like an actor in a yakuza crime film.

Shinjo, a good-field, no-hit outfielder with the Hanshin Tigers, New York Mets, San Francisco Giants and, finally, the Nippon Ham Fighters, had been known primarily through his career as “Spaceman” for his bizarre behavior, which included touching home plate with his hand when scoring and displaying an outre fashion sense – leather suits, orange wraparound glasses, colorful wristbands and eyebrow makeup.

He looked like he belonged in a rock band rather than in center field. After a peek inside Shinjo’s locker in San Francisco during an interview in 2001, a photographer noted wryly, “He’s got more hairspray in there than my wife does in her bedroom.”

He was unconventional in other ways. By his fourth season with the Hanshin Tigers, he had recorded a love song, “True Love” (which sold a grand total of 8,000 copies). By the time he was 28 he had written his autobiography, entitled Dreaming baby.

He became so famous for making odd statements – for example, “I am one who wants to be adored by others” – that a collection of them was published in a book entitled, appropriately enough, The Analects of Shinjo.

Shinjo could run – and, as an outfielder, he had an arm as good as Ichiro Suzuki’s.  He was a .249 lifetime hitter who could not hit the outside breaking pitch. He had one good season, 2000, when he batted .278 with 28 home runs, 85 runs batted in and 15 stolen bases.

Becoming a free agent he turned down lucrative, multiyear offers from Central League teams and signed with the New York Mets in 2001 for a reported league minimum of $200,000 – which  caused an uncle to yell, “What the hell are you thinking, you idiot?”

“I want to test my abilities,” Shinjo replied, “and I want to have fun playing baseball.”

His signing with the Mets reportedly annoyed Ichiro, who had just signed with the Seattle Mariners, as the first Japanese position payer in America.

“What on earth did the New York Mets sign a guy like that for?” Ichiro was quoted as saying, “If someone like him can go over there, the major leagues must not be anything much these days. Putting me and Shinjo together is a joke.”

However, Shinjo showed flashes of talent in New York. He had several important hits and made fine defensive plays in center field. And he always hustled on ground balls to the infield to back up teammates in case of an error, something not all American outfielders could be bothered to do.

In fact, Mets manager Bobby Valentine, in a moment of unguarded enthusiasm, called Shinjo the best center fielder in Major League Baseball. Evidently, however, it wasn’t enough as Shinjo finished the season at .269 with 10 home runs in 123 games and was traded to San Francisco for the 2002 season.

Some baseball fans compared Shinjo to Bill Lee, a Boston Red Sox pitcher in the 1970s also nicknamed “Spaceman” because of his outspoken manner and unfiltered comments. Lee  publicly defended Maoist China, Greenpeace and population control. He once threatened to bite off an umpire’s ear. He openly bragged about his marijuana use. His propensity to criticize management – he said portly  Bosox manager Don Zimmer looked like a gerbil – got him bounced out of baseball by 1982.

Shinjo’s forerunner, left-handed pitcher Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee of the Boston Red Spox. Photo: Vintage Detroit

Japanese press overkill

I interviewed Shinjo twice in San Francisco, where his presence on the team was a huge distraction. Shinjo hit .238 with only nine home runs in 113 games, but his every move was documented by twenty or so reporters. Giants manager Dusty Baker was not happy about that.

“I’m not used to being asked every day about the same person,” he sighed, “How much can you say in a 24-hour period?”

Shinjo spent long stretches languishing on the bench, which left the “Shinjo Patrol” desperate for new story angles. One desperate reporter took a photograph of Shinjo to the  strip joints and gay bars in the Castro District, asking bartenders and patrons alike if the good-looking young man in question had ever patronized their establishments.

Hearing of this, Shinjo became so upset he stopped talking to the Japanese press for a time and had reporters banned from entering the Giants’ locker room.

Following his eventual return to Japan, where he spent his final few playing years with Nippon Ham, that team held an elaborate retirement ceremony in Sapporo in which Spaceman came sliding down a cable. 

So how will Shinjo do as its manager? Who knows. There have been worse hirings. In 2015 the Miami Marlins hired as manager a front office executive with no managing, coaching or even playing experience on a professional level, major or minor. Dan Jennings finished with a win-loss record of 55 and 69 and was fired at the end of the year.

Although he has been out of baseball for a while, busying himself as a TV celebrity and model for his own line of clothing,  among other things, Shinjo will definitely attract the media.

With former Ham Fighters manager Atsunori  Inaba occupying the general manager position to provide adult leadership as well bring respectability and baseball smarts to the Fighters’ team, one would assume Inaba will be tasked to keep Shinjo in line and possibly call some/many of the shots. 

Some people may view this as a clown stunt. But  Nippon Ham is known for unconventional – and successful – thinking. So in the end, this bizarre experiment might turn out OK.

Robert Whiting’s career has been focused on exploring what Japanese baseball can tell us about the larger society. He is the author most recently of Tokyo Junkie: 60 years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball.