Former Eagles GM Marty Kuehnert talks front office on “Chatter Up!”
Check out the full transcript of the discussion, or watch the episode for yourself on our YouTube channel!
At some point in their lives, almost every sports fan has dreamed of being the general manager of their former sports team. The reality, however, is that it’s not the greatest job in the world. In addition to having to build a championship-pedigree team, GMs often have to deal with impossible business demands set forward by team owners, appease rabid fanbases, and find themselves in good standings above all else– after all, their job depends on it.
No one knows this better than anyone other than Marty Kuehnert, the first foreign-born GM in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Kuehnert, who served as the first general manager of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles – a position he held for just over a month – joined JapanBall’s “Chatter Up!” on June 4 to discuss his experience with the team, and the challenges he faced trying to build it from the ground up:
“Well, the first priority was, number one, getting a staff in line,” Kuehnert said. “And then we had to, of course, start looking at how we would draft, and we spent a lot of time on who we we’re going to draft. But we really started in a big hole. In the States, they have an expansion draft, where you can choose a couple players from each team. Here, they gave us a dispersion graph of the dregs of the worst two teams in the Pacific League. So, I mean, what a hole.”
Kuehnert first fell in love with Japan when he participated in an exchange student program at Stanford University, staying with a host family and experiencing everyday life in the Tokyo neighborhood of Akasaka. After graduation, Kuehnert used his Japan experience to help him land a gig working at Osaka’s 1970 World Expo, where he had met legendary baseball ambassador Cappy Harada and was immediately welcomed into Cappy’s strong orbit.
“Cappy was really quite something, and he was a real mover-and-shaker. He would work for the Japanese, get money from the Japanese, and he worked for the Americans to get money from the Americans, he worked both sides very well. He really knew how to get things done, I mean, the reason we became friends in ’70, the San Francisco Giants came… Since I was kind of the sports guy amongst the American guides and interpreters, I had the honor of taking Cappy and Mr. Stoneham, the owner, and Willie Mays and Willie McCovey around the American pavilion, and Cappy was really friendly to me at that time… He said that his friend, Mr. Nakamura, had bought the Lodi franchise in the California League, and [asked if I] would like to be GM of the club. It’s really interesting, I was thinking of going to business school to get a business degree and hopefully work in sports – hopefully between Japan and America – and it was offered to me before I went.”
After getting his feet wet in the California League, where he won Executive of the Year as GM of the Lodo Orions, Kuehnert returned to Japan, and quickly became a “renaissance man” of the Japanese sporting world. He served in the front office of the Taiheiyo Club Lions, helped build sporting goods retailer Descente’s international reach with unprecedented licensing deals (and, to the dismay of Pittsburgh Pirates fans, helped design some of the most infamous uniforms in MLB history), worked at a consulting firm, became a part-owner of the Birmingham Barons, and wrote plenty of columns on Japanese baseball.
In observing and participating in over 40 years of Japanese baseball, Kuehnert said he’s seen plenty of changes over the years, most of them for the better.
“I think things have gotten a lot better, and the Pacific League has had a lot to do with that,” Kuehnert said. “I’ve been watching Japanese baseball for over 40 years, and in the old days, it was really the Dark Ages… You can see that actually, it used to be that in Japanese baseball, only the Giants and Tigers, because of their long history, made money. For years and years, it was only those two teams, everyone in the Pacific League lost money, and the other four teams in the Central League essentially lost money; not true now. I’d say almost half the teams are making any money now, and it’s because they’re so good at what they’re doing now. I mean, look at Yokohama, DeNA came in and turned that club around completely. It used to be empty, nobody there at all, and it’s a wonderful ballpark now, and they make money… I give them credit for their management skills.”
As a top authority on sports in both the United States and Japan, Kuehnert had plenty to offer and compare between the two country’s baseball experiences, touching on both his teaching experiences at local universities and his own personal observations. Offering his notes on scouting, gameday experiences, and even the storied Koshien high school tournament, Kuehnert believes that baseball is a fantastic device to capture and observe the two societies, and what it can offer for those who participate:
“[Koshien] just shows the passion and the dedication of baseball players, with the moms getting up at four in the morning to make the bento, the kid can get up in the morning and have morning practice, going all day long and practicing until the wee hours, and doing that almost 365 days a year,” Kuehnert said. “I show the students that kind of thing and say, ‘This is not just baseball, all sports in Japan are run this way. If you’re on a soccer team, it’s going to be the same. If you’re a rugby team, it’s going to be the same. There’s no difference.’ I try to point out, in all my classes, the cultural differences…
“In America, it’s hard to find a major league player now that’s spent his entire career on one team, it just almost never happens anymore. So there’s a loyalty factor, and I try to point out to them in the States [that it’s] all about money. One of the things that people ask me is what I like about baseball and sports here, I like the loyalty factor. I like that people feel that they owe something to the organization that brought them into the game, and the way that juniors respect their seniors… I don’t think you see a lot of that in the States; a little, but not a lot. So anyhow, when I’m teaching the students, I really emphasize very strongly that we see a difference in cultures as seen through sport.”
Of course, with all the experiences Kuehnert has had over the years, it’s impossible to fully encapsulate all that was said in 80 jam-packed minutes. Among the stories told were his emotional interview with home run king Sadaharu Oh, how his desire to bring in a “real” mascot to Japan led to a lion prowling in his apartment for two weeks, his decisions to not select Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani in the NPB draft, and his current role as general manager with the Sendai 89ers, a basketball team in the B. League, Japan’s increasingly popular top professional basketball league.
To hear these stories and more, you can check out the full transcript of the discussion, or watch the episode for yourself on our YouTube channel!
In today’s hyper-specialized sports world, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Japan or the U.S. with Kuehnert’s myriad experiences, and we’re beyond happy that he shared some of his vast wisdom with our “Chatter Up” audience.