Why Japan’s WBC-winning manager spent Thursday in a Rays uniform

PORT CHARLOTTE — While managing the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan from 2012-2021, Hideki Kuriyama was intrigued by some of the philosophies and unorthodox strategies the Rays employed on the other side of the world.

Open to trying new ideas and different methods by nature, Kuriyama learned enough from afar to implement the opener and defensive shifting. But, even after a stint managing Japan’s 2023 World Baseball Classic-winning team, he remained curious about other aspects of the Rays’ way.

Thursday, Kuriyama got the opportunity to learn more while getting an up-close look. He joined the Rays for a day that included meeting with top team officials and spending the afternoon in the dugout beside manager Kevin Cash.

“I always kind of referred to what they did over here with the Rays, so I always wanted to come here to learn what made them want to do certain things,” Kuriyama said via team interpreter Taishi Terashima. “So, I’m happy I got the chance.”

Kuriyama, who rejoined Nippon as chief baseball officer following a two-year stint leading the national team, is touring several spring camps in Florida and Arizona to visit with Japanese players. That included at least a quick visit with Rays pitcher Naoyuki Uwasawa, who pitched parts of eight seasons for Kuriyama with Nippon.

But Kuriyama, 62, also had a connection with Jon Daniels, the Rays’ senior adviser. Daniels’ former Rangers team had a working agreement with Nippon, which led to the invitation for extended access.

“I mentioned it to Cash and asked, “Would you have 10 minutes?’” Daniels relayed, “and he said, ‘why doesn’t (Kuriyama) just spend the day with us?’”

Word spread, as more than a few members of the Japanese media were on hand to cover the visit.

Cash said before the game he was excited to spend time with Kuriyama, who, among other accomplishments, is known for creating the path that allowed Shohei Ohtani to first be a two-way player in Japan. Kuriyama compiled a 629-604 (.510) record, winning two league titles and one Japan Series championship.

“Everything that we’ve heard or I’ve heard about him, he’s just a special person, special manager,” Cash said. “And the way he goes about his business is so well-respected. His thought process is pretty elite.”

Cash spent much of the game sharing thoughts with Kuriyama, via Terashima. Kuriyama wore a Rays jersey with No. 89, which he said is a reference in Japanese to baseball.

“Man, that was a treat,” Cash said after the 3-2 win over the Phillies. “So much respect for him and learning about him and just how he goes about it and the success that he’s had.

“You can tell why he’s been so successful just for the way that he cares about his players. We talked a lot about just player conversations and different things like that. So, it was quite the experience.”

Cash said they also chatted about in-game strategy, pregame preparation and differences in spring training plans.

Kuriyama had some topics he wanted to cover Thursday, extending beyond what the Rays did on the field.

“I always wanted to see what the Rays have been doing in terms of creating winning culture,” he said. “That’s something that I always thought about when I was managing. So, that’s something that I wanted to learn from these guys (Thursday).”

Kuriyama also came away from his morning meetings with about a dozen Rays officials impressed “with how they kind of involve staff members” in discussions and decision-making.

Uwasawa, who signed a minor-league deal with the Rays, is competing for a rotation spot. He said it was good, though a little different, to again be in the same uniform as his former manager.

“It’s kind of strange feeling right now, but it’s exciting and I’m thankful for the Rays for giving him the opportunity to wear the jersey,” Uwasawa said, via Terashima.

He made clear how much he thought of his old boss.

“He’s always on the players’ side,” Uwasawa said. “He is trying to make an environment where players can excel. He’s one of those guys who is so nice to everybody, and he’s a great communicator. Obviously, he’s a great baseball guy, but more importantly he’s a great human being, so I always look up to him.”

As much as Kuriyama raved about his experience to the dozen-plus Japanese media, Cash said he had it better.

“Ultimately,” he said, “I was fortunate to get to talk to him.”

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