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Latham's 1998 Guide to Japanese Baseball...
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History of the Kintetsu Buffaloes

Kintetsu (Japanese character)Owned by Kintetsu Railways since 1950, the Buffaloes remain one of the least popular Osaka-area teams. Prior to their establishment, several Kansai (Osaka region) teams were already competing for spectators--the Hanshin Tigers drew the most, while the Nankai Hawks and Hankyu Braves picked up the rest. There simply weren't many fans left to cheer for Kintetsu.

Originally nicknamed the Pearls, Kintetsu joined the Pacific League in 1950, along with two other new franchises and four established teams. But with poor pitching and even worse batting, the Pearls finished their maiden voyage with in last place (44-72). As their batting declined, Kintetsu spent the next three years in the PL cellar, only briefly rising to fourth place (74-63) in 1954 when they got a brief infusion of good pitching.

By 1958, the Pearls were back in the cellar with a miserable 29-97 record and their lowest winning percentage (.238) in franchise history. Likely prompted by such a poor outing, Kintetsu evidently tried changing the team's image, renaming the ball club "Buffalo." But after losing a record 103 games in 1961, the team added the plural suffix, becoming the "Buffaloes."

After completing the 1967 season with another last-place finish (59-71), the Buffaloes were in a mess. Since 1950, the team had posted only one winning season and had spent thirteen of those eighteen years in the PL cellar. A team with no sense of direction, the Kintetsu had gone through seven managers since their founding. But the hiring of skipper Osamu Mihara for the 1968 season seemed to indicate that Kintetsu was finally serious about building a contender.

An unimpressive infielder for the Tokyo Kyojin (1936-38), Mihara briefly managed the Giants to a second and first place finish (1948-49) before becoming the highly successful Lions skipper. After guiding Nishitetsu to four pennants in nine years (1951-59), Mihara jumped to the Central League in 1960. Taking over the last-place Whales, Mihara delivered a pennant in his first year at the helm and led Taiyo to their first and only Japan Series championship. With a reputation as a miracle-worker, the Whales skipper left Taiyo after the 1967 season and joined the Buffaloes.

Though Kintetsu's batters floundered, Mihara led the Buffaloes to fourth place his first year back in the PL. With the help of young hurler Keishi Suzuki (24-13, 286 strikeouts) in 1969, the new skipper guided Kintetsu to second place (73-51), two games behind the pennant-winning Hankyu Braves. 1969 proved to be a watershed year for the Buffaloes. Up to that point, they had only posted two winning seasons (1954, '63), but in the nearly three decades since then, Kintetsu has compiled almost twice as many winning seasons as losing.

Seeking a greater challenge, Mihara left the Buffaloes after his third year at the helm and joined the Yakult Atoms who had just compiled their worst all-time record (33-92). By 1973, the Buffaloes again dropped into the PL cellar (42-83), prompting Kintetsu to hire Yukio Nishimoto to manage the team. A relatively easygoing skipper, Nishimoto had a talent for knowing when to leave his players alone. Moderately successful his first four seasons, in 1979 the Kintetsu manager finally led the Buffaloes to their first pennant.

Though the team's pitching had faltered, Kintetsu got a big offensive lift after signing DH Charlie Manuel. Passed over for an MVP award despite leading the Swallows to a 1978 pennant, Manuel clashed with Yakult's authoritarian manager and was traded to the Buffaloes after the Japan Series. Without having to worry about defense, the former Major Leaguer belted over 20 home runs before taking a fastball in the face in June 1979. Despite surgery and spending six weeks on the disabled list, Manuel came back to finish the season while earning the PL home run crown with 37 round-trippers and the MVP award.

Though finishing the 1979 season with a second place 74-45 record, Kintetsu had led the first-half. From 1973-82, the Pacific League played a split season in which the first-half leader played the second-half winner in a playoff for the pennant. Defeating the Braves in the league championship series, Kintetsu advanced to the Japan Series where they were defeated by the Hiroshima Carp in seven games.

Uninjured the following season, Manuel led the league in home runs (48) and RBIs (129), enabling Kintetsu to compile a first-place 68-54 record, and a second-half playoff berth. With an overpowering offense, the Buffaloes compiled a team .290 batting average with 239 home runs. Defeating the Lotte Orions, Kintetsu advanced to their second straight Japan Series, again losing to the Carp in seven games.

Despite leading the team to two straight pennants, Kintetsu released Manuel when he demanded more money than they were willing to pay. Without their top home run hitter, the Buffaloes dropped to last place in 1981 and Nishimoto retired at the end of the season. For the next several years, Kintetsu hovered around the .500 line.

After hiring innovative manager Akira Ogi in 1988, the reinvigorated Buffaloes again stampeded toward the PL flag. Leading Kintetsu to a "second"-place 74-52-4 record, Ogi lost the pennant on a technicality. Because the Lions went 73-51 with six ties, Seibu clinched the pennant two-tenths of a percent even though they had fewer wins than the Buffaloes. But luck turned Kintetsu's way in 1989.

With MVP slugger Ralph Bryant belting 49 home runs to take the PL crown and pitcher Hideyuki Awano posting a 2.71 ERA while leading the league in wins (19-8) and strikeouts (183), the Buffaloes earned the 1989 PL pennant with a 71-54-5 record (.568), edging out the Braves who went 72-55-3 (.567). Despite winning the first three games of the Japan Series, the Buffaloes lost the next four, handing the championship to the Yomiuri Giants.

Though Kintetsu placed third in 1990 (67-60), the Buffaloes still had something to cheer about. Leading the league in wins (18-8), strikeouts (287) and ERA (2.91), a young fastball pitcher named Hideo Nomo swept the Sawamura, Pacific League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. Not even Eiji Sawamura, whom Japan's Cy Young Award is named after, had a better pro debut.

Though Nomo led the league in wins and strikeouts the next three seasons, neither he nor three-time home run leader Bryant could deliver another pennant. Within a few years, the Buffaloes were turned upside-down. Ogi left after the 1992 season, replaced by former pitching star Keishi Suzuki. Nomo, feeling overworked and under-appreciated, clashed with the new manager and front office, "retiring" after a poor 1994 outing. After sustaining a leg-injury, Bryant was released the following year. Without their top two stars, the Buffaloes dropped back into the cellar in 1995 (49-78), prompting Kintetsu to ax Suzuki and replace him with 1978 batting champion Kyosuke Sasaki.

With new foreign outfielder Tuffy Rhodes (.293, 27 home runs, 97 RBIs) leading Kintetsu's offense, Sasaki guided the Buffaloes to a 62-67 record in 1996.

After decades of playing in Fujiidera Stadium, the Buffaloes moved to Osaka Dome in 1997. With larger outfield dimensions and a significantly higher outfield wall, the Buffaloes made a surprisingly quick adjustment to their new ballpark. Though stumbling through the first few months of the season, Kintetsu's offense, led by Tuffy Rhodes and Phil Clark rallied in June.

Though the team's home run production fell off, the Buffaloes apparently shifted strategy toward collecting base hits and advancing base runners rather than simply swinging for the fences. Shortly after the all-star break, Kintetsu's pitching staff swung into motion and the team surged during the final two months, finishing with a 68-63 record. If this is any indication of things to come, Kintetsu shouldn't have long to wait before they capture their fourth pennant.

Past Stars
1998 Outlook
Links: Turning the page . . .
Introduction: Lacking popularity, the Kintetsu Buffaloes benefited from their move to Osaka Dome.
Players: Tuffy Rhodes, Phil Clark, Hideo Koike and other Buffaloes players
Past Stars: Hideo Nomo, Ralph Bryant, Charlie Manuel and other past Buffaloes' stars.
History: (This page) Important events in Kintetsu's history, including their recent rise to respectability.
Manager: Kintetsu skipper Kyosuke Sasaki helped the Buffaloes adapt to Osaka Dome.
Ballpark: Osaka Dome may not offer great visibility, but it's given Kintetsu a big boost.
1998 Outlook: The Buffaloes are a dark horse candidate for the 1998 PL pennant.
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