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Japanese baseball bids farewell to 'man on fire' Hoshino

Rakuten Eagles player throw their manager Senichi Hoshino into the air after winning the 2013 Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants, on Nov. 3, 2013, in Sendai. (Mainichi)

The "brave leader" has passed away. Senichi Hoshino, who as manager led his Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) teams -- the Chunichi Dragons, Hanshin Tigers and Rakuten Eagles -- to league titles four times and Japan Series glory once, died on Jan. 4 of pancreatic cancer. He was 70 years old.

Hoshino made his name as an ace right-hander for the Dragons in Nagoya, debuting in 1969 and taking home the Sawamura Award for best pitcher in 1974. However, he only added that Japan Series title to his record in 2013, when he managed Sendai's Rakuten Eagles to their first ever championship. The victory was especially poignant, as it brought joy to the Tohoku region when the region was still coping with the aftermath of the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake disaster.

"Looking at all the people suffering from the disaster, we played believing we had no choice but to win the Japan Series and help the region heal," Hoshino often said later.

Rakuten Eagles' manager Senichi Hoshino is seen at the announcement of his induction into Japan's Baseball Hall of Fame, in Tokyo on Jan. 16, 2017. (Mainichi)

Hoshino was a man who put a lot of stock in emotional drive. In Game 7 of the 2013 Japan Series against the Yomiuri Giants, Rakuten ace Masahiro Tanaka (now with the New York Yankees) told his manager he wanted to take the mound. The practical baseball response would have been a hard "no." Though Tanaka was among the NPB's most feared pitchers with a 24-0 regular season record that year, he had also thrown 160 pitches as the Game 6 starter. Hoshino was reluctant to let him onto the mound again, but Tanaka was adamant he wanted into the game. In the end, the Eagles manager decided Tanaka would be a good choice to close out the game, and so he did, nailing down Rakuten's victory.

When he was a pitcher himself, Hoshino was known for his enthusiasm for defeating the popular Yomiuri Giants and was called a "man on fire," and in 2013 he led his Eagles to victory over the Giants for his first Japan Series championship.

However, his inability to tamp down his emotions as manager backfired occasionally. Leading Team Japan at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he put outfielder Takahiko "G.G." Sato in the lineup for the bronze medal game against the United States, though a Sato error had led directly to Japan losing the semifinal game. Hoshino said at the time, "I'm not going to let this end that guy's baseball career." Sato slipped up in the bronze medal game as well, Japan lost, and Hoshino was raked over the coals by angry baseball fans for giving the outfielder a second chance.

Later, Hoshino commented with a smile, "One shouldn't get feelings mixed up with winning and losing, but as a human being, sometimes I lead based on emotion. That sometimes moves fans and sometimes angers them. That's a lot of fun."

In this Oct. 22, 2003 photo, Hanshin Tigers manager Senichi Hoshino argues with an umpire over a call, at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture. (Mainichi)

According to the Rakuten Eagles PR department, Hoshino's funeral will be private, according to the late manager's wishes. He had been fighting the cancer since 2016, but never revealed the illness publicly. "Senichi Hoshino always remained strong in front of others, and he continued to be so till the end. And so we ask for your understanding" regarding the funeral, the Eagles stated.

Hoshino's love of baseball ran deep, and when he was inducted into Japan's Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 2017, he said he wanted to "grow the foundations of the baseball world." Even just before he died, he apparently said, "I hope I can make it to the (Eagles) coaches' meeting." His passion for baseball lasted until his last breath.

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